Turning Toward the Light: Surya Namaskar

Now, the light which shines above in heaven—pervading all the spaces, pervading everywhere, both below and in the farthest reaches of the worlds—this indeed is that same light which shines within man.
— Chhandogya Upanishad 3.13.7
Surya Namaskar photo credit: http://www.naianakai.com/

Surya Namaskar photo credit: http://www.naianakai.com/

People across cultures have a long history of paying homage to the primary source of life energy here on Earth, our most magnificent star, the Sun.  The yogic tradition is no exception.  Enter any hatha yoga class, and you will find yourself surrounded by sun-worshipers—not the skin-deep, scantily-clad variety of the pre-sunblock eras burning epidermis in pursuit of epic tans—but rather, the lycra-clad, bare-foot yoga enthusiasts engaged, often unknowingly, in the ancient ritual of burning through illusions to rest in the radiance of realized being, commonly referred to as the Sun Salutation

Since Vedic times, Surya, the sun, has been venerated as both the solar heart of our planetary life and a symbol of the illumined heart within each of us. Traditionally practiced at daybreak facing the rising sun, Surya Namaskara, the Sun Salutation, is a devotional practice for literally and symbolically turning body, heart, and mind toward the light, greeting each dawn with awakening consciousness.  This moving meditation begins standing with feet planted firmly on the ground, and hands in “prayer” or Heart Seal (Hridaya Mudra), palms together, fingertips skyward, thumbs resting against the chest at heart-level, the center of genuine insight, and continues with a flowing series of twelve poses (asanas), each transitioning into the next in coordination with the breath (pranayama). 

Although not always observed in contemporary practice, the Sun Salutation usually begins with a silent or spoken recital of the Gayatri Mantra, The Mantra of Spiritual Light, considered to be one of the most profound mantras. 

In addition to the Gayatri Mantra, every movement in the Sun Salutation sequence is associated with a mantra, each successive mantra attuned to one of the twelve phases or energetic aspects of the sun cycling through the zodiac, and corresponds to subtle energy centers (chakras) within every individual.  All mantras are psychoactive, inducing more resonant states of being by decluttering the mind of its normal background noise with focused attention on rhythmic sounds, words, or phrases—keys that unlock the gates to greater attunement.  If you're curious, the mantras based on Sanskrit, along with English translations are as follows:

  • Om Hram Mitraya Namaha (Salutations to the friend of all)
  • Om Hrim Ravaye Namaha (Salutations to the shining one)
  • Om Hrum Suryqya Namaha (Salutations to the one who induces activity)
  • Om Hraim Bhanave Namaha (Salutations to the one who illumines)
  • Om Hraum Khagaya Namaha (Salutations to the one who moves through the sky)
  • Om Hramh Pushne Namaha (Salutations to the giver of strength and nourishment)
  • Om Ham Hiranyagarbhaya Namaha (Salutations to the golden cosmic self)
  • Om Hrim Marichaye Namaha (Salutations to the rays of the sun)
  • Om Hrum Adityaya Namaha (Salutations to the son of Aditi, the cosmic mother)
  • Om Hraim Savitre Namaha (Salutations to the stimulating power of the sun)
  • Om Hraum Arkaya Namaha (Salutations to the one who is fit to be praised)
  • Om Hramh Bhaskaraya Namaha (Salutations to the one who leads to enlightenment) 
There is an earthly, material sun, which is the cause of heat; and all who are capable of seeing it, even those who are blind, can feel the heat. And then there is an eternal sun, which is the source of wisdom; and those who are spiritually awakened will see this sun and be conscious of His existence.
— Paracelsus

Although there are many more obvious personal benefits to practicing the Sun Salutation—such as a strong, supple body, an bright, open heart, a clear, centered mind—the essence of this practice is an invitation to stoke the inner flame and infuse one’s entire being with light, becoming like the sun, a bright star radiating life-affirming energy in service of the world. 

So next time you find yourself saluting the sun, if you don’t already do so, pause and give thanks for the sun above, as well as the one within that guides your life, and see how this simple affirmation deepens your yoga practice.  In so doing, you will be joining a long lineage of people waking up to life, greeting each day with gratitude, aligning inner and outer experience as you tune in and attune to the cycles of nature in communion with self. 

As innumerable cups full of water, many reflections of the sun are seen, but the sun is the same; similarly individuals, like cups, are innumerable, but spirit, like the sun, is one.
— The Shiva-samhita I.35 II.42-43

As for the uninitiated, here’s an overview to guide you through the Surya Namaskar practice:

  • Stand with big toes touching, heels slightly apart (or feet hip-width apart with toes forward). Create a straight line from ear to shoulder to hip to knee to heel, lifting the crown of your head skyward as you press your feet into the ground. Bring your hands together in front of your heart.
  • Inhaling, sweep your arms forward and skyward (or if easier, out to your sides and skyward), bringing your palms to touch (or about 6 inches apart) above your head.  Lift your gaze to your hands.  Extend the sides of your body to lengthen your torso.  Keep your shoulders relaxed and anchored.
  • Exhaling, hinge at the hips to come into a deep forward bend, sweeping your arms forward and down (or out to the sides if easier). Bring your fingertips to the floor alongside your feet (or bend at the knees so that you can bring your fingertips to the floor or blocks), gently releasing the crown of your head toward the floor. 
  • Inhaling, extend the crown of your head forward and skyward, gently arching your back and opening your heart, as you step one leg back and into a low lunge. 
  • Retaining the breath, step back into a plank position.  Extend the crown of your head forward, and press your heels backward to lengthen your entire body. Engage your abdominal muscles to come into one even line. 
  • Exhaling, bend your elbows, grazing your ribs, and lower your knees, chest, and chin to the mat, drawing your navel in toward your spine to engage your core muscles.
  • Inhaling, roll forward over your toes and use your arms with elbows slightly bent to lift your chest off the floor, contracting your belly, opening your heart, arching your back and rolling your shoulders back and down.  Press into the tops of your feet and palms, as you gaze skyward.
  • Exhaling, roll back over your toes and lift your hips to come into an inverted V shape. Spread your fingers and press your heels into the mat as you extend your sit-bones skyward, lengthening your legs, torso, and spine. Relax your head and shoulders, keeping your ears aligned between your forearms. 
  • Inhaling, step one leg forward between your hands to come into a low lunge (lead with the same leg that you used to step back into a low lunge earlier), extending the crown of your head forward and skyward, opening your chest.
  • Exhaling, step forward so that both feet rest between your hands, torso folded from the hips over your straightened legs, keeping your fingertips on the floor or on blocks.
  • Inhaling, sweep your arms forward and skyward (or outward and skyward), rising back up to a standing position.
  • Exhaling, float your arms back into prayer position.

Give it a try.  It may not happen overnight, but I promise, with consistent practice, you will begin to glow from the inside out as your spirit awakens at a cellular level and your radiant being—the sunnier side of your veritable Self—shines.

References:

Iyengar, BKS.  Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993).

http://www.sanskrit.org/www/Hindu%20Primer/gayatri.html

http://www.cfwohio.org/index.php/news/surya-namaskar/