Sunrise is one of the most beautiful sights of Mother Nature. Writers and poets near and far have sung its praises. Seeing the rising sun illuminate mountains and roof tops, places of work and worship is breathtaking. My best memory is a glorious ball of fire rising on a faraway shore as if emerging from the ocean itself on one of our family vacations. To this sacred light, the Divine fire that is the source of creation, I offer my salutations.
Guidelines for Surya Namaskar
Disciplined practice of sun salutations is called Surya Namaskar Abhyasa. Please refer to previous posts for its history, names of poses and corresponding mantras.
Traditional Surya Namaskar is a practice open to people of all ages and levels.
There is no set pace for Surya Namaskar. The pace – set by your breath is the safest. If done at a faster pace you may jeopardize alignment and risk injury. At a medium pace follow the rhythm of Ujjaiyi breath and enjoy it’s energizing or aerobic benefits. At a slower pace with breath awareness, the practice relieves mental stress, and can become meditative.
When you are focussing on the breath, you might wonder – ‘Am I doing each asana correctly? Will I injure myself?’ Good questions. This is precisely the reason why Surya Namaskar asanas have to be taught separately so the alignment can be mastered.
Each asana counteracts the one before, stretching the body forward/backward and alternately expanding/contracting the chest to regulate the breathing. Form and alignment of each of the twelve asanas must be learnt separately. This is followed by learning how to transition between each of the asanas safely within shorter sequences before introducing complete rounds.
The first few repetitions can be tiring when you are learning the asanas for the very first time. You will notice an increase in your heart rate and may perspire as well. As the practice gets regular, you will build up your endurance and then become ready to add Ujjaiyi breath into your rounds.
If you are wondering how many rounds to practice each day, there are no set rules. However, be aware of your physical and medical limitations. As a beginner, you may start with 2-4 rounds and work up to 8-10 very gradually (weeks or months) depending on your health and frequency of practice.
Simple props like blocks, blankets or straps can help you learn each asana correctly and transition between asanas safely. At once, the ego may resist as it wants to portray a false sense of perfection even before you have dedicated yourself to this practice. The magazine cover that depicts a picture perfect asana is not you or me.
Using a prop can assist not hinder your practice. It will help you ‘feel’ the asana in the ‘right’ areas in your body and teach you not to hurt yourself. Over time you can try other props or discontinue their use completely based on your progress. Only with disciplined practice your body will begin to look steady and aligned.
- Do not eat (2 hours) a heavy meal before practicing Surya Namaskar.
- Be aware of medical conditions like high blood pressure, spine injuries, diabetes, etc. that warrants a consult with your doctor before starting this practice.
- If you are recuperating from sickness or surgeries, or a senior, please modify the poses accordingly or use a chair as a prop for support.
- Knees can stay slightly bent to protect your lower back during transitions.
- Avoid straining, excessive or painful stretching in asanas. Honor where your body is on that given day of practice.
- Observe if your practice is weighed down by likes and dislikes. For example, you have to practice with a certain type of music, a certain sequence taught by your favorite teacher, occupy the same spot at the yoga studio, and external distractions, etc. These become limitations to your practice.
- Be aware that teachers structure their classes differently based on their teaching styles, schooling and personal practice. Try not to be attached to one teacher.
Abhyasa – Practice
One full round of traditional Surya Namaskar is two sets of the twelve poses set in a vinyasa, sequence.
Here is a video of the traditional Surya Namaskar.
You may follow along and try it in your living room. However, it is best to learn the names and alignment of each asana, how to transition between asanas safely, and how to coordinate movement with the breath from an experienced teacher.
Start from Left or Right side?
You may begin the first set leading with the left foot and the second set leading with the right foot for a total of twenty-four asanas.
Why left side first? Beginning on the left side of the body may be attributed to Devi Prakriti, Mother Nature, generally associated with feminine qualities of nurture, compassion, love, humility and for a more meditational and mindful practice. Beginning on right side of the body may be attributed to Purusha, the masculine aspects of assertiveness, courage, willpower, and the practice of mental concentration. One side is not better than the other. It depends on what quality you need on that given day.
This philosophy may have been used by yogis and gurus as a type of Chikitsa, therapy to help people through different mind states. For example: Each day check your emotions and state of mind before you begin your practice. If you feel lethargic, depressed, anxious, Sunday blues, bored – you may begin your practice from the right. Add Ujjaiyi breath (after learning it correctly) for an energizing practice.
On the other hand, if you are hyper, stressed, irritable, egotistical, restless – you should begin from the left. Move slowly through the asanas concentrating on the breath for a calming practice. This is an ingenious way devised by wise teachers for setting an intention at the start of the practice to keep the wandering mind in check and bring mindfulness to a physically-oriented practice.
Notice the alternating inhalation and exhalation in the asana sequence outlined in the Surya Namaskar table. In the sixth asana –Ashtanga Namaskar (eight-point pose), the breath is held in external suspension, Bahir Kumbaka. Learning how to suspend the breath without a struggle takes diligent practice. Alternatively, you can practice with regular breath between the 5th and 7th asanas.
You can make Surya Namaskar a spiritual practice by incorporating manthras. Japa manthras are more frequently practiced than the bija manthras. Here is a video of Surya Namaskar with Japa Manthras.
Gurus recommend the use manthras to coax a practitioner to bring reverence to a physically-oriented practice. By understanding the meaning of each manthra, you can slowly transform the egotistical attitude and cultivate devotion and gratitude.
Learn the mantras separately by listening and repeating them multiple times before adding them to the movement. You can find the manthras listed in the Surya Namaskar Asanas blog.
Sunlight has found its way through the trees and into my living room. My mat is beckoning. I can’t wait to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. Let’s practice together. Roll out your yoga mat and step onto your sacred space. You may chant the Divine Light Prayer by Swami Sivananda Radha. Let it set your intention. Let us express reverence to Surya, the Cosmic Light by practicing Surya Namaskar with devotion and gratitude.
Sarasvati, Satyananda Svami.1930. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga. Munger, India.