Surya Namaskar sequence
Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), in some form or another, is an integral part of most styles of yoga that are practiced today. Integral Yoga (the style that I practice and teach), Shivananda, Kripalu, Power yoga, Vinyasa, Flow yoga, hot yoga … to name just a few of the more commonly practiced styles today – all include some variation of Surya Namaskar as a part of their yoga routine. As we know, most yoga practices have their origins in the ancient yoga texts related to the philosophy and practice of yoga. The two most commonly referenced texts for the practice of Hatha Yoga are the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita. However, when you look at these two texts, you will find that no mention has been made of the practice of Surya Namaskar. So the question that comes to mind is "how come Surya Namaskar is such a common component of all Hatha Yoga practices today when it not even mentioned in any of the ancient yoga texts?".
Ancient origins of Surya Namaskar
Surya Namaskar has been practiced in India for many centuries as a ritual in the form of worship to the Sun God. When and how did it originate? Well, here is one story that relates to Hanuman, the monkey warrior of the epic, Ramayana, that I’m sure you will find fascinating.
Hanuman leaps for the sun
Hanuman swallows the sun – almost!
Hanuman, the great monkey hero, was one of the prominent characters in the epic story, Ramayana. This story, representing the origin of Surya Namaskar, relates to Hanuman’s childhood. There are two parts to the story. The first part where Hanuman tries to swallow the sun is known quite well and I read it as a child growing up in India. The second part which relates to how the practice of Surya Namaskar evolved is quite new to me. I only found out about it recently while reading one of the blog articles on the Yoga International website.
The story goes something like this …
Hanuman was born with supernormal powers. As a child he was a voracious eater. One day when his mother was out, he was hungry and looking for food. He looked outside and saw the Sun just rising on the horizon. He mistook it for a ripe mango and wanted to eat it. Using his supernormal powers, he took a big leap and soared to grab the sun. He grabbed the sun and began to put it into his mouth to eat it. As soon as he put the sun in his mouth, the earth began to get engulfed in darkness. The gods in heaven really got worried and requested Hanuman to release the sun. The stubborn child refused. Indra, the Lord of all gods, had to use his weapon, the diamond thunderbolt (vajra) and threw it at Hanuman. The weapon came and hit Hanuman’s jaw. Out of pain, Hanuman opened his mouth and dropped the sun, thus bringing the universe back to sunlight. But the thrust of the vajra broke his jaw (hanu), giving him the nickname by which we know him today, “Hanuman, the one with the broken jaw.” The gods, as punishment for Hanuman’s impunity, temporarily took away Hanuman’s powers. Only after they were threatened by Vayu, the wind god, Hanuman’s father, they realized their mistake and gave Hanuman a boon that would give him special powers of strength, speed, shape-transform, a gift for celibacy, a prodigious memory, and the qualities of a true lover of God, all of which would be restored to him in the future when he would meet and serve Lord Rama.
In the meantime, Hanuman, as a growing child, needed an education. His mother, Anjana, instructed him to approach sun, the perennial teacher, to teach him about all sacred scriptures. Initially, the sun refused Hanuman’s request stating that it is not possible to learn from him as he is constantly on the move. Hanuman insisted and assured the sun that he would keep pace with the sun while getting his education. The sun agreed and imparted all the knowledge of the vedas and other shastras to Hanuman. In gratitude, Hanuman offered to pay his "guru dakshina" (traditional fee for the teacher) but the sun refused. Hanuman then decided to propitiate his teacher through the practice of Surya Namaskar which he dedicated to the sun and began practicing it regularly. That is how the practice of Surya Namaskar was born.
As stated earlier, the practice of Surya Namaskar is not mentioned in any of the ancient Hatha Yoga manuals. So, when and how did SN become a part of the yoga practice? As per the yoga historians, the story goes back about 150 years when there was a king in the state of Aundh in India. He was both a yoga practitioner as well as the practitioner of the Surya Namaskar ritual as a form of sun worship. He came up with the idea of integrating Surya Namaskar, which has both a physical element as well as a spiritual element, into his yoga practice. The rest, as they say, is history, as almost all styles of yoga today practice some variation of Surya Namaskar or another.
The Surya Namaskar practice
The Sun Salutation is a graceful sequence of twelve positions performed as one continuous flow. Each position counteracts the one before, stretching the body in a different way and alternately expanding and contracting the chest to regulate the breathing.
Please visit my blog post here for detailed instructions on the practice of Surya Namaskar.
Use of mantras with Surya Namaskar
Traditionally, SN is practiced with the chanting of mantras. There are twelve mantras, each representing a different name or manifestation of the sun. Each mantra is associated with each of the twelve movements in the SN sequence. When done with the chanting of the mantras, the practice of SN becomes a beautifully flowing, almost perfectly choreographed, sequence which includes the elements of asana, pranayama and meditation practices. It is asana practice as it involves twelve different asanas done in a nicely flowing sequence. It is pranayama as the movements are synchronized with appropriate slow, deep Ujjayi breaths. It is also a form of meditation in motion as the chanting vibration of the mantras can bring the mind into a meditative state.
The SN sequence flexes and stretches the spinal column through their maximum range giving profound stretch to the whole body. Practiced daily it will bring great flexibility to your spine and joints and trim your waist. It limbers up the whole body in preparation for the other Asanas (postures) that are practiced as part of a regular yoga routine.
I certainly hope that SN is an integral part of your own yoga practice. I would love to hear your own experiences with the practice.