"Curving back within myself I create again and again."
― Anonymous, The Bhagavad Gita
Ah, yes. The Sun Salutation. Most yogis are familiar with this process and flow of asanas. But do we know why it is so widely practiced? Have we been performing the salute correctly? And did you know it has the power to help cure a case of the wintery blues and improves our meditative abilities? Looking to cultivate peace and serenity? Read om …
I was first introduced to the practice of Surya Namaskar ("Sun Salutation" in Sanskrit) when I was 17 years old. Every morning shortly after I woke up, I'd pop in my favorite yoga video cassette: Rodney Yee's Power Yoga Strength for Beginners (Gaiam). This video started with an introduction by Yee, claiming this series of poses were designed to build strength, improve bodily alignment, grace and circulation. This video also provided me with a life-changing gift: an introduction to yoga and a new way of life. I did not know it at the time, but the video starts out with a series of basic sun salutations, and as the video goes on, different asanas are incorporated into the sun salutations. I actually thought that yoga WAS simply sun salutations until I attended my first yoga class (Bikram). This was over ten years ago, and therefore my memories from the days of VCR's are generally hazy, but I do remember quite vividly cursing at the TV screen about ten minutes into the video as I struggled to hold that 25th downward dog about ten long breaths in. It's a kind of cute memory because I didn't even know about the "child's pose" option at this point in my practice.
Enough about Rodney and me and our love/hate relationship (ha!). Let's start by defining "Sun Salutations": a series of twelve poses (although some sources illustrate a nine pose modification) held together and connected by the breath. It is commonplace in vinyasa-style yoga, power yoga and Ashtanga yoga. The purpose of the sun salutation is to energize and warm the body to create limber, looser muscles which prepare you for more challenging asanas. It's kind of like the yoga version of warm-ups (comparable to squats and lunges commonly and quickly practiced before a soccer game). The Sun Salutation, or Sun Salute as it is also known, always begins in a standing position (Tadasana / Mountain Pose) near the top of your mat and ends in the same position. Here's how the standard Sun Salutation is performed, step-by-step:
- Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). The body is straight and tall and hands gently form a namaskar (palms together for Prayer Pose). It is here that you might choose a mantra or set the intention for your practice.
- Inhale, push your namaskar up towards the sky for Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) and gaze up, bending slightly backwards from the lower back and gently pushing pelvis bone forward to open the root chakra.
- Exhale, drop the upper body to touch the floor on either side of the feet, keeping the tailbone up and the legs as straight as possible. This is called Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend).
- Inhale, look up and bring the right foot back to a High Lunge by pushing through the heel and keeping the spine straight and long.
- Hold the breath as you quickly bring the left foot back to meet the right, forming High Plank Pose. Spine is strong as the body forms a straight line from the heels to the crown of the head. Gaze is slightly downward.
- Chaturanga: Slowly and with intention, exhale and lower the body to the ground, like a very slow reverse push-up.
- Inhale, and as you lift and arch the spine with the tops of the feet on the mat and palms gently pushing upwards next to the armpits, come into Cobra Pose or Upward-Facing Dog.
- Exhale, you are almost there! Push the tailbone back as you drop the head and come into Downward-Facing Dog. Shoulders should not be bent and the body should look like an upside-down ‘V' -- soles of the feet planted firmly on the ground.
- Inhale, bring the right foot forward into High Lunge.
- Exhale as you bring the left foot forward to Standing Forward Bend.
- Inhale and sweep arms up towards the sky forming a namaskar as you come back into Upward Salute.
- Exhale, pull the namaskar down to the chest as you resume Mountain Pose.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat! You can perform Sun Salutations as much as you'd like to warm the body. It's also a great sequence to memorize for home practice, you can do 100 Sun Salutations straight for an awesome workout right in your living room or backyard.
It is recommended and traditionally practiced in the morning or at dusk. It has been known to help those with seasonal depression. These brisk movements stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (increased heart rate, great increase in muscular tone).
The sun salutation is used by many practitioners to clear the mind and prepare the body for lengthy meditation. If you are a multi-tasker, practice drishti to enhance meditation throughout repeated sequences of sun salutations.
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