Wellness

Surya namaskar: How to do this warming yoga practice to connect to the rhythm and energy of the sun

Expert instructions for performing a classic version of the sun salutation series.

Expert instructions for performing a classic version of the sun salutation series

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

When the world feels dark and heavy or the seasons are dull and cold, we can turn our mind toward the sun. If we think of the sun or stand in its light, we can begin to feel its warmth and radiance in our own body. We can feel more uplifted, at ease and mentally clear. We can feel connection to the light and warmth, and through this connection, we can feel perhaps a little less isolated. 

There are many ways to connect to the sun for our health and well-being. We can walk outside, gaze at the rising sun, or cook warm foods to feel the heat of the fire in our nourished bellies. 

We can also ignite our own inner fire through the warming and illuminating practices of yoga. The traditions of yoga and Ayurveda revere the sun as the light of intellect, creation and sustenance, and note that if we are attuned to the natural rhythms of time and season, we can reset our circadian rhythm for inner health and peace. 

The roots of connecting to the sun through meditation or surya upasana dates back over 5,000 years and is documented in the ancient Vedic texts of India — the Yajurveda, which includes sun rituals, and the Rigveda, through the Gayatri mantra to the sun, for example. The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Ramayana epic also refer to Agni, which represents the fire or sun within us and outside of us.

Surya namaskar is a more contemporary moving meditation with a focus on the sun and it is often associated with modern Ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with traditional ashtanga [eight limbs] yoga detailed by the sage Patanjali in Yoga Sutras). When we practice, it is not only to salute the sun, but also to remember that everything on the Earth's plain is connected to the sun's unifying light, heat and nourishment, and that the sun sustains our life's existence. 

There are many variations of surya namaskar, often accompanied by a mantra for each asana in the sequence. The classical version consists of 12 asanas in alignment with the 12 constellations. When we practice a full round of sun salutation, on both the left and right sides of the body, it is symbolic of the movement of the sun throughout 24 hours of the day. This is how the practice of surya namaskar is a reflection of the natural rhythms of the sun and its relationship to the time of day and the seasons. 

In the midst of the pandemic and its resulting isolation and chaos, we may feel the need for clarity, light, warmth and connection. We may feel out of sync with time due to lifestyle changes, perhaps waking or sleeping later than we would. This can call for a routine reset. In times of uncertainty, become consistent like the sun: rise each day and rest each night. Wake with the sun and become attuned to its cycle. This can help balance our circadian rhythm, our hormones, our digestion, our mood and our quality of sleep. 

The following sequence is a traditional and simple sun salutation that many can do with ease. It's often taught by A.G. Mohan — a disciple of renowned yoga master and scholar Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who brought traditional hatha yoga to the modern world — and described in Yoga Makaranda, published in 1934, one of the older known texts to describe the sun salutation sequence. 

For this practice, you will need a yoga mat or soft flooring, comfortable attire for movement and a quiet room. During the practice, it's important to synchronize the mind and breath with the movement of each asana as you hold an inner gaze (drishti) upon the sun. This will impart the full experience of a moving sun meditation to bring harmony to the mind, stability to the emotions, strength to the body and clarity to the senses.

Note: It's important not to strain the neck. Setting the drishti or gaze can be done by gently moving the eyes up, outward or within as the neck remains relaxed. As with any practice, listen to your body and be gentle, especially upon beginning a new practice.  

The practice

Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Begin by sitting back on the heels, palms together at the heart centre. (If this is too difficult on the knees, you can sit in Sukhasana, or a simple cross-legged pose.) Take a moment to close your eyes and connect to the breath with the intention to enter the practice of sun salutation. Visualize a sun at the centre point of the eyebrows. While holding the inner gaze of the sun, gently open the eyes. 

Kneeling

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Inhale, coming up onto both knees and raising the arms up above the head, palms together. Take a moment here to feel the warmth building in your body.

Balasana (Child's Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Exhale, placing the palms down onto the floor and drawing the chest toward the ground, extending the arms in child's pose. Take a couple of breaths here, expanding the chest and opening up the space in the upper body, feeling the ground firmly supporting you. 

Bharmanasana (Tabletop Pose) to Bitilasana (Cow Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Inhale, tucking in the toes slightly, moving forward into tabletop position and arching the spine into cow pose, looking up as though looking at the sun. 

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Exhale, keeping your attention on the navel centre while pressing back gently into downward facing dog, softening and slightly bending the knees if you choose. Pedal the legs to soften the stance as you warm up and relax into the pose.   

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière )

Keeping the inner gaze on the sun to create lightness in the mind, inhale, moving into cobra pose, lifting the chest up and slightly back, opening up the heart centre. 

Phalakasana (Plank Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Holding the breath while coming down toward the floor, hover just above the ground in plank pose for a brief moment.

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière )

Inhale, pressing the palms down firmly and moving back up into cobra pose, curling the chest back, and opening the heart centre and neck region. Rolling the shoulders back, look up slightly. 

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Exhale, pressing back into downward facing dog and deepening the pose if you choose, drawing the heels closer toward the floor and straightening the legs. Staying focused on the inner gaze of the sun, draw the navel slightly in toward the spine. 

Bharmanasana (Tabletop Pose) to Bitilasana (Cow Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Inhale, moving forward into tabletop pose, arching the back into cow pose, and slightly lifting up the neck, looking up toward the sky. 

Balasana (Child's Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Exhale, gently pushing back into child's pose, staying connected to the breath. The pose should be active, with the navel centre feeling engaged.   

Kneeling

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Inhale softly, coming back up onto both knees, raising the arms up above the head as you look up. Point your fingers toward the ceiling with your palms together. 

Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)

(Illustration: Christie Carrière)

Exhale, drawing the palms down to the heart centre and sitting back on the heels. (Again, if this is too difficult on the knees, you can sit in Sukhasana, or a simple cross-legged pose.) Take a few deep breaths here. Notice how the body feels. Become aware of any sensations and body temperature changes.  

This constitutes one round. You may start with three to five rounds and work your way up to nine to 12 rounds if you choose.


Nicole Mahabir is the founder and director of Jai Wellness, a platform for health education, mindful living and well-being. For the past 10 years, Nicole has led professional IAYT-, YA- and EBNMP-certified programs, teaching nutrition, meditation, Ayurveda, yoga therapy and natural, anti-aging beauty. When she isn't teaching, Nicole creates integrated, sustainable health protocols for her busy clients, and leads corporate and wellness retreats. Follow Nicole on Instagram @jaiwellness or visit her website, jaiwellness.com.

Christie Carrière (she/her) is a painter, illustrator, rug-maker and artistically curious individual. She received her BFA from OCAD University and is currently working as a painting instructor, freelance illustrator and artist, and co-creative director of Tea Base, a grassroots community arts space located in Tkaronto/Toronto's West Chinatown. Follow Christie on Instagram @chris_jwc.

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