The Ritual of Surya Namaskar, Salute to the Sun

On a yoga retreat, you will typically encounter several forms of physical yoga. Morning classes are usually more dynamic, while afternoon classes are generally more focused on alignment and restorative poses. Morning classes are often based on Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. One of the ingredients that we have come to identify with Vinyasa Yoga is the use of the Vinyasa (Series of connected movements) called the Sun Salute, or Surya Namaskar.

Traditionally performed at sunrise facing the sun, it is a great wake up for our awareness, warm up for the whole body and respiration, and a humble reminder of the Bigger Picture that we are a part of. There are many other benefits to practicing sun salutations on a regular basis.

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As a form of ritual or homage, it represents acknowledgment and adoration of the sun as a vital element in sustaining organic life on this planet. The ancient Prasna Upanishad acknowledges that the sun as the centre of life and energy. The Mother of all Mantras, the Gayatri Mantra, is a sun based mantra. Savitur is another name for the sun as described in the Vedic Rigveda

Though most past civilizations were polytheistic, even Judaism in its earlier Israelite expressions, all civilizations have an aspect of Sun worship in their theology. Some, like Egypt, even attempted to create a monotheistic religion based around the sun.

Hinduism has some 108 names for the sun. So there is no question as to the regard that the Vedas and Hinduism have for the sun, but where did these specific “Sun Salute Vinyasa” movements originate? Although rituals and chanting to the sun date back to the original Upanishads, neither the Hatha Pradipika (1500 AD) nor the Sritattvanidi (1850), (two major works on Yoga Asana) mention Sun Salutation as a series of movements. There is recent surmising (see the book ‘Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton), that the basis of the Sun salute as it has been exported to the West began with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as developed by Krishnamacharya and practiced in Mysore from the 1920′s. This was a synthesis of these elements found in Mysore at the time.

  1. Hatha yoga (Yoga postures)
  2. Contortionism as performed by traveling sadhus and fakirs
  3. The fitness exercises of the British Army

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Krishnamacharya, amongst other places, studied for 7.5 years in the Himalayas in the foothills of Mount Kailashwith his teacher Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. Interestingly Surya Namaskar bears a marked relation to Tibetan Buddhist prostrations (Sanskrit Namas-kara) used and found in the Himalayas. One of the more rigorous Tibetan Buddhist trainings is to perform over a few months, wait for it … 100,000 of these prostrations! And you thought five was hard!!

From 1920-1955, Krishnamacharya taught in a Yogashala established on the grounds of the Palace of Mysore under the benefaction of the Maharaja of Mysore. He held many demonstrations to stimulate popular interest in yoga and Ayurvedic healing. Because most of his students in this point in his career were young, energetic boys, Krishnamacharya developed a vigorous style of yoga. This practice intended to build strength, endurance, flexibility, and stamina and is known today as the Mysore Style of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

Two of his most prominent students, Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, have been mostly responsible for the proliferation of the Yoga Asana method into modern Western living.

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It is worth noting, however, that he only taught these two men when they were young and for very brief periods. Krishnamacharya is actually better known in India as a healer and philosopher, and his whole method was based on individual tuition, not large group classes.

Yoga therapy is a more correct expression of his teaching style as it totally caters to each individual’s needs. He would only give a student that which he thought was valuable to that student at that time of their life.

One of the great benefits of a yoga retreat is that we have the time as teachers, and you have the time as students to focus on your individual requirements. And assist you in establishing a yoga practice that efficiently addresses what you uniquely require.