The Practice and Benefits of Surya Namaskar

Sun Salutations, called Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit, are one of the most popular practices in modern yoga. You’ll find them in many classes, including Hatha, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga Yoga, to warm up before other standing and seated asanas. However, Surya Namaskar can also be practiced on its own. It combines asana, pranayama, mantra, and awareness techniques. Therefore, it is a holistic spiritual practice in itself.

Surya Namaskar literally means “salutations to Lord Sun.” In ancient times, the sun was revered as a deity. It represented spiritual consciousness and was considered the source of all life. Therefore, people worshipped the sun daily. This prayer was codified into the practice we know today. In fact, some yogis believe that Surya Namaskar was handed down from the Vedic Age (1500 – 500 BCE). Others view it as a relatively modern practice, developed in the 20th century. 

Although its exact origins are unknown, Surya Namaskar retains its spiritual significance. One round contains twelve postures, reflecting the zodiac phases of the year. The poses are practiced twice, on the right and on the left side, therefore a complete set represents all twenty-four hours of the day. Sun Salutations help us align with the rhythms of nature.

When to Practice Surya Namaskar

The best time to practice Surya Namaskar is at sunrise, usually between 3am and 6am. This period of the day is known as brahma muhurta, the most conducive time for yogic practices. During brahma muhurta, the levels of cosmic prana (vital energy) are highest, the atmosphere is peaceful and quiet, and the mind is empty of thoughts. If you can, practice outdoors while facing the rising sun. Although your muscles might feel extra stiff in the morning, taking this time to practice will positively impact the way you move through your entire day.

If practicing at sunrise does not fit into your schedule, you can also practice at sunset. Sun Salutations can be a great way to unwind after a busy day, loosen up tight muscles, and find more clarity of mind. In general, you can practice anytime, as long as your stomach is empty. This usually means waiting three to four hours after your last meal.

How to Practice Surya Namaskar

While advanced practitioners can practice twelve sets of Surya Namaskar daily, beginners should start with two or three rounds to avoid fatigue and muscle strain. They are also advised to hold each pose for a few breaths. This slow pace gives your body time to get used to the shapes, promotes mindfulness, and lowers the risk of injury.

Once you’re familiar with the sequence, you can flow from one pose to the next with each breath. When practiced at a fast pace, Surya Namaskar is a great cardiovascular workout. Synchronizing the movements with the breath ensures that you breathe deeply and rhythmically. This brings freshly oxygenated blood to the brain, increasing mental focus.

As you progress, you may add to the spiritual element of the practice by focusing on the chakras. Each pose has a corresponding chakra, or energy center, that can be activated through focused awareness.

Eventually, you can integrate mantras. Mantras are sacred sounds or syllables with powerful spiritual and psychological effects. The twelve Surya Namaskar mantras praise different qualities of the sun. You can either chant these mantras out loud or repeat them silently in your mind.

Surya Namaskar Sequence

Nowadays, many different sequences are known under the name of Surya Namaskar. This article explains the steps of the classical Sun Salutation. You’ll find guidance for each individual pose, including instructions on your breath, as well as the corresponding chakra and mantra.

#1 Pranamasana (Prayer Pose)

This posture is also called Tadasana or Mountain Pose. Start in a standing position with your feet firmly rooted into the earth, big toes touching and heels slightly apart. Gently tilt your tailbone down, lengthen your spine, and roll your shoulders back. Bring the hands together in front of your chest — this is known as Namaskara Mudra. Gaze down to the fingertips to cultivate humility and awareness of the heart center (Anahata Chakra). 

Breath: Normal
Chakra:
Anahata Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Mitraya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the friend of all.

#2 Hasta Utthanasana (Raised Arms Pose)

This pose is also known as Urdhva Hastasana or Upward Salute. Inhale and lift your arms up overhead. Your gaze follows your fingers. Gently bend your back, lean the pelvis forward, and keep pressing the heels to the earth. Only bend back as much as feels comfortable for you. Be especially mindful of your lower back. Focus your awareness on the opening in your upper body — the stretch of your abdomen and the expansion of your lungs. This posture is related to Vishuddhi Chakra, located at the throat.

Breath: Inhale
Chakra:
Vishuddhi Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Ravaye Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the shining one.

#3 Padahastasana (Hand to Foot Pose)

This pose is often called Uttanasana in Sanskrit or Standing Forward Bend in English. Exhale and bend forward, diving down through the midline. Rest your hands or fingertips on the floor or your shins. While you’re in the forward bend, emphasize the lengthening of your spine. If your back rounds, bend your knees slightly to release the hamstrings and lengthen your spine. Focus on the sensations in the back body and the pelvic region. This is where Svadhisthana Chakra, the sacral energy center, is located.

Breath: Exhalation
Chakra:
Svadhisthana Chakra
Mantra:
Om Suryaya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the who induces activity.

#4 Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Equestrian Pose)

This pose is also called Anjaneyasana, or simply Low Lunge in English. Inhale and step your right foot back, lowering the knee to the ground. At the same time, bend your left knee, keeping the foot in the same position. Frame your front foot with your hands. Arch your back and look up toward your eyebrow center, called Ajna Chakra.

Breath: Inhalation
Chakra:
Ajna Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Bhanave Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to he who illumines.

#5 Parvatasana (Mountain Pose)

Most people know this pose as Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward Facing Dog. Breathe out and step your left foot back beside the right foot. At the same time, lift your tailbone up to the sky and lower your head between the arms. If you feel tension or your back rounds, keep both knees bent. Again, this will allow you to lengthen your spine. With practice, you may be able to straighten the legs and bring your heels down to the floor. Concentrate on your throat center. Before moving into the next pose, hold your breath at the end of the exhalation. 

Breath: Exhalation
Chakra: Vidhuddhi Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Khagaya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to he who moves quickly in the sky.

#6 Ashtanga Namaskara (Salute with Eight Parts)

This pose is frequently cued as “knees, chest, and chin,” describing the order in which you lower the body parts to the ground. First, drop your knees to the floor. Next, lower your chest in between your hands, keeping the elbows close to the body. Finally, touch your chin to the ground. Continue gazing forward. Keep your toes tucked under and your hips and abdomen raised up. Focus on your abdomen and your Manipura Chakra, the navel center. This pose is usually performed while holding the breath. If the breath retention strains your lungs, you may breathe normally. 

Breath: External Retention
Chakra: Manipura Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Pushne Namaha 
Meaning: Salutations to the giver of strength.

#7 Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Inhale and slide your chest forward. You can keep a bend in the elbows and hug them toward your body. For a more challenging backbend, you can straigthen the arms. Bend your head back and look up toward the eyebrow center. Drop your shoulders down, away from the ears, and firm the shoulderblades against your back. Continue to lift through your chest while pressing your legs and the tops of your feet into the mat. Focus on your Svadhisthana Chakra, located at your sacrum.

Breath: Inhalation
Chakra:
Svadhisthana Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Hiranya Garbhaya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the golden, cosmic self.

#8 Parvatasana (Mountain Pose)

From now on, you will repeat the poses from the beginning of the sequence — in opposite order. Therefore the instructions will be shorter. Focus on the same chakras as before, but be aware that the mantras keep changing.

Exhale and tuck your toes. Alternatively, you can roll over the feet. Send your hips up and back into Parvatasaana. Send your chest toward your thighs and lengthen through your arms and shoulders. Stay grounded in your hands by spreading your fingers wide and pressing your knuckles into the mat — this is called Hasta Bandha, the hand lock.

Breath: Exhalation
Chakra:
Vishuddhi Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Marichaye Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the Lord of the Dawn.

#9 Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Equestrian Pose)

Inhale while stepping your left foot between the hands, bending the knee. Simultaneously, lower the right knee to the floor and push your pelvis forward. Arch your back and look up toward your eyebrow center.

Breath: Inhalation
Chakra:
Ajna Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Adityaya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the son of Aditi, the cosmic mother.

#10 Padahastasana (Hand to Foot Pose)

Exhale and step the right foot forward to meet your left foot. Fold forward, bringing the forehead as close to the knees as possible without straining. Remember that you can bend your knees or straighten your legs depending on your flexibility.

Breath: Exhalation
Chakra:
Svadhisthana Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Savitre Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to the Lord of Creation.

#11 Hasta Utthanasana (Raised Arms Pose)

Inhale to lift up into Hasta Utthanasana. Keep the spine straight and engage your core muscles as you dive upwards. Reach your arms overhead, bend back as much as feels comfortable, and look toward your hands. 

Breath: Inhalation
Chakra:
Vishuddhi Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Arkaya Namaha
Meaning: Salutations to he who is fit to be praised.

#12 Pranamasana (Prayer Pose)

Exhale and lower your arms down in front of your chest, bringing the hands together in prayer pose. Then release your arms down by your sides, relax your body, and focus on your breathing until it returns to normal.

In order to complete the full set of twenty-four poses, you need to do the same sequence again — with two small changes. When stepping back into Ashwa Sanchalanasana (the fourth pose), take your left foot back instead of the right. And when coming forward into Ashwa Sanchalanasana (the ninth pose), bring the right foot between the hands.

At the end of your practice, take a few minutes of rest in Savasana. This final relaxation allows your heartbeat and respiration to slow down, your muscles to relax, and your body and mind to integrate the effects of the practice. 

Breath: Exhalation
Chakra: Anahata Chakra
Mantra: 
Om Bhaskaraya Namaha
Meaning: Salutation to he who leads to enlightenment.

Benefits of Surya Namaskar

The regular practice of Sun Salutations offers a great number of benefits. Because of its dynamic nature, Surya Namaskar can be a great way of warming up the body for more demanding postures. It loosens up stiff muscles and joints. In addition, it tones and massages the internal organs which may improve digestion and help to detoxify the body. In the long run, the practice builds flexibility, strength, endurance, and the coordination of body and mind. It balances all systems of the body, such as the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, reproductive, and endocrine systems.

On a more subtle level, Surya Namaskar cultivates emotional balance, motivation, focus, and heightened awareness. It regulates Pingala Nadi, the solar energy channel responsible for activating the body. This leads to more balanced energy levels both mentally and physically.

As you now know, Surya Namaskar contains much more than the physical poses. It also includes the breath, chakra awareness, mantras, and meditation techniques. That’s why it’s a complete Sadhana, or spiritual practice, that lays the ground for spiritual awakening.

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