June 18, 2016

The Meaning & History Behind the Sun Salutation.


The Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) is a basic movement sequence in Vinyasa yoga.

It became central to our modern practice in the early 20th century; however, it is rooted further back in time than our contemporary yoga of the body.

New research by Chris Tompkins discovered the series of movements in the Tantra tradition (450–1200 CE). His work shows that as early as 100 CE, a small Proto-Tantric sect called the Pasupats had transformed Surya Namaskar into a practice that circumambulated a linga (phallus), representing both the Shiva and the sun.

The Pasupats incorporated linked poses inspired by the sacred dance tradition described in the c. 100 commentary on the Indian arts called the Natya Shastra. The Pasupat Sutra commentary that reveals this information was known to Krishnamacharya, the father of our modern Sun Salutation tradition.

Apparently, the ensuing Tantra tradition built on work of the Pasupats, further transforming an orthodox Vedic technology that had been in use for centuries. Tantra integrated Surya Namaskar into a larger cycle of everyday rituals performed by householder initiates.

We find variant chants for Surya Namaskar in the books called Vedas (c. 1500 BCE). Daily sun worship was meant to fortify the body and mind for a householder’s affairs du jour but not to take one to moksha or liberation, like the later yoga traditions first initiated in the Upanishads.

How Surya Namaskar was re-integrated into Hatha yoga in the early 20th century is told in Mark Singleton’s revolutionary book on modern yoga history, Yoga Body (2010). He tells us that, in the mid-1930s, “Suryanamaskar was not yet considered a part of yogasana.”

This essay presents divergent information.

Classic Surya Namaskar is a rite of sun worship. It includes 12 points of prostration, each with its own pose and complex mantra connected to the 12 houses (or dasas) of the sun.

The mantra follows the formula: “om” + bija (seed) mantra + paada (name for the sun) + “namaha.”

For example, in the first asana (what yoga calls tadasana) one calls out, “om-hraam-mitraya-namaha.” Hraam is said to vitalize the brain, nerves and lungs. Mitraya evokes the “friendliness” (mitra) and intimacy one experiences in response to the sun’s constancy. Chanting “mitraya” primes the practitioner for activating friendliness in his/her day.

The sun salutation is a nitya vidhi practice (nitya, “eternal, daily, obligatory,” and vidhi, “ceremony, application, way,” compare the Chinese kung fu, “daily effort”). Hence, it is meant to be practiced every morning—before, or as—the sun rises.

Mantras [1] for one of these forms of Surya Namaskara come from three lyrics (ruchas) taken from the first book (mandala), 50th hymn (sukta), ninth recitation (anuvaka) of the oldest of the four Vedas, the Rig Veda. The verses used in the Aditya Prasna form of the chant are taken from the first chapter of the second youngest Veda, the Yajur Veda, in the portion called Taittiriya Aranyakam.

The longtime student of Krishnamacharya, Srivatsa Ramaswami, reports learning a set of sun salutation chants from the Aranyaka (“Forest Book”) of the Krishna Yajur Veda. [2]  The chant was done interspersed with Sun Salutation prostrations and is 132 paragraphs long and the Gayatri mantra is found here.

Though it was a householder practice, the Indian epic myths, which gained centrality in the tradition as early as 400 BCE, grant the sun salutation magical powers.

In the epic poem, the Ramayana, the story of the king (and god) Rama’s fight to reclaim his wife, Sita, the Aditya Hridayam form of Surya Namaskara is taught to Rama by the sage, Agastya, before his fight with Ravana (his wife’s kidnapper).

It is described in the Yuddha Khanda Canto (#107) of the tale.

There appear to have been divergent forms of the practice in the past, just as there are in the modern day.

That said, prostration practices follow familiar forms in India.

Indeed, at holy mountains, one can see sadhaks (renunciants) following patterns of salutations in circumambulation that are probably not that far changed from those done millennia ago. They toss a rock a few paces, then rhythmically kneel, prostrate, and stand as they move the many miles around a peak. This practice is called dandavat parikrama, “going around (parikrama) like a stick (dandavat)”—because the sadhak lays down each time like a fallen branch of a tree.

Such “mountain circlings by prostration” are perhaps more common with both indigenous Bon and Tantric-practicing Tibetans. Their circumambulations may go for as much as a hundred miles. The well-known parikrama of the mythic birthplace of Shiva, Mt. Kailash–––where Krishnamacharya met his yoga guru––– is 32 miles long.

These bowing practices have the generic name of “namaskars” and are said to make one integrate the attributes of the mountain—which, in the case of Mt. Kailash, is said to be the god Shiva himself! Similar bowing marathons take place in mountain caves, where prostrations are done in sets of tens-of-thousands in months-long seclusions by Buddhist monks.

The Ukrainian yoga teacher Andrey Lappa reported participating in this activity for weeks, at one point in his career.

Our earliest mention of the practice in the modern period comes from Brahamananda’s c. 1850 commentary on the c. 1450, Hatha Yoga Pradipika. There he says the strenuousness of sun salutations make them inappropriate for Hatha practice. [3]

Later, Simhaji’s, 1897, Short History of Aryan Medical Science reports:

“There are various kinds of physical exercise indoors and outdoors. But some of the Hindoos (sic) set aside a portion of their daily worship for making salutations to the sun by prostrations. This method of adoration affords them so much muscular activity that it takes to some extent the place of physical exercise.”

Bhavanrao Pant (1868–1951) the King of Aundh (a small principality in British-ruled India) noticed this muscular activity and latched onto the practice as an Indian alternative to European styles of exercise. He required it to be taught throughout Aundh as early as 1898—when he just was a minister in the government. This happened at the dawn of the modern yoga movement. Swami Vivekananda had introduced America to yoga only five years before. We get diagrams of the practice from Pant’s writing and from that of his son, Apa, (who became a diplomat when Aundh was dissolved after Indian independence in 1947).

We know that the Hatha yoga asanas and the pose-like karanas of Indian dance (described in the 1st century Natya Shastra) have remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years. We also see this in sadhu (holy man) tapasic (heat-building) practices where one or two arms are held up for months or years at a time. These are referenced in the 2nd Century Maitri Upanishad. The modern movements of the Sun Salutation practice, first popularized in books by Swami Sivananda beginning in the 1920s, may be centuries or millennia old.

Krishnamacharya, the guru of Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, was one among many prominent teachers who were using the sun salutation in their yoga routines in the 1930s, but he changed the form to the one best-known today.

It comes to the modern world through Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and integrates the familiar danda (“stick”) movements (updog, downdog, plank and chaturanga). Krishnamacharya learned these dandas from Indian wrestling and taught them to Jois and others. Jois made them world-famous through his international teaching of Ashtanaga Vinyasa yoga which began in 1975 with a teaching trip to Encinitas, California.

Today’s creative vinyasa flows that use the dandas, Warrior One, and other familiar movements ending in Tadasana (the simple standing pose), can be traced back to Jois’ Ashtanga style. He incubated the systems of poses he learned from Krishnamacharya (making only small changes) for over 40 years before beginning to teach them outside India. Krishnamacharya detailed these Surya-Namaskar-based vinyasas in his books Yogasanagalu (1941) and Yoga Makaranda (1934).

In the 1980s, the Ashtanga teacher, Tim Miller, and the Iyengar teacher, Roger Cole, working in Southern California, began mixing and matching Jois’ Surya Namaskar elements, and this began the modern Vinyasa yoga revolution.

[1] Ramaswami, Srivatsa, “My Studies with Sri Krishnamacharya,” Namarupa Magazine, Spring, 2007, #6, p 16.
[2] Ramaswami, Srivatsa, 2000, Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, p. 5.
[3] Birch, Jason, “The Yogataravali and the Hidden History of Yoga,” Namarupa Magazine, Spring, 2015, pp. 11-12



Author: Eric Shaw

Image: Ian Bothwell / Flickr. 

Apprentice Editor: Roseann Pascale/Editors: Renee Picard; Yoli Ramazzina

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