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The Sun Salute Sequence of Postures Understood and Practiced as a „Whole Body Prayer to Life“

Worshipping the Sun, especially at the junctures between day and night, that is at dawn and dusk, is an ancient Vedic form of meditation acknowledging the fact that there would be no us without the Sun, which is the visible living God – the Giver of Life, Manifestation of Love and Repository of Inspiration. That the Sun gives life with its warmth and light is obvious. It is also a personification of love because it shines equally on all living beings, making no differences and no preferences. And the Sun is a great inspiration because it makes the whole world visible with our eyes open and is the basis for the inner light guiding each individual on his or her path to goodness, wholeness and transcendence when we close our eyes. So, the Sun is worthy of every worship and more. The basic daily ritual of the Hindu brahmanical culture that is a religious expression of this worship is called samdhya-vandana and is the worship of the Sun performed daily at sunrise and sunset, at the mystical junctures when night becomes day and day becomes night. It is undoubtedly the cornerstone of Vedic religion, as it is obvious in its quintessential savitri/gayatri-mantra, the chanting of which occupies the central place in the ritual and is an invocation of the Power of the Sun to inspire us to wake up spiritually, and then meditate on sunlight seeking self-knowledge and liberating wisdom. Those special moments of transition in the movement of the Sun, that is the Earth, are the quietest moments of the day when meditation becomes easy and insights come naturally while the Sun steps into the daylight and then withdraws into the dark. The tantric cultures also worship the Sun, not just the Moon, and it is probably among the tantrika worshipers that it got its bodily form in the nowadays widely known and globally practiced Sun Salutation Sequence of Postures – surya-namaskara-vinyasa – in which the Sun is adored in a series of special body movements (vinyasa) comprising specific Yoga postures done by closely synchronising the movement with the breath, which are the immediate and intimate manifestations of Life happening right here and right now as our own breathing and enlightening embodiment.

The origin of the ritual is unclear and it was probably performed in different forms for different purposes throughout the centuries by various groups of people and many inspired individuals. Some researches think that it is very old and was perhaps revived in the 17th century state of Maharashtra while some think it is the product of the 19th or even 20th century asana and physical culture revivals within and outside of hatha-yoga. It is sometimes practiced in various forms as part of the Vedic prayer to the Sun God Surya known as aruna-prapathaka, or surya-namaskara, where a round of surya-namaskara-vinyasa together with some nyasas (placing appropriate mantras into specific parts of the body using special hand gestures) or other rites can be done at the end of each of its 32 sections. Most often, only the full prostration, or sashtangasana-namaskara is done. The recitation/ritual is usually performed on Sunday and it is believed that it can help in curing all diseases, especially those of the eyes, promoting good health, vitality and longevity. It seems that the Sun Salute was not practiced in the hatha-yoga traditions until the second half of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th century it slowly took an important place in modern postural Yoga as well as in many segments of popular physical culture, both in India and abroad. It might have developed from the old ritualistic practice of the cicumbulation around a holy object by repeated whole body prostrations until the object is ceremoniously fully circled by a pious falling and rising with the whole body while the devotee prays for the atonement of the past sins or simply expresses deep whole body gratitude for God’s grace. It can still be seen in modern India, and usually a little stone is thrown in front to measure the body length before lying prone on the ground with the hands clasped into the praying gesture with the forehead devotionally touching the ground. Later on, this elementary movement was perhaps extended into a series of movements done at one place facing the Sun with the basic prostration forming the centrepiece of the practice comprising 12 postures, which are symbolic of the 12 months of the solar year. Some of the Indian martial arts and traditional gymnastics also used movements similar to this, usually known as danda (“stick”) exercises, to strengthen the whole body and develop agility and fitness needed for their specific purposes. So, it is obvious that the significance, origin and history of the Sun Salute are quite complex, and its place and importance in modern Yoga practice are still quite controversial for many reasons. The connection of the Sun Salute with modern Yoga is ambivalent primarily because the influential and ancient Yoga texts, including the classical hatha-yoga works, do not mention the Sun Salute as part of its practice and it got somehow mixed up with physical culture, health regimens and gymnastics, especially recently, although it must have originally been a religious practice used by both brahmanical and tantric cultures all over India.

In my teacher’s words, the Sun Salute Sequence of Postures is a “whole body prayer to Life“, or to the Sun as the Source of Life. It is a “prayer” in the sense of expressing deep gratitude for the invaluable gift of Life, with our whole body, to both our Father Sun and our Mother Earth. When the hot energy of the Sun unites with the moist energy of the Earth in the mid-space of Atmosphere, all Life is created, including the human being as a divine conductor of Cosmic/Life Energy between Heaven and Earth. So, the Sun Salute is a delicate and intricate ritual of expressing total devotion to the cosmic powers of Father Son, Mother Earth and the Infinite Space in between them where all Life, at the very point of their connection, is happening right here and right now as you and me, as the Whole of Existence. The point of the „exercise“ is to feel the opposites merging in the Heart as the Whole of Life that we utterly are. The way to achieve this Whole-Hearted participation in the Wonder of Life is to let the breath initiate and envelope all the movements, which should be slow and yet fluid, with a longer pause of natural breathing in the middle, in the total devotion of danda-samarpana. The movements must be soft, which means that the whole body must be relaxed while inhaling from above and stable while exhaling from below. The chest spreads infinitely in all directions while inhaling and the base of the body contracts into one point while exhaling. The San Salute begins and ends with the palms softly touching in anjali-mudra, symbolizing the integrity of the Heart. Everything comes out of Heart and everything goes back to Heart. From silence we move and then back to silence we return, feeling with our whole body that we are One with the Cosmos.

The Sun Salute is not just a warming-up or limbering-up exercise, or one of the vinyasas, and it is not complete without its central component, the face-down prostration, the sixth posture known as danda-samarpana-sthiti, or sashtanga-namaskara, where the complete union of the male energy of the Sun and the female energy of the Earth is realized as infinite gratitude and immense adoration. The connection with the Sun is made in all the postures with the face looking up and hands reaching out, and the connection with the Earth is made in all the postures with the face looking down and hands touching the ground. In the essential danda-samarpana, where all eight body parts (feet, knees, chest, head and hands) are touching the ground, their union is to be felt as the integrity of our embodied existence and our interconnectedness with everything else. The healing warmth of the Sun is fully released into the Earth by putting the forehead onto the ground, and the refreshing moist of the Earth is received through the open Heart with the chest fully spread on the ground. Visualizing the light of the Sun probing the Earth as beams of light coming out from the eyes and forehead, and then visualizing the healing vapour of the Earth surging through the chest can help in feeling this overall immersion with the Whole of Existence more vividly and more clearly. By intoning appropriate Vedic or non-Vedic mantras, and especially the surya-bija-mantrasom hram hrim hrum hraim hraum hrah – first when moving towards the central danda-samarpana, one in each asana silently, and then once again when moving away from it towards the starting standing position, or simply intoning them all out loud in the central position, the whole ritual acquires the additonal vibratory power with a religious flavour. The mantra recitation can be accompanied with a visualizition of the ascent of Life Energy through the spine, and then the descent of it back into the Heart as the absolute point of union of all opposites, and so this process of recognizing our supreme identity with the Whole of the Universe is intensified and enhanced. The point of the ritual is to feel the opposites merging in the Heart as the Whole of Life that we utterly are in our wonder-full presence on the face of this supporting Earth and under the protection of the loving Sun.

Special attention should be given to proper breathing and a sense of devotion should run throughout the sequence. Deep conscious breathing connects all the movements into a graceful and meaningful whole whose main point is total devotion to the cosmic forces of the Sun, Sky and Earth. Man and woman are nothing but a vibrant confluence of these forces, so the exercise is nothing but a “whole body pray to Life”, as my teacher Mark Whitwell beautifully expressed the essence of the Sun Salute. Therefore, the middle posture of total devotion (danda-samarpana) is the peak of each Sun Salute sequence and should not be left out, as it usually is in modern Yoga. The hands can be either clasped into anjali-mudra or both palms can be touching the ground. Furthermore, most people should first do simple variations that avoid caturanga-dandasana, or deep plank, which can be quite difficult for beginners or women. Later on, the classical version, the one including both upward facing dog (urdhva-mukha-svanasana) and downward facing dog (adho-mukha-svanasana), can be practiced moderately. Overdoing it and over sweating while doing it to the point of exhaustion, sometimes even doing it 108 times or more, is not Yoga but some form of tapas, fitness or detoxification, and it should be avoided by most people. In time, some other variations can be created by individual practitioners and may include other postures with both the lateral bending and twisting of the spine in the basic striding positions (parsvottanasana and virabhadrasana), such as utthita-parsva-konasana, utthita-parsva-konasana-parivrtti and virabhadrasana-parivrtti. When lateral bends and twists are included in the Sun Salute, the spine gets all the possible movements and surya-namaskara-vinyasa can also be seen as a whole body set of exercises that is beneficial for the whole system. In its most advanced form, it can include jumps (utpluti), usually from the first utkatasana to caturanga-dandasana and back from adho-mukha-svanasana to the second utkatasana. This is especially useful for the young and athletic people if they want to dynamize their practice and make it more interesting and challenging. The Sun Salute can also be done on the knees, not just standing up. Furthermore, there is a less known and less practiced sequence called the Moon Salute (candra-namaskara-vinyasa), of equally unclear origin, most often comprising 16 postures, probably symbolic of the 16 phases of the waxing or waning Moon, with a deep squat usually performed in the middle.

An important point to notice is that the Sun Salute can be a basis for many creative vinyasas that can enrich our Yoga practice and so open some new perspectives on ourselves and our practice. Mere mechanical repetition of a prearranged set of movements whose only or main purpose is to be a warm-up exercise misses both the whole point of the Sun Salute and Yoga in general. The point is to do it as a ritual of consciously feeling and appreciating the overall interconnectedness of Everything with Everything; the point is to feel with our whole Heart that we are totally interrelated with everything that is making up our world. And it is meant equally for both men and women, and women can, in the central sashtanga-namaskara, touch the ground with their whole body (breasts and womb included), contrary to what the male patriarchal authorities were suggesting and prohibiting in India for centuries. Doing an appropriate form of the Sun Salute is actually a great opportunity to take a little time for a little meditation beginning with the question: Where would I be without the Sun? This is how Mark was teaching me the Sun Salute, never as a mere warming-up exercise or as a dynamic preparation for the practice of asanas or as a debilitating fitness regimen. And that is how T. Krishnamacharya used to teach it. Some people still wrongly believe that he invented the Sun Salute or introduced it to modern Yoga, basing their misconceptions on the way he was teaching Yoga to the young boys in a group setting at the palace of the Maharaja of Mysore in the 1930s and 1940s or on the ways the Sun Salute is practiced in some of the modern styles of Yoga deriving from Krishnamacharya. The truth is that he did use many of the forms of the Sun Salute that were practiced in India in the first half of the 20th century to make the practice of Yoga more interesting, more dynamic and more challenging to children and young men that he was teaching at the time, and he was using those forms and adapting them to teach individual asanas in the middle of it with the first half of the Sun Salute used as a preparation for the posture done in the middle and the second half as an equally long series of counter poses leading out of the central posture. This inevitably included the athletic jump throughs that required and developed a lot of strength, putting a lot of additional load onto the joints. He had good reasons why he did that, but it was not the only way he was teaching the Sun Salute and certainly not the only purpose for which he was teaching it. Krishnamacharya definitely practiced the Sun Salute himself within his elaborate version of samdhaya-vandana ritual, which, among several smaller rituals, also included pranayama with gayatri-mantra done in the squatting and standing positions. For him, just like any other Yoga technique, it was pure devotion. And that is the essence of the Sun Salute Sequence understood and practiced as a whole body prayer to Life. It is Life praising Herself through us while we are praising the Sun, Earth and the Space between them as the nurturing Forces of Nature sustaining all Life, our own included. Try doing it like that and see a world of difference:

Total devotion to Father Sun and Mother Earth,

and to everything and everybody that inspires us…

Total devotion to Life with the whole body, felt at Heart,

received with gratitude and given without asking anything in return…

That is all we need from the world,

and the world needs from us…

by Domagoj Orlić