As the sun peeked over the horizon, casting its gentle light upon the world, a figure could be seen out in the open courtyard, performing a sequence of poses known as Surya namaskar. The person was stretching and bending their body in graceful arcs, seeming to commune with the morning sun. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
If you’re a yoga practitioner, or even if you’ve just dabbled in it here and there, you’re probably familiar with Surya Namaskar, or Sun salutation. This foundational sequence of poses is said to trace its origins back thousands of years to the Vedic scriptures. While the details of how this ancient practice has evolved over time can be up for debate, one thing is for sure: Surya Namaskar is a powerful way to open up your body and mind. In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and practice of Surya Namaskar in more detail. Stay tuned!
What exactly is Surya Namaskar
Surya namaskar, or sun salutations, is a series of 12 yoga poses traditionally performed to greet the sun as a symbol of gratitude and reverence. This ancient practice dates back to the Vedic period in India, but it is now widely practised as a modern yoga practice worldwide.
Surya Namaskar’s Origin
The practice of Surya namaskar can be traced back to the Vedic period in India. The Vedas are a collection of ancient texts that form the basis of Hinduism. In these texts, the sun is worshipped as a god and saluting it is seen as a way to honour its power and energy. The name Surya namaskar comes from the Sanskrit words सूर्य (sūrya) and नमस्कार (namaskāra), which mean “sun” and “greeting” or “salute”, respectively.
The original Surya Namaskar was not a set of yoga poses but a collection of sacred words chanted at sunrise by a Brahmin priest whilst reciting the Gayatri Mantra. The entire practice consists of 132 passages and takes more than an hour to complete, after which he would prostrate fully, face down on the ground facing the sun.
To some, performing Surya Namaskars embodies the Gayatri Mantra, one of the oldest mantras. We honour the earth, the heavens, and all life, including ourselves, by raising our hands and bowing forward. To others, the flowing sequence of poses is designed as a total health exercise, strengthening, and improving flexibility and circulation while also offering spiritual and mental benefits. There are dozens of Surya Namaskars with many variations, including Surya Namaskar A, Surya Namaskar B, Ardha Surya Namaskar, Surya Namaskar and others, too numerable to mention in this article.
And we got here with the help of some of the most influential modern postural yoga teachers to emerge from India during the 20th century, a vibrant period of yoga history.
The Westernisation of Surya Namaskar
In 1936, Rajah Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi of Aundh, India, introduced the Sun Salutation to England through lectures and an exhibit film. As a result of his visit, he met Louise Morgan, a journalist who would later support his work in a series of articles for the News Chronicle, which received widespread public support in England at the time. Morgan became a fan of the practice, and she helped popularise Surya namaskar amongst women at the time as an anti-ageing remedy and an elixir for a healthy life. Her meeting with the Indian ruler was the beginning of the West’s love affair with this flowing yoga pose.
Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi
Through Rajah Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi’s progressive programme to establish constitutional democracy in the royal state of Aundh in the 1920s, sun salutation began to gain popularity in the broader Indian society. He wanted to ensure that the people of Aundh could govern themselves. As a result, he advocated a series of constitutional reforms, pioneered through education, and established village councils and people’s assemblies as part of what became known as The Aundh Experiment.
Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi began seriously practising Surya Namaskar around 1908. Although he learned the form of movement (religious worship) from his father, the emphasis on the physical benefits of practice became a goal with the influence of western physical culture in the late nineteenth century, as exemplified by the Victorian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow. At the time, the practice was confined to the ruling Indian upper classes. But that was about to change thanks to Bhavanarao’s foresight.
Like any current exercise craze, Surya Namaskar gained popularity to promote better health and the development of a dynamic yogic system. To broaden the exercise’s appeal to non-Hindus and “smooth the path to health, efficiency, and longevity,” the rajah advocated reducing the traditional chanting of bija and Vedic mantras during practise.
A Cultural Perspective
Throughout India at this time, vyayamshalas, or gymnasiums, sprouted up. Gymnastics, indigenous strengthening exercises, and wrestling were among the physical activities enjoyed by gymnasium members. Surya namaskar became extremely popular and was enthusiastically practised in these gyms. Within this open environment, practitioners desired to perform extremely high numbers of Surya namaskar repetitions. In some cases, the practitioner completed 1000–1200 rounds.
Because of the sequential rhythmic movements, it was possible to teach Surya Namaskar to large groups of people and students simultaneously.
It is important to remember that India desired to be free of British colonial rule, and the perception of disciplined youths in group physical exercises helped the reinvigoration of Indian culture. At this critical juncture in Indian history, Bhavanarao and others who advocated for Indigenous physical practises were part of a wave of nationalism sweeping the country.
Surya Namaskar is being practiced in Great Britain.
The Ten-Point Way to Health, Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi’s second book on Surya Namaskar, was published in England in 1938. He had no idea it would have such an impact on those who read it. The book, edited by journalist Louise Morgan, who interviewed the rajah two years earlier, and felt a connection with him, received a resounding response from readers.
People wrote to Morgan about the miraculous benefits they received from practising the sun salutation sequence, which she first described in a 1936 article for the News Chronicle. These testimonies came from a diverse range of people, including doctors, schoolteachers, bankers, poets, chairwomen, writers, actors, and retired civil servants.
Sun salutations became a part of many of these people’s daily lives, and they credited the practice with improving their health and well-being in numerous ways.
Louise Morgan did more than any other to influence and enable western women to embrace an exercise regime that was both Indian and male at the time and re-packaged it as one for women’s health. The health benefits we bequeath to the practice today stem from her passionate belief and role in re-shaping the approach from the heartland of its origins. At the same time, however, there was a revival of hatha yoga underway in Mysuru (Mysore), and essential and far-reaching ideas born of true beliefs in the spirit of yoga were unfolding.
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), or Krishnamacharya for short, was an Indian Ayurvedic healer, scholar, and yoga teacher. Often referred to as “the father of modern yoga”, Krishnamacharya is widely regarded as one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century.
(image credit: Yoga Makaranda Krishnamacharya)
He is widely regarded for his revival of hatha yoga during the 1930s at Mysuru (Mysore) Palace and for influencing some of the most famous yoga practitioners who have helped popularise modern postural yoga in the west. Whether you practise the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customised vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practise stems from the life work of Krishnamacharya.
He was a pioneer who refined postures, sequenced them optimally, and attributed therapeutic value to specific poses. By combining pranayama and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it.
But one of the most critical aspects of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was infusing yoga with Surya namaskar, or sun salutation, to create a flowing, linked series of postures performed with breath awareness which he named Vinyasas.
In fact, Krishnamacharya’s influence is most visible in the emphasis on asana practise, which has become the hallmark of yoga today. There was probably no other yogi who had gone to such lengths to develop the physical practises. He transformed Hatha, which had previously been a neglected branch of yoga, into its primary current. His countless lecture tours and demonstrations during the 1930s were instrumental in the resurgence of yoga in India.
Mysuru (Mysore) Palace Yoga
Krishnamacharya’s fortunes improved in 1931 when he received an invitation to teach at the Sanskrit College in Mysuru (Mysore). There he received a good salary and the chance to devote himself to teaching yoga full time. The ruling family of Mysuru (Mysore) had long championed all manner of indigenous arts, supporting the reinvigoration of Indian culture.
In 1933, at the benevolence and generosity of the Maharaja Krishnaraaj Wodeyar IV, the 40-year-old Tirumalai Krishnamacharya opened his yoga school, or yogaśāla, in Mysuru (Mysore) Palace, tasked with teaching yogasana to princes and royalty.
Because his primary students were mainly young boys, Krishnamacharya drew from many different disciplines—including yoga, European gymnastics, and Indian wrestling— to develop dynamic asana sequences to increase their physical fitness. This vinyasa yoga style uses the movements of Sun Salutation to lead into each asana and then out again.
(image credit: Yoga Makaranda Krishnamacharya)
Reinvigoration of Indian culture through Hatha yoga
Starting about a decade earlier, through the work of early hatha yoga pioneers like Shri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda, S. Sundram, and K.V. Iyer, and as a political statement to the British colonial rulers, the craze of yoga was well underway and vigorously supported by Indian princes like the Maharaja of Mysuru (Mysore).
Yoga was seen as a good indigenous exercise with deep roots in the philosophical and Vedic traditions that could and should be seen as the new India. For the next two decades, the Maharaja of Mysuru (Mysore) helped Krishnamacharya promote yoga throughout India, financing demonstrations and publications.
These demonstrations were intended to promote yoga as a respectable form of indigenous exercise capable of competing with the prevalent imported Western-style gymnastics and of generating interest in the work of the yogaśāla under Krishnamacharya’s direction.
One of Krishnamacharya’s most famous students, B.K.S. Iyengar recalls that one of his primary responsibilities was,
Demonstrating yoga for the Maharaja’s court and visiting dignitaries and guests.
Kuvalayananda (J.G. Gune) was one of the early pioneers of modernising and codifying hatha yoga. These pioneers changed the understanding of it from a mediaeval ascetic discipline conducted by ash-covered sadhus to a form of yoga that we would immediately recognise in the yoga world in the 21st century.
The first time anyone else saw Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa sequence was in about 1934. During the year, at the Maharaja’s request, Krishnamacharya went on a two-month pilgrimage to Swami Shri Kuvalayananda Yoga ashram in Lonavla to learn from the experienced yogi. In 1924, the Lonavla ashram was the centre for scientific research on yoga and training facilities for medical doctors and physiotherapists. Kuvalayananda’s hatha yoga teaching and study of yoga were developed as a therapeutic and healthy, simple exercise regime for the burgeoning Indian middle classes.
When Krishnamacharya’s students performed the Vinyasa Surya namaskar for the first time, they received less than enthusiastic reviews from Kuvalayananda, who, until now, saw yoga asana as static poses performed to cure all kinds of ailments. However, the great man saw the value of supporting the Maharaja’s enthusiastic embrace of yoga, so he lent his acceptance and support to this new style of yoga asana.
The concept of a flowing, linked series of postures, on the other hand, was revolutionary, and Krishnamacharya’s students were the first to demonstrate it in public. From our vantage point in the journey of developing modern postural yoga and spreading it to a global audience, the legacy of Krishnamacharya’s teaching cannot be overstated.
In my yoga journey, I first came to practise sun salutations with one of the students and pioneers of hatha yoga in London in the 1960s, Barbara Gordan. I went on to do a yoga teacher training programme with Barbara, where we learned the core teachings of her teacher, Vishnu Devananda, Swami Sivananda’s key disciple, who Sivananda sent to the West to set up yoga centres in 1957.
Swami Sivananda (1887 – 1963) founded the Divine Life Society in 1936 and welcomed students worldwide, including women. With the publication of his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga in 1960, he devised incorporating Surya namaskar as a warm-up exercise for yoga-asana. Sivananda saw Surya Namaskar as a way to improve one’s health and well-being, and his efforts helped popularise the practice in the twentieth century.
The renowned founder, Swami Sivananda, believed that Surya Namaskar was a complete exercise for the body and mind, providing both mental and physical benefits. Therefore, Surya Namaskar should be performed on an empty stomach in the morning, facing the sun, according to the Sivananda tradition.
Surya Namaskar practised regularly can help improve digestion, relieve constipation, and reduce obesity. Furthermore, Sivananda believed that the sun’s penetrating rays would enhance the healing effect of Surya namaskar.
Swami Sivananda’s vision of promoting yoga to a much wider world was aided by Louise Morgan, who helped pave the way through The Ten-Point Way to Health to rebrand the sun salutations as a yogic warm-up exercise long before the Swamis’ trusted disciples made their way to Canada, France, England, and America to open yoga schools and centres and promote the varied health and spiritual elements of this graceful yoga practice.
So now we know a little about the history of this practice, let us look into the benefits and how to do this practice safely.
The Benefits of Sun Salutation Poses (Surya Namaskar)
Sun salutations are a fundamental component of Hatha yoga practice. They aid in developing strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, concentration, breathing, energy levels, and overall health. They can also be used as a warm-up before any other exercise or activity.
Sun salutations improve cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, stress reduction, posture improvement, sleep quality, and digestion.
Many people say that doing sun salutations makes them feel less stressed. This could be due to the release of endorphins as the body moves through various positions. Endorphins are natural pain relievers that make you feel happy and relaxed.
Sun salutations not only have physical benefits, but they also have mental benefits. When you practice sun salutations, your mind becomes more focused and relaxed. As a result, you will feel more relaxed and energised.
Surya Namaskar A Beginner’s Guide to Sun Salutations
With so many options, how do you know where to begin or which style is best? I have always felt that the practice can be done at home, rather than just in a class setting. Once you have mastered the fundamental moves, the more you practice them, the more mindful and meditative the sequence becomes. To get started, I recommend the traditional Sivananda version. So, here’s a link to my complete Surya namaskar beginner’s guide.
A Scaravelli yoga take on Surya Namaskar
With such a diverse and rich history, the practice of Surya namaskar is not limited to one yoga philosophy or school of thought. It’s simple to make the practice your own; in fact, it’s essential if you want to enjoy and benefit from it. This is how I approach all postural yoga practices. It is not always helpful to be told when and how to breathe either; breathing is self-regulating. If you increase the load on the working muscles, they will need to extract more oxygen to generate energy, and your respiratory physiology will take care of this automatically; in other words, your breath rate will increase. So don’t try to fit each pose into a choreographed breathing pattern, at least not until you have developed your capacity to allow that naturally.
On the other hand, Sun salutations move your spine through three of the major movement patterns that we should practice for optimal health: extensions, flexion, and possibly rotation. Moving from the floor (ground) to standing and back down while bearing your body weight helps us redefine useful, habituated movement patterns that are so beneficial for a human being to function optimally.
Of course, cycling through weight-bearing poses that induce briefly held passive stretches for the front and back of the body while maintaining breathing awareness and practising within the individual’s self-aware physical limitations will benefit overall health, mood, and self-esteem. Add philosophical beliefs and generalised yoga traditions to the mix. You have a powerful, compelling, and simple yoga practice, which seems like a sufficient reason to start your day with Surya namaskar.
Looking for a way to get inspired? Check out our stunning Surya namaskar-yoga poster. This beautiful artwork, illustrated by artist and yoga teacher Elaine McCracken, is the perfect way to do just that.
Elaine has used her knowledge and understanding of the pose to create a stunning and evocative piece of art. Each brush stroke is carefully executed, perfectly capturing the flowing movements, and expressing the pose’s timeless beauty.
Hang this poster in your home, office, or studio as a daily reminder to take a moment for yourself and breathe. Let the serene image of the sun salutation wash away your stress and help you find your centre. Namaste.
Step out into the morning sun and salute the day with a gracious Surya namaskar.
Sun salutations are now practised by a diverse range of practitioners worldwide, not only as part of traditional Vedic practise but also as a modern yoga tool for health and fitness. Sun Salutations are an integral and symbolic part of the rich tradition of yoga history, whether performed at sunrise, at home or in a class setting. Surya Namaskars have been shown to improve flexibility, strength, balance, and endurance. They also increase blood flow throughout the body, which means better oxygen delivery to muscles and organs. And if you’re looking for a workout that doesn’t require any equipment, Surya Namaskars are perfect for you. All you need to do is perform each pose slowly and smoothly until you feel completely relaxed. Then move into the next pose. Repeat twice, and build up to five or six rounds.
Yoga Body-Mark Singleton;
The Path of Modern Yoga-Elliott Goldberg
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