The History & Meaning Behind Sun Salutations
Do you have a vinyasa style yoga practice? If so, chances are that sun salutations are a staple of your regular flow. Not only do sun salutations work as a great warm-up to prepare you for your practice, but they offer a way to unite body and mind, and bring your head back to the mat.
Before we go into the history and meaning behind sun salutations, let’s quickly explore what a typical sun salutation sequence involves:
Please note: some people consider Surya Namaskar/Sun Salutations to be composed of twelve steps. Below is simply a brief summary of the sequence, which is often modified.
- Begin in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), with the hands held in prayer position at the heart (Anjali Mudra). This pose provides the perfect opportunity for yogis to set an intention for their practice, if they so wish. On the inhale, raise the arms above the head, in raised arm pose (Urdhva Hastasana).
- On the exhale, move into a forward fold (Uttanasana), releasing any tension in the neck and back. On the inhale, come into a flat back position (Ardha Uttanasana).
- On the exhale, step or hop back into a plank position. Take an inhale here, ensuring the body is in a straight line from head to toe.
- Exhale, lowering to the belly slowly and with control. More experienced yogis may choose instead to practice Chaturanga Dandasana, and hover above the ground.
- On the inhale, lift the head, neck and shoulders to come into baby Cobra (Bhudjangasana), or Upward Facing Dog.
- Exhale, moving into Downward Facing Dog. Stay here for as many breath cycles as desired, stretching the legs out if necessary.
- On an exhale, step both feet up to the front of the mat and return to a forward fold (Uttanasana).
- Inhale to a flat back position (Ardha Uttanasana) once again, before returning to a forward fold on the exhale.
- On an inhale, sweep the arms back up overhead to raised arm pose (Urdhva Hastasana).
- Exhale, holding your hands to your heart once again, bringing you back to step 1. Repeat the sequence as many times as you like.
Where did sun salutations originate from?
The English term “sun salutation” is a direct translation of the Sanskrit ‘surya namaskar’; surya meaning "sun" and namaskara "salute". Many believe that the sequence got its name from the fact that it would traditionally have been carried out with the rising and setting of the sun. On another, metaphorical level, it represents acknowledgment that the practice tends to our internal “sun”, our energy source, by uniting both body and mind. But we can also consider that in ancient scripture, the sun is frequently considered the greatest teacher of this world.
Some believe that sun salutations come from the ancient tale of Hanuman. Hanuman was a dedicated student of surya, and once he had learned all he could from the sun, he offered payment. Surya refused the payment, and in response to this, Hanuman offered his respectful greetings, or Namaskars, as an alternative. Thus, the sun salutation was born.
So how old are sun salutations? The timeline of the sequence’s development and the date of its origin are unclear, although it is widely believed that yoga was practiced in areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India over 5,000 years ago! However, several anthropologists argue that the Namaskar movements of ancient yoga are hugely different to modern day sun salutation practices, and many hold the alternative belief that the sun salutation as we know it today was invented in the early 20th century.
The origin of modern sun salutations may be somewhat hazy, but it is clear that the evolution of the practice has been ongoing, with various modified sequences becoming more popular throughout different periods of history. And despite years of evolution, the benefits of the sequence remain unchanged.
What is the purpose of sun salutations?
In a practical sense, the sun salutation engages almost all parts of the body, making it an excellent full-body stretch. Practicing these movements in line with the breath is a fantastic way to increase the flow of prana, or energy, throughout the body (read more about the grounding effects of yoga here). What’s more, the basic sun salutation sequence as described above can be modified to suit different abilities; to make it easier (for example, knees can come to the ground in plank pose), or to target certain areas of the body (such as adding in a lunge pose prior to plank position to engage the hip flexors).
For many, sun salutations are one of the first sequences encountered in a yoga class. The range of possible variations makes this sequence an extremely valuable and adaptable component of a vinyasa yoga practice. Various forms of sun salutations can make up an entire practice, or can be a warm-up for another asana. Traditionally, sun salutations are performed outdoors, increasing connection with nature.
The movement is also associated with many health benefits, including improved circulation, which aids the in the healthy functioning of major internal organs. On a spiritual level, sun salutations are typically carried out alongside a mantra that appeals to the person practicing, allowing for further connection with the self. This in turn enables the practice to have a soothing effect on the body.
As ancient or modern as the roots of this beloved yoga sequence may be, one thing is for sure: the significance of sun salutations in modern-day practices cannot be underestimated. The movement not only helps increase flexibility, strength, and healthy blood flow, but can provide mental, emotional, and spiritual stability for those on the mat.