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The Sun is the Soul of the World
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois stated that if the mind is not focused through sun salutations, then the “yoga practice” is not yoga, but gymnastics. That’s a pretty significant claim. Sun Salutations are the foundation of most yoga classes. But where do these movements come from, why do we do them and how do we do them correctly?
History of Sun Salutations
Surya Namaskar translates into greeting the Sun. Surya means Sun and Namaskar means to Bow.
As far back as the Vedas and the Ramayana, Sun Salutations were mentioned, but there’s not a lot of agreement on whether the current pose flow extends back that far. There is a suggestion that the Sun Salutation as we know it, didn’t appear in asana practice until 1920-30 when the Raja of Aundh invented the flow as we know it, and it spread to the west.
For thousands of years, Hindus have worshiped the sun, Surya, as the physical and spiritual heart of our world and the creator of all life. Surya is at the “eye of the world”, seeing and uniting all and as a pathway to God.
Surya is the chief solar deity, son of Indra. He has hair and arms of gold, three eyes, and four hands holding water lilies, a flower that longs for the dawn. In Hindu religious literature, Surya is notably mentioned as the visible form of God that we can see every day.
The Sun’s light fills all the earth and all of the Hindu worlds. He is the cosmic symbol of the Supreme, a source of inner enlightenment. The Gayatri Mantra names the sun as “the one who illuminates our minds.”
There are many myths of how the Sun Salutation was created. This one, describing the tale of the Monkey God is one of my favorites.
Hanuman, our beloved monkey hero of Hindu mythology and the Ramayana, was fascinated with Surya as a child. As a baby, he saw the sun and mistook it for a large mango. He was a strong, little one and leaped from the earth to reach for the sun. Even as an infant he had supernatural strength, so he caught that sun and immediately ate it. This caused the universe to go dark, and the gods were concerned. Though the sun scalded his little baby mouth, the stubborn one kept chewing until Lord Indra hurled a diamond thunderbolt right into his jaw.
Little Hanuman opened his mouth and dropped Surya, and the light returned to the universe. However, his jaw (hanu) was broken from the thunderbolt and he earned the name “the one with the broken jaw.”
His powers were temporarily taken away by the gods. But because they felt guilty about breaking his jaw, they bestowed him special powers of strength, speed, shape-shifting, memory and the qualities of a true lover of God…all of which would be held from him until he met Lord Rama.
Until then he needed to learn and grow. His mother suggested he asked Surya to be his teacher because he sees everything everywhere as he drives his chariot over the world every day.
Hanuman asked Surya to be his teacher, but Surya refused as he was pretty busy flying over the world each day, and had a pretty tight schedule.
Hanuman would not take no for an answer and kept persisting, hoping to join Surya in his chariot across the sky.
Surya appreciated his persistence and allowed Hanuman to position himself facing Surya, as his chariot was lead across the sky. Surya was able to teach Hanuman the scriptures as he brought light to the world. This meant the Hanuman has always traveling backward, as to not to be rude to his teacher
Hanuman was such a gifted student that he mastered all the Vedas within a week. As Surya would not accept payment for his teachings, Hanuman offered his gratitude and the namaskars. This is how some people in India say the Sun Salutations came to be.
Why do Sun Salutations?
Surya Namaskars are the foundation of a true yoga practice. They bring fire to the physical and emotional body. They are very physical, but when done with mindfulness they are beautifully devotional in nature. Sun Salutations are a mindful meditation, where we link our movement to our breath as we connect our body, mind, and spirit.
When we practice sun salutations, we honor the outer sun above us and the inner sun within us, our hearts. It is one of the constants in our yoga practice, that feels like home. When we practice them on a regular basis it allows us to dive deeply into the understanding of a familiar motion and deepens our understanding of our bodies and minds.
Sun Salutations improve cardiovascular health, digestion, focus and stress response. The forward and backward bending improves hamstring length, spinal mobility, and body composition. We increase strength, stamina, and power through this beautiful mindful movement practice.
Sun Salutations can stand alone in a yoga practice, or we can use them as a warm up within a larger context of a class.
How to do Sun Salutations
There are so many different versions of the Sun Salutations. The one I practice the most frequently is a slight variation from the Astanga tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It is similar to the Sun Salutation A used within the Astanga Yoga practice.
For a fun exploration, sign up for our free Sun Salutation Printable and take your Sun Salutation to your mat! We use this guide for our 8-Week Beginner Series that we offer at our studio. Just print out your guide, read thoroughly, and begin your practice. Just remember to follow the guidelines for the proper inhales and exhales. But know that you can’t get it wrong. Just move and breath and be thankful for your body!
Sun Salutations are a beautiful practice that is the cornerstone of a yoga asana practice. There are so many fun myths of how the Surya Namaskars came to be. But most importantly they bring warmth to our body and promote focus within our mind. Jump on your mat and give them a try!