What is Surya Namaskar?
In Sanskrit, surya means sun and namaskar means greeting or salutation. Surya Namaskar is then a greeting to the sun! It is an ancient ritual of twelve steps that warms up the body preparing it for yoga practice. That is why it is practiced at the beginning of a yoga class. This warming sequence has a rich history and holistic benefits for the body and mind. Read more to find out about this widely known and ancient yoga practice!
Surya Namaskar Kriya
Kriyā is a Sanskrit term. It is derived from the Sanskrit root, kri, meaning "to do''. Kriyā means "action, deed, effort". The correct way to refer to Sun Salutations, is to call it a kriya. Surya Namaskara is an action consisting of 12 steps. Unlike popular belief, it is not a series of asanas!
Surya Namaskara Kriya is linked to engaging the solar plexus to raise solar energy within the body and to solar energy itself.
The Purpose of Surya Namaskar
Performing asanas in the rays of the sunrise sounds beautiful and inviting but what really are the reasons why we should practice Surya Namaskar?
Surya Namaskar comprises 12 steps that are purposefully woven together to benefit mind and body in various ways. Surya Namaskar is a practice in itself as well as a warming-up before performing further yoga asanas. It allows for “opening” of the body as it stretches, strengthens and lengthens all muscle groups. Surya Namaskar stimulates prana life force energy through the body helping to regulate our mental and physical faculties.
The mythology and tradition behind Surya Namaskar
In the Vedas everything in the universe has a male and female side. The female side of the sun is nourishing and life-giving and in Hindu mythology depicted as Gayatri. The male side of the sun is invigorating, energy giving and activating, and in Hindu mythology depicted as Surya.
Gayatri can be likened to yin energy and Surya to yang energy. In Sun Salutations our purpose is to warm-up and invigorate the body for the following asana practice.
Opposite common belief, Surya Namaskara Kriya is practiced facing away from the rising sun. The purpose is to receive the stimulating and heating sun on your spine, as you warm up the body with Sun Salutations. Traditionally one would greet the rising sun with a deep bow and prayer and then turn away from the rising sun to receive Surya’ energy on the backside of the body.
As Surya gave life to the world through his powerful energy; heat energy energizes the body through the practice of Surya Namaskar.
The benefits of Surya Namaskar
There are various studies emerging on the investigations of Surya Namaskar and yoga as having physical and mental health benefits. As Western and Eastern medical systems merge, the energetic benefits of Surya Namaskara also emerge. Here we look at some of these benefits and the connection between Surya Namaskar and the chakras.
Physical health benefits
Although Surya Namaskar can be practiced at any time of the day, it is best to practice at sunrise as sun rays can help revitalize the body & the mind. Surya Namaskar can be done in a 3-speed variation – slow, medium or fast pace. A slowed pace helps increase body flexibility, and a medium pace helps in muscle toning. Fast paced rounds of Surya Namaskar are beneficial to one’s cardiovascular health and can aid in weight loss.
Surya Namaskara helps improve blood circulation and strengthen heart function. It also enhances the resting cardiovascular parameters such as cystolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and pulse pressure.
Surya Namaskar stimulates a rhythmic breathing process as breath is synchronized with each movement. This empties the lungs more vigorously and there is an opportunity for more oxygenated air to refill them.
More alveoli of the lungs are expanded, stimulated and then cleansed. Alveoli are a crucial part of the respiratory system associated with breathing. Alveoli are tiny, balloon-shaped air sacs. Their function is to move oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules into and out of the bloodstream.
Through the rhythmic breathing of Surya Namaskara, the oxygen content of the blood is increased. This improves oxygenation of the body, especially the heart, and brain. The cardiac muscles also improve through this rhythmic breathing and movement.
Surya Namaskar is also beneficial for digestive health and other systems of the body as the practice of Surya Namaskar interacts with the organs of the body directly, by applying pressure, massaging, stretching and overall toning up the muscles. This aids the elimination processes of the body.
Mental health benefits
The practice has mental health benefits. Consistent practice of Surya Namaskar sharpens one’s ability to focus, improves self-confidence, and helps to develop self-discipline. It calms the nervous system and its consistent practice can contribute to managing anxiety, depression and insomnia.
How to do Surya Namaskar
Moving with the breath
When you do Sun Salutations it is important to harmonize the movements of your body with your breath. Each inhalation and exhalation correspond to the specific movements of the 12 steps. Thanks to this simultaneous movement of body and breath, you learn to move your body in a flow and your breath and mind regulate.
Going fast or slow? What pace to choose for Surya Namaskar
Surya Namaskar performed a slow pace
The slow Surya Namaskar practice is said to have a meditative effect if the breath and mind are kept in harmony. Slow paced Surya Namaskar also is beneficial in strengthening muscles and also improves the functioning of internal organs. Slow paced Surya Namaskar also helps control diastolic blood pressure. Beginners benefit greatly from a slow-paced practice as their breathing, bodily alignment and technique, and breathing coordination of each step can be focussed on.
Surya Namaskar performed at an intermediate pace
When Surya Namaskar is done at a medium pace, its effects are similar to those of aerobics with increased muscular endurance and power. A slightly faster set of 3 to 12 rounds should be done for the physical benefits. Beginners should start with 2-4 rounds at a faster pace and should add an extra round after every few days or every week to avoid exertion.
Surya Namaskar performed at a fast pace
Faster rounds of Surya Namaskar are considered as a cardiovascular workout. It helps burn excess fat from the body. Faster rounds of Surya Namaskar are considered very good as a warm up exercise. More experienced practitioners would benefit from a faster pace as they have experience in focusing on their breathing, bodily alignment and technique, and breathing coordination of each step.
How many rounds, how long? Best duration of Surya Namaskar
The number of rounds to do depends on various individual factors. It depends on your current level of fitness, if any injuries or ailments are present and your level of technique. It is best to go slow, get comfortable with the steps syncing breath to movement with 5 to 6 rounds. As you build more strength and endurance, you can move to 6 rounds. Classically in Hatha Yoga, 9 rounds of Surya Namaskar are used to warm up the body.
If you have high blood pressure, hernia, or coronary artery diseases or any wrist, shoulder, lower back injuries you are advised to practice a modified version of Surya Namaskar found further below called the Easy classical Surya Namaskara. Those with spine and back problems should consult a doctor before practicing Surya Namaskar. Thereafter variations should be sought from a qualified, and capable teacher.
Classical versus modern practice of sun salutations
Modern Surya Namaskar A (Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition)
Classical Surya Namaskara (Hatha Yoga tradition)
- Standing forward bend position: In classical Surya Namaskara the back is rounded and knees soft in order to give a gentle stretch all over the spine. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Surya Namaskara the back is elongated and knees straight.
- Stepping back to Plank: In Classical Surya Namaskara we move through low lunge position with the chest lifted, pelvis pushing forward. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Surya Namaskara we hop or quickly step back.
- Lowering to the mat: In Classical Surya Namaskara we move the spine to gently stretch our thoracic and cervical spine. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Surya Namaskara we lower flat down.
- Downward-Facing Dog: In Classical Surya Namaskara we keep the feet and hands as far as in plank position and aim to bring our chest toward the knees. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Surya Namaskara we shorten the stance to bring the majority of the stretch to the back of our legs and glutes.
In the classical version of the practice, the spine moves through a beneficial range of movement through the various steps that allow for its extension and flexion. These 12 steps truly aid in warming up and lubricating the spine for movement in comparison to the modern version of the practice.
Cues for teachers - How to teach classical Surya Namaskar (Hatha Yoga)
It is highly recommended to start every practice of yoga asana with Surya Namaskara since it is an excellent general warm up exercise consisting of 12 poses for the spine. Sun Salutation is a sequence of exercises for the spine which gives flexibility to the spine and the other limbs of the body. Since it improves the overall flexibility of the body, Sun Salutation is very healing for anyone, but especially for the elderly and for people who are very stiff. Sun Salutation is not an asana, but a sequence of calm and fluent movements, coordinated with the breath. The purpose of the Sun Salutation is to warm up the spine and to improve the body's energy. During Sun Salutation, you use hundreds of muscles, regulate the breathing and centre your thoughts.
Starting position: Stand straight, with spine erect and shoulders relaxed. Your feet are hip-width apart. Your knees are straight but not hyper-extended; your arms are relaxed next to your body.
- Breathe in and out, bring your palms together in front of the chest
– Shoulders and elbows are relaxed.
– Knees are straight but relaxed.
– Back of your neck is long.
– Reach up with the crown of your head toward the ceiling.
- Breathe in and reach with your arms—up and backward
– Your arms are alongside your ears.
– Look diagonally upward, do not drop your head back.
– Knees are straight, hips pushing slightly forward.
- Breathe out and bend forward, placing your palms on the floor, outside of your feet
– If you cannot place your palms on the floor with your knees straight, you can bend your knees slightly.
– Reach with your nose toward your knees.
- Keeping your hands there, inhale and bring your
right leg back as far as possible.
– Place your right knee on the floor and point your right foot
– Push the pelvis forward, without losing the 90-degree angle of your left knee
– Open your chest, look diagonally upward while
palms remain on the floor.
- Hold the breath and bring your left leg back
– Your body is in a straight line from your head to your heels (push-up position).
- Breathe out and drop your knees, chest, and forehead to the floor
– Without moving your body backward, bring your chest down to the floor between your hands. Then bring your forehead to the floor.
– Knees, chest and forehead are touching the floor. Hips are off the floor
- Breathe in and scoop up, looking up
– Open your chest and look up and back without dropping the head.
– Legs remain on the floor, feet are pointed.
– Do not move your hands as you come into this position.
– Elbows are slightly bent, tucked in toward your body, and your shoulders are pushing down.
- Breathe out, curl your toes and push the hips up
– Without moving your hands or feet, push your hips toward the ceiling.
– Your hands are flat on the floor; heels can be slightly lifted off the floor. Head is between your arms. Look at your feet, trying to bring your chest to your knees.
– This pose is also known as the ‘Inverted V Pose’
- Breathe in and bring the right foot forward in between your hands
– Keep your fingers and toes in one line.
– Drop your left knee to the floor, point your left foot, and push your pelvis forward and toward your right heel.
– Look diagonally upward—the same as in Position 4.
- Breathe out, and keeping your hands where they are, curl the toes of your left foot and step your left foot forward, next to your right foot
– Nose in between your knees, hands holding your ankles.
– Keep the knees straight
11. Breath in and reach with your hands out and upward
Arch backward—the same as in Position 2.
12. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Breathe out, palms together in front of your chest.
This completes half a round. Repeat to the left (left leg stepping first back and forward) to complete one full round of Sun Salutation. Perform 6 – 8 rounds, then rest in Corpse Pose.
Easy Classical Surya Namaskara
Starting position: Stand straight, with your spine erect and shoulders relaxed. Your feet are shoulder-width apart. Your knees are straight but not hyper-extended. Your arms are relaxed next to your body.
- Breathe in and out, bringing your palms together in front of your chest. Shoulders and elbows are relaxed. Knees are straight but relaxed. Back of your neck is long. Reach up with the crown of your head toward the ceiling.
- Breathe in and reach your arms up toward the ceiling. Your arms are alongside your ears. Look straight forward, with the back of your neck elongated. Keep your spine’s natural curve. Do not arch your lower back or tuck your tailbone under. The following variation of the Sun Salutation can be done and applied by anyone with restricted movement, whether from injury or a chronic condition, old age or pregnancy.
- Breathe out, reach forward and out, placing your palms on the floor, in front of or in between your feet. Knees are slightly bent. Look in between your knees, with the crown of your head reaching toward the floor.
- Keeping your hands there, breathe in and bring your right knee behind you on the floor. Your knee is resting below your pelvis on the floor. Look forward, opening your chest and keeping the back of your neck elongated.
- Breathe out and bring your left knee behind you to the floor. Your knee is resting below your pelvis, on the floor. Look to the floor, with the back of your neck elongated. Keep your arms perpendicular to the floor, with your hands directly under your shoulders and flat on the floor. Your knees are hip-width apart.
- Breathe in, push your belly button toward the floor, raise your chin, and lift your tailbone. Your elbows are straight and shoulders are away from your ears.
- Breathe out and round your spine toward the ceiling. Keep your hands and knees in their original positions. Release your head toward the floor, but avoid forcing your chin toward your chest.
- Breathe in and bring your right foot forward outside your right hand. Your left knee remains on the floor. Look forward, open your chest and keep the back of your neck elongated.
- Breathe out, keeping your hands where they are, and bring your left foot forward outside your left hand. Your knees are slightly bent. Look in between your knees, with the crown of your head reaching toward the floor.
- Breathe in and reach your hands forward and up to the ceiling. Your arms are alongside your ears. Look straight forward, with the back of your neck elongated. Keep your spine’s natural curve. Do not arch your lower back or tuck your tailbone under.
- Breathe out, bringing your hands in front of your chest, palms together. This completes half a round. Repeat to the left (left leg stepping first back and forward) to complete one full round of Sun Salutation.
Perform 4–8 rounds, then rest in Corpse Pose.
Sun Salutation is an important practice in Hatha Yoga. It harmonizes the movements of your body with your breath and this rhythmic process done in the early morning has many mental, physical and energetic benefits. Various studies have shown how beneficial Surya Namaskar is for uplifting the overall health. Therefore, performing a few rounds of Surya Namaskar before starting your regular routine or practicing it on its own is essential to your yoga practice.
- Jain, R. and Hauswirth-Jain, K., 2017. Hatha Yoga for Teachers and Practitioners: A Comprehensive Guide.
- A comparative study of slow and fast Surya namaskar on physiological function
- Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, Kaviraja Udupa, Madanmohan, PN Ravindra .Int J Yoga. 2011 Jul-Dec; 4(2): 71–76. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.85489 Effect of Pranayama and Suryanamaskar on Pulmonary Functions in Medical Students
About the Author
Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is creative director & senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams since 2013. She teaches during the Arhanta 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training as well as a variety of 50-hour courses such as the Vinyasa Yoga teacher training, for more than eight years now.