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Sun salutations are a part of every American yogi teacher training.
I remember how in my 200-hour training a decade ago, I got a handout with a circle of yoga asanas, a simple class format for everyone, I was told, that was necessary to vinyasa classes.
There in the middle of this vinyasa flow was the sequence of a sun salutation. Tadasana, forward folding all the way to the floor in a sweat-building plank pose, muscling into cobra, up to a downward dog, swinging a leg into a deep lunge then rising all the way back up, and doing it all over again, several times, maybe. It was always in the beginning/middle of the cycle of an hour-long flow class. Any vinyasa class, all classes are designed for all bodies. Or so they kept telling me.
I get it. A strong vinyasa flow appeals to the American “do it” mentality, that cultural norm that has created a population of mentally and physically ill people. Add some hot sweaty rooms for all those overstressed minds promising to really empty students out and help them lose weight, and you have a marketing plan.
Cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, stroke, chronic pain syndromes, anxiety, rage, depression, addiction have all become the norm now more than ever. Oh, yeah, and long-covid symptoms.
Maybe extremes aren’t what we need? Maybe sun salutations are the opposite of what brings us health and wellness right now.
So, I know many yoga teachers are softening their teaching practice, leaning into slower flows and more yin-type stretches. But those pesky sun sals are still there. Like a bread basket at an Italian restaurant. Not needed, maybe not good for you, but darn it, what else ya gonna do?
Rebel! Sun salutations are designed to build energy in the body, calling in the strong yang “do it” energy, welcoming and inviting that sun into that morning just-waking-up-body. Then, with large sweeping motions and deep folds, bringing that energy into the lower body, powering up the Kundalini energy residing in us all, using all the muscles of the hips, lower back, belly, sides, while stretching and contracting with power. No wonder a savasana flat on our backs feels needed at the end of a vinyasa class, as extreme yang requires extreme yin.
But is this really what we need?
Are we not using yoga as a drug to wind us up, pour us out, so we keep coming to a yoga class?
I am not saying sun salutation sequences aren’t valuable. In the right context, listening to what my body needs, I do these asanas as a gift of energy to myself. But, sometimes I take a yoga class and see those newbie yogis wobbling and struggling to follow the teacher’s sun salutation directions.
It hurts my heart to see that newbie yogi, maybe in her early 60s, who was told by her physician that she needs yoga. So here she is, in an “all accessible” yoga class, straining from down dog to swing her leg into a lunge, then forward fold, all in one breath, trying to rise with grace into Tadasana like the 30-year-olds next to her. As she moves way too fast, wobbling as she goes, she creates more tension in her joints and ligaments that probably causes tears in her tendons. And all while feeling stressed out, which is bound to create even more pain and injury. So she leaves this class feeling like a failure, like she just “isn’t a yoga person.”
And the yoga teacher just keeps doing those sun sals, completely in her own practice, totally ignoring or just not capable of assisting this woman or anyone else. Maybe the teacher is thinking, “clearly, she’s in the wrong class, and there is a beginner yoga series at the studio.”
This happens all the time. The woman must have figured that, like the ad said, “this is yoga for everybody!”
What if the problem isn’t with the student? What if the problem is with the teaching? Maybe the sun salutations just don’t belong in that class?
Please, yoga teachers. Sun sals aren’t for everybody; they never were. They are only one way to bring energy into the body. If the Sanskrit word “vinyasa” simply means careful placement of the body, and “asana” means to simply be with what is, then why are we doing sun salutations?
Can our vinyasa flows be simpler?
Maybe sun sals are fabulous for athletes to increase flexibility. Down dog? Forward folds? These are total expansion of tendons and muscles. These are asanas imposing the most possible stretch to what is probably a tight ligament, tendon, or muscle in the average Joe or Jane.
If it is true that stress settles itself in necks, shoulders, and hips, then maybe we can be a little gentler with ourselves and our students.
How about a little massage around the low back before attempting a partial forward fold? How about taking the time to slow down and just feel our feet while we stand in Tadasana, without moving at all? How about rather than swinging our arms up and around to gather that yang energy, we place our hands on our bellies, resting and breathing, then bring our hands from our low belly, palms up toward our chins, encouraging a yin flow of energy? Maybe three to four of these movements synchronized with our breath?
Yoga teachers, please stop the sugar-loaded energy drink yoga with your sweaty sun salutations. Instead, teach them to tune in, to feel their feet.
If you build a practice of slow and mindful yoga, they will come.