By Caylie Warkentin
Sūryanamaskāra, a Sanskrit term that translates to sun salute, or sun salutation, is the name of a yoga sequence that honours the sun and the light through movement. Movement, like the flinging open of the blinds or the squinting of our eyes towards the sun overhead, might feel uniquely us. After all, it is our palms that brush against the windowpane, the skin below our eyes that folds under the brightness. Yet the way in which we move belongs distinctly to the past, is an amalgamation of millions of years of evolution and unique genetic disposition. The way our spines compress as we walk is because we abandoned the forest canopy for arid savannah, your gait might have the same sloping cadence as your grandmothers’.
Movement is memory and is history, not a photograph of the past but a painting of it. In Western yoga practice, the sun salutation sequence is an echo of solar worship practiced four thousand years ago by Hindu cultures, when the sun was revered and honoured through the act of physical movement. In the present, Western yoga practitioners incorporate variations of the sun salutation into the beginning of their yoga flows as a means of invigorating the body and revitalizing the mind through a state of introspection and mindfulness.
The Sun Salutation in Ancient Worship
Numerous ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Indo-Europeans, and Meso-Americans honoured solar deities through the construction of temples and altars - think of the great pyramids, or Stone Henge, whose impenetrable stones stand aligned with the light of the annual summer solstice. Though the ways in which these cultures worshipped differed, one striking similarity is that they honoured solar deities through the manipulation of the physical world with the construction of temples and structures, or through the movement and contortion of their bodies with ritualistic and spiritual dance.
Yoga is a Hindu spiritual, physical, and mental practice and one of the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism. It incorporates physical movement, breathwork, and mindfulness. Yoga was predominantly introduced to Western audiences by Indian monks at the turn of the nineteenth century, and then in the latter half of the twentieth century by notable yoga gurus. Yoga was quickly interspersed into Western culture and is now practiced around the world for its physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.
The sun salutation, or Surya Namaskar, is an extension of the six traditional schools of philosophy and is a form of worship and prayer of the sun. Today, there are three main variations of the sun salutation sequence, with three sequences being the most commonly practiced – sun salutation A, B, and C. The origin of these specific sequences remains contested, though some scholars believe the sequence can be dated to the 1930s with the poses harkening back to ancient Hindu worship practices.
The Sun Salutation in Modern Practice
It is not often that a form of exercise asks us to slow down and look within ourselves as we move our bodies. It is even rarer to find a form of exercise that simultaneously asks us to look beyond ourselves and into the cosmos. The sun salutation both honours the sun that shines above us and the sun that exists within ourselves, the solar plexus, or the third chakra that rests just above our navel.
A yogi’s day begins by facing the sun and entering into the Surya Namaskar sequence. The twelve poses reflect the twelve positions of the sun and the twelve zodiac signs, and they focus on the extension and the elongation of the body as it stretches towards the sun. With feet planted firmly on the ground, the body is stretched and revitalized through breathwork as the body moves, connects with the earth below, before reaching towards the sky. Some practitioners repeat the sequence 108 times, in honour of our 108 ayurvedic points, or for the 108 beads in the mala, a string of prayer beads. The sequence can be repeated as little or as many times as you would like.
Byrdie offers a comprehensive overview of each step of the sequence for both sun salutation A and sun salutation B.
Benefits of the Sun Salutation
As yoga encompasses both physical and mental practices, it provides benefits for our body, our soul, and our mind. With the inclusion of breathwork and meditation, yoga has been proven to reduce feelings of stress, which can lead to an improvement in mental wellbeing and can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Yoga is also capable of improving cardiovascular function, strengthening bones, and even improving brain function. Due to the intentional and mindful movement of yoga, consistent practice can also lead to increased flexibility and balance.
Alongside these benefits, it also offers a moment of reprieve from the stress of everyday life and offers us space to reflect on ourselves without judgment. The sun salutation allows us to contemplate our position within the universe, to look beyond ourselves and into the energetic forces that surround us. As we practice the sun salutation we follow in movements that have endured for millennia so that we can honour the universe in recognition and in reverence and create a moment of sunshine in our every day.
Sources and Further Reading
Aarts, Olav. “The Origin of the Sun Salutation.” Ekhart Yoga, Accessed 10 January 2022. https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/practice/the-origin-of-the-sun-salutation
“Explore the Ancient Roots of Yoga.” Google Arts and Culture. Accessed 6 January 2022.
Ezrin, Sarah. Medically reviewed by Lal, Micky. “16 Benefits of Yoga That Are Supported by Science.” Healthline, 14 December 2021, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/13-benefits-of-yoga#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3
Leon, Jaroff, and Madeleine, Nash. “Fury on The Sun Once Worshiped as a God, Earth’s Star is Revealing the Secrets of Its Awesome Power.” Time Magazine, vol. 134, no. 1, 1989, https://eds.s.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=00b9beed-919a-470e-87a6-a7391ecd32e6%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=57899295&db=a2h
Lewis, Amy. Fact-checked by Sullivan, Lisa. “Sun Salutations Explained – And Why You Should Master Them”, Byrdie, 8 November 2021, https://www.byrdie.com/sun-salutation.
Rosen, Richard. “Sun Salutation Poses: The Tradition of of Surya Namaskar.” Yoga Journal, 28 August 2007, https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/here-comes-the-sun/