Saluting the Sun: The Importance of Surya Namaskara
Arms rise, hands forming a prayer, eyes focused upon saluting palms. Dve Exhale. The prayer is offered forward, the body surrendering to bow down into a surrendering forward fold.
And so it continues, this oscillating flow of openings and offerings, salutations and prostrations that form the morning ritual of Ashtanga practitioners throughout the world. A series of breath-linked movements, the Surya Namaskara, or Sun Salutations, is the physical invocation that opens the Ashtanga yoga series. All practitioners, from very beginners to the long-practicing, begin their time on the mat with this dance-like meeting of movement and breath. For those entering a Mysore room for the first time, it is the first piece of the Ashtanga practice they will learn, one they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Paired with a final padmasana, it forms the bookends of the Ashtanga practice, a neat container in between which the rest of the practice can be poured in and held.
But why begin here? After all, the dynamic flow of the Surya Namaskara hardly feels like an entry point to the fresh-faced beginner. There is no “easing in” to the Ashtanga practice, as there is in so many hybrid styles, no spinal stretches and hip openers, no “cat-cow” or “happy baby” to gently bring the body to practice. While over time the vinyasas of the Surya Namaskara become natural and welcome, beginners may feel overwhelmed at first by this powerful series of postures. Learning the Surya Namaskara as an entry point to the practice, however, is one of the many hidden gifts of the carefully structured Ashtanga practice. These movements, which seep into the body memory until they are part-and-parcel of the practitioner themselves, form the foundation for all further practice.
Ashtanga yoga is based on the vinyasa system, a linking of breath and movement that places as much emphasis on the journey in and out of postures as on the postures themselves. It’s a method that brings with it a bastion of benefits for both body and mind. The physical benefits are evident from the first Surya Namaskara itself. Practicing rounds of the two traditional sun salutations, one feels the sweat start to build and the heart-rate rise. The practice of vinyasa, these breath-linked movements, adds a cardiovascular element to asana practice, raising the heart rate, encouraging strength in the lungs, and helping to make the body strong and light. On a mental level, linking breath with movement in this methodical way encourages mindfulness in action, establishing a focus and concentration from the first motions of morning practice.
The Foundation For The Practice
The rhythmic oscillations of the sun salutations, then, form a mental and physical foundation for the way we conduct the entire practice. The movements of the Surya Namaskara establish the practice of vinyasa in the body, integrating it into its instinctive knowledge. Like scales to a musician, the movement of the Surya Namaskara helps the practice of vinyasa become innate to the Ashtanga practitioner, established at the beginning and easily called upon all the way through, carrying the practitioner through practice like the steps of a familiar dance.
As the practice proceeds, these movements weave through again and again, a constant melodic motif weaving together the theme-and-variations composition of the Ashtanga practice. Pieces of the Surya Namaskara tie each asana to the next, forming the string onto which the pearls of the practice, the individual postures themselves, lie. Pattabhi Jois named Yoga Mala, his treatise on the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga, quite aptly indeed. A mala, after all, is a garland, a fitting metaphor for the vinyasa-linked Ashtanga practice. The flowers or stones of a garland, left adrift without a string to tie them, are beautiful yet easily blown away. For the Ashtanga practice, the Surya Namaskara is the string holding the garland together, keeping the asanas linked and purposeful, rather than allowing them to float off in the next passing breeze.
Like a Prayer
The whole process also keeps the mind from floating away, focusing it on the methodical movements of the Surya Namaskara. Beyond that, for those open to feel it, using the Surya Namaskara as a foundation brings a sense of prayer to practice. Watching the sun salutations unfold, it is easy to see they are routed in traditions of prayer and offering, guiding the practitioner in and out of prostration after prostration. In time, as the practice builds and progresses, parts of the physicalized prayer of the Surya Namaskara are replaced with asanas, turning each posture into an offering in itself. Through the Surya Namaskara, the postures become spiritual on a physical level, a prayer the practitioner makes with their body to whatever deity or energy to which they relate.
And it all begins with that first gaze to the heavens. Ekam, Inhale.
All photos are taken in Ostional at the Ashtanga Yoga Nicaragua Rancho.