I can't tell you the last time a day went by when I didn't do a single sun salutation of some kind. No matter what I have going on, or where I am, I inevitably find myself moving to the rhythm of my breath, using this prana to guide my body and connect to the present moment. So, when I was recently asked to write about sun salutations, I took on the task happily. I thought I'd share the result online for those interested. The tone is definitely more academic than conversational, but if you're keen, read on!...
Physiologically, sun salutations are key to open the body and building heat to fuel the practice. Salutations are placed at the beginning of the standing series in order to allow the body to slowly loosen up, via multiple rounds of repetitive movement. As the yogi’s body moves through cycles of namaskars, forward folds deepen, backbends become more expansive, and core strength is activated, allowing movements to become increasingly effort-less. The namaskars lead to the build-up of internal heat (tapas) which is necessary to safely and effectively move through subsequent standing poses. Therefore, the dynamic sun salutations prepare the body to hold static poses later on in the standing series.
During sun salutations, each movement is led by the breath; inhalations and exhalations are used to guide the body into and out of each pose. As such, I find sun salutations are the most effective way of linking body with the breath. Initially this is also one of the most challenging aspects of the sun salutations, as most of us have become so disassociated with our own breath that to stay aware of our inhalations and exhalations is extremely difficult. Adding in potentially challenging and strenuous poses (such as chaturunga dandasana and virabhadrasana I), it is easy for the beginning yogi to lose track of the breath, allow it to become rushed and sharp, or to hold it altogether. When this occurs, the sun salutations themselves serve as a reminder to keep the breath constant, fluid, and deep. As yogis continue to practice over time, they start to be able to move following the cues of the breath, and to use the breath to stay focused on the body. When the yogi stays connected to the breath, and uses the breath to explore the body, there is no more attachment to the thoughts, so the mind starts to quiet. Inevitably, this is a temporary respite, as the mind once again starts to wander. This can initially be frustrating, but over time we realize that these distractions are just an invitation to release the thoughts, and return to the breath and the flow of the namaskars.
I spent several years practicing only traditional Ashtanga-style Sun Salutations A and B. Over time, however, I’ve been introduced to deviations of these classical namaskars, and currently incorporate both into my practice.
Surya Namaskara A and B have been very beneficial to my practice for several reasons. Firstly, they are physically demanding and have helped me greatly increase my strength and flexibility. Also, as the movements are so repetitive, I can focus only on the breath and the current movement, rather than having to think ahead to remember sequencing; so, these namaskars have the ability to bring maximum awareness to the practitioner. Finally, because the same namaskars are repeated within a practice, and also from day to day, month to month, etc., Surya A and B are extremely useful for gauging progression in the asana practice. For example, it took me a couple of years to really begin to have the strength to perform chaturunga dandasana correctly- traditional namaskars and all the included vinyasas helped me to build the necessary strength, and also gave me the ability to recognize my progress as the vinyasas became easier and more anatomically correct.
Currently I’m more likely to be practicing non-traditional, creative sun salutations (and vinyasas) than Ashtanga style namaskars. As someone who has spent most of my life anchored firmly into my left-brain, one of my favourite things about the asana practice, and sun salutations in particular, is to be able to work the right side of my brain to put together creative sequencing. While I still incorporate many traditional aspects, such as combinations of forward folds and backbends, down dog, tadasana, and vinyasas (which I also vary), I like to experiment with different combinations of poses and ways of moving. This can also be very functionally useful, as I often tailor the namaskars to prepare the body for specific peak poses and/ or other themes in the practice. I also often use a creative sun salutation as the backbone, or skeleton of my practice- beginning first with a few rounds of the salutation on its own, then adding in different variations and more poses each time, building up to longer sequences. I have a mental library of many different sun salutations, and I often choose to begin a practice without planning a certain salutation, instead moving as suggested by my body. These types of sun salutations help me connect to my body on a deeper level as a result, and enable me to tune into how I’m really feeling on any given day. For these reasons, as well as for the simple pleasure of keeping things fresh, I currently tend to prefer non-traditional sun salutations over classical Ashtanga style namaskars.
As a teacher, I have found the sun salutation series is the most useful part of the class in terms of assessing the group of yogis I’m working with. In my classes, I usually begin sun salutations about half an hour into the 2 hour long session; although we have already warmed up by the time we move to the namaskars, I find I am most able to tune into the energy of the class and the experience level of the students as we do the salutations. I am able to assess not only how strong and flexible the yogis in the classes are, but also how able they are to stay connected with their breath, and how easily they are able to follow my cues when we are moving at a faster pace. I always give a lot of options for students as they do their sun salutations, such as high vs. low lunge, full vinyasa vs. keeping knees on the ground in plank/ chaturanga, skipping vinyasas altogether, or adding in backbending or twisting variations of poses. As I watch the students choose their options, I can determine which poses and/or alternatives to include in my subsequent sequences, and the appropriate general level of difficulty I should aim for. It’s during the sun salutations that I therefore hone into what I will teach within each class.
In conclusion, sun salutations are extremely beneficial on many levels. They are useful for building strength and flexibility, creating internal heat, as well as connecting the yogi to their breath, and helping to quiet the mind. Both classical Ashtanga namaskars as well as creatively sequenced alternatives can each have their own unique benefits, and I find both important to incorporate into my practice. As a yoga teacher, watching students move through sun salutations is extremely useful in gauging the level of the class, and assisting me in determining how to shape the remainder of the practice.