Sun Salutations ~ The Meaning of Surya Namaskara

image from Ashtanga Yoga by SHRI K. PATTABHI JOIS (Foreword), JOHN C. SCOTT

"... let me repeat that no asana practice is complete without sun worship. Without its focusing of mental energies, yoga practice amounts to little more than gymnastics and, as such, loses meaning and proves fruitless. Indeed the Surya Namaskara should never be mistaken for mere physical excersize --for something incidental, that is, that simply precedes the asanas of yoga. Therefore, it is necessary, before beginning the sun salutations, to pray to Surya [...] to bestow upon us the good fortune of having only good thoughts, of hearing and speaking only good words, and of attaining a sound and strong body, so that we may have a long life and, one day, achieve oneness with God."

-Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, "Suryanamskara"

For thousands of years Hindus have revered the sun, which they call Surya, as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world and the creator of all life itself. One of the means of honoring the sun is through the dynamic asana sequence Surya Namaskar(better known as Sun Salutation). The Sanskrit word Namaskar stems from namas, which means "to bow to" or "to adore." The familiar phrase we use to close our yoga classes, namastete means "you"—also comes from this root. The essence of its meaning is “the divine in me honors the divine in you.” Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands mudra (gesture) touched to the heart. This placement is no accident; only the heart can know the truth. Surya Namaskar, or sun salutation, is included in a regular morning ritual of prayer and worship. It is the prayer of Lord Surya, the god of health.

The Sun Salutation is a prayer in motion. It allows us to use the body as an instrument of higher awareness, so that we can receive wisdom and knowledge. The ancient yogis taught that each of us replicates the world at large, embodying "rivers, seas, mountains, fields...stars and planets...the sun and moon" (Shiva Samhita, II.1-3). The outer sun, they asserted, is in reality a token of our own "inner sun," which corresponds to our subtle, or spiritual, heart. Here is the seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana) and, in some traditions, the domicile of the embodied self (jivatman).

There are twelve names for the sun in Sanskrit. The Sun Salutation consists of 12 positions done in succession. When one round ends, another one begins in a perfect circle. Surya Namaskar is a general tonic and complete warm-up for the entire body, which can be done just as is, or as a warm-up before yoga asanas. The Sun Salutations are said to remove bodily and mental tensions, improve circulation, stimulate the nervous system and raise the body heat. All joints are loosened and lubricated. It offers great flexibility to your spine. The muscles of the abdomen, pelvis and spine are toned and strengthened. The breathing is regulated, thereby calming the mind. If practiced slowly, it has a calming effect. If practiced briskly, it is invigorating. There are many variations on Surya Namaskar, but here is one version:



History and Practice

Surya Namaskar is as rich in symbolic and mythic overtones as it is in physical benefits. There's some disagreement among authorities over the origins of the form. Traditionalists contend that the sequence is at least 2,500 years old (perhaps even several hundred years older), that it originated during Vedic times as a ritual prostration to the dawn, replete with mantras, offerings of flowers and rice, and libations of water. Skeptics of this dating maintain that Sun Salutation was invented by the raja of Aundh (a former state in India, now part of Maharashtra state) in the early 20th century, then disseminated to the West in the 1920s or 1930s. However old Sun Salutation is, and whatever it may originally have looked like, many variations have evolved over the years.

In Hinduism, Surya is the chief solar deity, son of Dyaush or Indra. He has hair and arms of gold, three eyes, and four hands holding water lilies -- the flower that longs for the dawn. He is the only Indian god ever known to be always shown wearing knee length boots and in some cases distinct metal (copper) gloves. The boots are an invariable rule in his sculpture as is the atibhanga posture, the immobile erect stance of perfection, the god who is the Cosmic Pillar and support of the universe. In Hindu religious literature, Surya is notably mentioned as the visible form of God that one can see every day. Furthermore, Saivites and Vaishnavites often regard Surya as an aspect of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. For example, the sun is called Surya Narayana by Vaishnavites. In Saivite theology, Surya is said to be one of eight forms of Siva, named the Astamurti. His names depicting his aspects, offspring and functions are many. He is Savitur, the stimulating and animating Power of the Sun; Pushan, the Messenger and Knower of the Ways; Vivasvat, the Brilliant; Bhaskara, the Light-maker; Dinakara, the Day-maker; Loka-Chakshuh, the Eye of the World; Karma-Sakshi, the Witness of the Deeds; and Graharaja, King of the Constellations. He is also extolled as Aryaman, clear, discerning aspiration, and Bhaga, happy spontaneity and the right enjoyment of things which dispels the dream of error, sin and suffering.

The Sun is the vision of the divine, whose light fills all the worlds; it is also the cosmic symbol of the Supreme. Surya is possibly the most popular Vedic God. In Rig Veda III 62.10 he is worshipped as Savitr, the source of life and light. He is also the source of inner enlightenment as the famous gayatri mantra suggests:

Om bhur bhuvah suvahTat savitur varenyamBhargo devasya dheemahiDiyo yo nah prachodayat

“O splendid and playful sun, we offer this prayer to thee; enlighten this craving mind; be our protector; may the radiance of the divine ruler guide our destiny; wise men salute your magnificence with oblations and words of praise”.Sun worship is often mentioned in the Ramayana. Before Rama goes to fight Ravana, sage Agastya advises him to worship Surya and chant the Adityahridayam, which destroys enemies, gives victory, removes all sins and sorrows, and gives light to the world. In the Mahabarata, the Sun is described as Deveshvara, the God of Gods.

Aloft his beams now bring the godWho knows all creatures that are born,That all may look upon the Sun.

A way like thieves the stars depart,By the dark night accompanied,At the all-seeing Sun's approach.

His beams, his ray's have shown afarAthwart the many homes of men,Flaming aloft like blazing fires.

Swift-moving, visible to all,Maker of light thou art, O Sun,Illumining all the shining space.

Thou risest towards the host of godsAnd towards the race of men: towards all,That they may see the heavenly light.

The broad air traversing, the sky,Thou metest, Sun, the days and nights,Seeing all creatures that are born.

The seven bay mares that draw thy carBring thee to us, far-seeing god,O Surya of the gleaming hair.

The Sun has yoked the seven bright mares,The shining daughters of his car:With that self-yoking team he speeds.

Athwart the darkness gazing up,To him the higher light, we nowHave soared to Surya, the godAmong the gods, the highest light.

Rig Veda 1:50

foreword by  Sadhana Center for Yoga and Meditation