Celebrate summer solstice with three innovative and inspiring Sun Salutation practices.
It’s so easy to get lost in the flow of Sun Salutations: Mountain Pose, Upward Salute, Standing Forward Bend, Half Standing Forward Bend, Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog, Half Standing Forward Bend, Standing Forward Bend, Upward Salute, Mountain Pose, etc., etc., ad infinitum. So many yoga classes include them, and we’ve come to think of them as standard warm-up fare, akin to a brisk walk pre-run.
But that’s far from their traditional goal. Sun Salutations, known as Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit, originated as a prayerful way to give thanks for the sun, as well as a spiritual light within us. “You are saluting the outside sun for providing life to the planet, and your internal sun for providing consciousness,” says yoga teacher Richard Rosen, author of Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga. While no one knows exactly when Sun Salutations first started or what they first looked like, many yogis assert that they date back thousands of years to when ancient Indians would chant mantras while bowing and then standing with arms raised in a ritual prostration. Modern scholars point to mid-19th-century commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the manual for hatha yoga, as the first reference to a Sun Salutation practice, but they say written instructions did not appear in any books until the early 2oth century—a time when the rajah of Aundh (a former state in India) sought to strengthen society physically and spiritually via a series of asanas. Today, Sun Salutations are ubiquitous in Western yoga classes thanks in part to K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga. His Sun Salutation A (described above) and Sun Salutation B (adds in Chair Pose and Warrior I) serve as a foundation for Ashtanga and most vinyasa practice in the United States.
From that foundation, Sun Salutations are still evolving, especially as teachers are more willing to innovate and experiment with the form—adding, subtracting, or rearranging poses as they see fit. “Asana is this beautiful physical opportunity to move our bodies in all kinds of different ways, and adapt and learn and grow,” says Viniyoga teacher Robin Rothenberg, director of Essential Yoga Therapy in Fall City, Washington. “It’s always good to freshen up your practice so you don’t go into cruise control.”
If you need inspiration to try something new, summer solstice might be it. On June 21 this year, the sun travels its longest path through the sky of the northern hemisphere, offering the most daylight, so many yogis revere it as a powerful time to practice Sun Salutations. “All great celebrations tend to cluster around cyclical changes in light,” Rosen says. “We’re celebrating and recognizing that a transition is happening in the world.”
See alsoWatch + Learn: Sun Salutation
We turned to Rothenberg and two other yoga teachers who offer unique approaches to standard sequences for ways to think about Sun Salutations in a whole new light. The result: the three inspiring sequences from the Kundalini, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga traditions. You may love these creative versions and keep them with you for a lifetime. Or you may find they help you become more aware of what you’re already doing, so that when you return to the good old Mountain Pose, Upward Salute, Standing Forward Bend, Half Standing Forward Bend, Chaturanga, and so on, you’re able to do it with a new perspective—knowing that while it’s just one of many options, it’s the one that resonates with you the most.
Three ways to salute the sun
INTENTION: Practice a full-body prayer
A primary goal of Kundalini Yoga is a spiritual awakening, so Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, a brahmacharini (Vedic nun) and director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care USA in Knoxville, Tennessee, isn’t at all concerned with the purely physical aspects of Sun Salutations, such as opening the hamstrings or building a tight core. She teaches a Kundalini Sun Salutation that is tied to reverence, prayer, and pranams, Sanskrit for “bowing in reverence.” As such, the form likely looks more like the Sun Salutation the rishis of old might have practiced than what we see in most studios today.
“It is revering the divine in the form of the sun, which is an ancient practice to invigorate not just the physical body but the subtle energetic body,” Harrigan explains. While teaching Sun Salutations, she speaks liberally of concepts like the chakras (the energetic wheels that represent our potential for physical manifestation, sensuality, power, love, com--munication, intuition, and spiritual connection) and the koshas (the five “sheaths” that represent our existence on the planes of the physical body, the energy body, the mental body, the wisdom body, and the bliss body). “We are incarnate, of the earth, and yet we are spiritual beings, capable of transcendent experience,” she says.
To Harrigan, a Sun Salutation is nothing more or less than a full-body prayer: “It is a beautiful practice, especially when used to help start the day. It vitalizes the prana system and gets the juices flowing while acknowledging the spiritual purpose of the day ahead.”
INTENTION: Turn up the heat
Ashtanga, a physically demanding practice that involves synchronizing the breath with near-constant movement in a prescribed series of postures, is already rich with Sun Salutations in the form of two sequences: Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B, which weaves in Chair Pose and Warrior I. “Surya Namaskar both focuses the mind and warms up the body to do subsequent asansas,” explains Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, California. “It also builds strength and helps detoxify the body. It’s probably the most effective use of our practice time.”
That said, Miller does recognize that Sun Salutations A and B can start to feel a little automatic and mechanical when you practice them day after day, week after week.“If we find ourselves on autopilot, it’s an indication that we’re no longer focused on the task at hand,” he says. And so, after taking a class with celebrated Iyengar teacher Roger Cole in 1988, Miller was inspired to play with the form—and to invent his own take on the Sun Salutation, expanding on Cole’s ideas of linking static standing poses in the heart of an Iyengar practice. “I took my Ashtanga background and Sun Salutations, and made Cole’s standing poses more fluid using Ashtanga elements,” Miller remembers. “I call it Sun Salutation C; it’s like an improvisational jazz riff, using the basic structure of Sun Salutation B and then expanding it in interesting ways.”
Miller practices Sun Salutation C within Sun Salutation B once a week to keep things fresh, and also practices it on its own from time to time—it’s a complete practice unto itself. “Sun Salutation C is now widely used in many vinyasa flow classes, and I take full credit and blame for that,” he says. Sun Salutation C has lots of challenging twists, so try it if you’re looking to move a bit beyond your comfort zone.
INTENTION: Restore your body
As a certified yoga therapist, Robin Rothenberg, director of Essential Yoga Therapy in Fall City, Washington, sees plenty of broken-down yogis, ranging from beginners to experienced teachers. And guess what many of them are broken down by? Sun Salutations. “Sun Salutations are like French fries—salty, crunchy, sweet, and you can get them really fast,” she says. “But just like when you eat too many fries, any repetitive movement done unconsciously can lead to serious problems.”
One of the most common injuries she sees among yogis is damage to the rotator cuff, which supports the shoulder girdle, a complex assembly of four shoulder joints. “Most people have pretty weak upper bodies since we are no longer doing much in terms of manual labor with our arms,” Rothenberg says. “Then we go into a yoga class, and right off the bat we’re asked to repetitively support our body weight on our wrists, elbows, and shoulders in Sun Salutations. The joints can literally wear out.” She advises students to pay attention to any sense of strain or fatigue, both signs to stop pushing and try alternate poses. “If you can barely do five Sun Salutations, start there,” she says. “The classic teaching of yoga is not about the achievement of 1o8 Sun Salutations and putting on a show; it’s about being honest, real, and authentic.”
Rothenberg has developed a floor-based Viniyoga Sun Salutation that takes weight-bearing out of the picture and pressure off joints. “It’s a way of stepping back a bit and seeing how it feels,” she says. “Many yoga teachers are convinced that standard Sun Salutations feel the best for everyone, but there are ways to practice that are less risky and can feel so much better, especially for beginners and women in middle age, who due to hormonal changes, have less stability in their joints.” Even if you want to move into your regular sequence, Rothenberg’s practice can serve as warm-up to prep your shoulders for safer transitions between Chaturanga, Up Dog, and Down Dog. She starts by sweeping the arms wide in Vajrasana, which can be particularly helpful if you’re sitting at a desk all day with your shoulders hunched and locked.
Though the promise of Viniyoga is to help the individual where he or she is, this gentle routine works for many.
Teacher Joan Shivarpita Harrigan is director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care USA in Knoxville, Tennessee. Model Melisa Jai Gobind Kaur is a Kundalini, vinyasa, and Yin Yoga teacher and massage therapist in the Denver area.
Teacher Tim Miller has been studying and teaching Ashtanga Yoga for more than 30 years. He was certified by K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. Model Ty Landrum is an Ashtanga teacher and director of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado.
Teacher Robin Rothenberg is an internationally respected yoga therapist with a full-time practice serving people living with chronic pain and illness. Model River Cummings has more than 20 years experience as a teacher and practitioner of Viniyoga, yoga therapy, and Vedic chant. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and offers retreats worldwide.