By Dr. Erika Toebaas
Traditionalists have traced the roots of the modern day Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) back to rituals called Namaskars, which stands for traditional Indian greeting or gesture of respect, performed more than 3,500 years ago. It originated during Vedic times as a ritual prostration to the dawn, filled with mantras, offerings of flowers and rice, and libations of water.
Jungian analyst, Erich Neumann wrote, “The world begins with the coming of light.” In many cultures, light has long been a symbol of consciousness and self-illumination. The sun (Surya) is our primary source of light. The Hindu people have revered the sun as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world, the “eye of the world” (loka chakshus), and the creator of all life itself.
The Sun Salutation, became a means of honoring the sun through the dynamic asana sequences. The Sanskrit word namaskar stems from namas, which means “to bow to” or “to adore.” Namaste, the familiar phrase used to close a yoga class or practice, “te” means “you” which also comes from this root. Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands mudra (gesture) touched to the heart, and the Hindus believe that only the heart can know the truth.
It is estimated that Surya Namaskar disseminated to the West in the 1920s or 1930s. Today, the Sun Salutation has many variations as it evolved over the years but what has remained the same is that the first several postures are the same as the last several but in reverse order, starting and ending with Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Traditionally, the Sun Salutation is best performed outdoors, facing the rising sun in the east. Nowadays the Sun Salutation is used as a preliminary warmup, transition, or closing prior to Savasana (corpse pose) during a traditional vinyasa practice. It is also used during the equinox and solstice to acknowledge the change in the light, traditionally celebrated with 108 Mala Sun Salutations.
Sequencing I was first introduced to by the instructors at Thrive Yoga Fruita are:
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
Ardha Uttanasana (½ Standing Forward Fold)
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Look forward and step or hop (transition)
The transition from posture to posture is facilitated by either an inhalation or an exhalation. To perform the sequence, start in Tadasana, with your hands together at your heart. Inhale and lift your arms overhead to Urdhva Hastasana, then exhale while lowering the arms down and fold your torso into Uttanasana. Then inhale, into Ardha Uttanasana (half lift) and exhale back to Uttanasana. Inhale forward to Plank, then exhale and lower yourself into Chaturanga Dandasana. On an inhalation, arch your torso up as you straighten your arms into Upward Dog. Exhale back to Downward Dog, inhale step the left foot forward and exhale into Uttanasana. Inhale to Ardha Uttanasana, and exhale to Uttanasana. Then lift your torso and reach your arms overhead on an inhalation to Urdhva Hastasana. Finally, lower your arms on an exhalation and return to your starting point, Tadasana.
Two areas where beginning and even seasoned yogis stumble are lowering into Chaturanga and transitioning from Downward Dog to Uttanasana. In Chaturanga Dandasana: Lowering from Plank, those that lack sufficient strength in the arms, legs, and lower abdomen commonly just drop to the floor. Until the strength has been built, simply bend the knees to the floor just after Plank, then lower the torso down so that the chest and chin (but not the belly) lightly rest on the floor. Next, many struggle stepping the foot forward for the transition from Downward Dog to Uttanasana. If you are unable to fully step forward, bend the knees to the floor right after Downward Dog, step the foot forward between the hands, then straighten to Uttanasana.
This dynamic sequence is as much about the postures and the smooth transition into each posture as it is about the breath. It is not a race and when in a class, it is important not to compete with your neighbor. Know your body, go at your pace, and focus inward instead of at your surroundings.