On Saturday, March 2, the Hindu Temple (HSNC – Hindu Society of North Carolina) organized a yoga event dubbed as "Surya Namaskar Yogathon" wherein we practiced 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations). Before talking about the event, I would like to present some background information on Surya Namaskar.
If you have attended a yoga class, be that at a yoga studio, a health club, gym, or online, chances are that Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) was a part of the routine. Surya Namaskar has now become an integral part of most yoga styles that are practiced. As expected, each style of yoga introduces its own variations into the Surya Namaskar routine.
Traditionally, Surya Namaskar consists of 12 movements which are woven together in a nice, flowing, dance-like sequence, with each move synchronized with the appropriate breathing pattern. Practice of Surya Namaskar impacts all aspects of the body – physical, physiological, mental, emotional and even deeper.
Historically speaking, Surya Namaskar has been practiced as a religious ritual to honor the "Sun God" in many parts of India for thousands of years. However, Surya Namaskar as we know today, was not a part of the yoga practice as given in the ancient texts of Hatha Yoga. There is no mention of Surya Namaskar in the three most commonly referenced texts of Hatha Yoga – the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gherand Samhita and Shiva Samhita. So, how and when did Surya Namaskar get integrated as a part of the yoga routine?
As per a story I read some time ago (unfortunately, I can’t recall the source of this story. If you know the origin of the story, please do let me know), there was a king in India about a hundred years ago. He practiced Surya Namaskar as a religious ritual on a regular basis. He also was an avid practitioner and teacher of yoga. Recognizing the physical benefits of his Surya Namaskar practice, he thought it would be a great idea to merge it into his yoga practice. He began to practice and teach Surya Namaskar as a part of the yoga routine and the rest, as they say, is history.
Significance of 108
As mentioned earlier, Surya Namaskar has been practiced as a religious ritual for a very long time in India. In addition to practicing it on a regular basis, it is customary to practice 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar on the shortest and the longest days of the year – the summer and winter solstice respectively. This is to recognize and honor the days when there is a change in the sun’s orbit. I became aware of this practice while I was living in NJ. One day, one of my yoga students mentioned that the previous day she took part in a ritualistic practice of 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar at the local Sri Venkatesha temple in NJ. She added that this practice is done twice a year at the temple. Since then I discovered that many yoga studios around the globe actually follow this practice of performing 108 rounds of Surya Namaskar on the summer and winter solstice days.
So, what is the significance of the number 108? On a Google search you will find several websites which provide some background on why 108 is such a significant number. Of all the reasons mentioned, two that stand out for me are:
- The distance between the earth and the sun is 108 times the diameter of the sun
- The distance between the earth and the moon is 108 times the diameter of the moon
What is truly mind-boggling is that this fact has been extracted from information available in the Vedas. Remember that the Vedas were written thousands of years ago when the yogis possibly had no access to powerful telescopes or other scientific instruments that we have today. For them to figure out this information about the sun and the moon is truly astonishing. One of the other common facts mentioned about 108 is that the "mala" or the rosary that is used in India for prayers and meditation contains 108 beads. You may like to refer to some of these websites where several other important facts are given about the number 108:
The idea to host the Surya Namaskar yogathon at the temple came from the president of the temple BOD, Dhruva Kumar, who is himself a yoga enthusiast. Within a short span of less than four weeks, with the help of some highly dedicated and motivated volunteers, the temple was able to make all the necessary arrangements and promote the event to the community at large. It was offered as a fund-raising event for the temple with a very nominal fee. The participants were encouraged to donate generously to the temple which offers a large number of educational programs, and cultural and social events throughout the year. Most of these programs are offered free to the community. The temple was gracious enough to offer freshly cooked, delicious vegetarian lunch as part of the event.
Despite the short preparation time, the event attracted over 70 participants. The event was held in the main hall of the temple.
For the practice of Surya Namaskar we used the chanting of the traditional Surya Namaskar mantras. The mantras represent the twelve names of the Sun god. The mantras provide a beautifully flowing, rhythmic sequence which is used to guide each of the twelve moves in one Surya Namaskar round. You can hear a sample of these mantras here.
We used a recording of the mantras which contains 12 rounds of Surya Namaskar. After each round of 12, we took a short two to three minute break. During each of these short breaks, I read excerpts from the book "Surya Namaskar", a publication of the Bihar School of Yoga. These readings pertained to the meaning and significance of the Surya Namaskar mantras, and benefits of the practice at various levels.
To complete 108 rounds we repeated the 12 rounds nine times. Each segment of 12 rounds is approximately 22 minutes long. With a few minutes of gap between the rounds, it took us almost four hours to finish the full set of 108 rounds. At the end we practiced about 10-12 minutes of Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) followed by about 10 minutes of Pranayama.
For step-by-step instructions, list of benefits and contraindications, please visit my blog here. This blog post also includes a video clip of the Surya Namaskar sequence.
A detailed description of the mantras and their significance is available here (pdf file)
Everyone was strongly urged to keep the practice within their own limits of physical strength and endurance. They were encouraged to take short breaks as and when needed. Of course, there were a few who were able to complete the full set of 108 rounds without taking a break.
The program was followed by delicious, vegetarian lunch, lovingly cooked at the temple the same morning.
From the feedback received from the various participants during lunch and through emails and other communications, the program was extremely well received by the participants. Many of them suggested that we should have these more frequently. Dhruva Kumar, the temple president, announced that he would like to make this an annual event at the temple to be held around the first week in March each year.
If you attended the program, I would love to hear back from you about your experience during and after the program. Please provide your feedback in the comments box below.