Inhale arms up, exhale fold forward. Inhale flat back, exhale chaturanga. Inhale upward facing dog. Exhale downward facing dog. Inhale one. Exhale. Inhale two. Exhale. Inhale three. Exhale. Inhale four. Exhale. Inhale five. Exhale. Inhale hop forward. Exhale fold. Inhale arms up. Exhale samasthiti.
This is often the dialogue in my brain. Or, mantra, really. I didn't actually decide to use surya namaskar A (sun salutation A) as a mantra. It happened quite by accident. In my first yoga teacher training, I was struggling to lead surya namaskar. Even though I had done hundreds of them, even though my limbs and muscles knew exactly what to do without my thinking, my mind and my mouth couldn't keep things straight. I just couldn't remember the steps. My teacher suggested I write a script, with simple and clear language, memorize it and recite it over and over until the words became automatic. I did this gratefully; I was tired of feeling embarrassed from stumbling over my words when I led surya namaskars. And it worked. You can ask me on a dime to recite surya namaskar A or B and I won't even have to shift brain patterns; it's become that innate.
But something else happened, too. All of a sudden, I found myself practicing surya namaskar everywhere I went. Walking around the city. Riding the subway. In bed at night. In the shower. Even sometimes in meetings at work. Not physically practicing, of course (although I won't deny having the urge now and then to bust out a sun sal on the subway platform). No, this practice is different, even more powerful, in some ways, than the physical practice. To understand this, let me first offer some context.
Surya namaskars open the ashtanga practice. In most vinyasa classes, one will complete some form of surya namaskar. They warm the muscles, set the rhythm, explicitly attach breath to movement. They are devotional (bowing to the Sun Gods) and encourage humility before entering the more advanced poses. Traditionally, they are practiced facing east, as the sun is rising.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Indian yoga teacher who brought us the ashtanga practice, writes beautifully about surya namaskars in his book Yoga Mala (originally published in 1962, in English in 1999).
The practice of the surya namaskara, or sun salutations, has come down to us from the long distant past, and is capable of rendering human life heavenly and blissful. By means of it, people can become joyous, experience happiness and contentment, and avoid succumbing to old age and death.
As scriptural authority confirms, “The Self cannot be gained by one devoid of strength.” With strengthened bodies, sense organs, and minds, [people] would become healthy and righteous, live long and intellectual lives, and be able to attain eternal liberation.
[People] knew the blessings of the Sun God are essential to good health. If we reflect on the saying “Arogyam bhaskarad icchet (One should desire health from the sun),” it is clear that those blessed by the Sun God live healthy lives. Therefore, for health- the greatest wealth of all- to be attained, the blessings of the Sun God must be sought (p. 34-35).
What I love most about Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’s words is the assertion that strengthening the body is necessary in order to strengthen the mind. One cannot happen without the other. In fact, I remember learning that the asana (physical pose) practice of modern yoga was introduced as a way to connect the body, the mind, and the Self (feel free to substitute soul or inner consciousness or another name here). One cannot exist without the other. One cannot advance or reach liberation or be joyous when the others are not. It is why exercise is not selfish.
The connecting thread between the body, mind, and Self is the breath. In the ashtanga (and subsequently vinyasa) yoga practice, each movement is attached to either an inhale or an exhale. It's often said "without the breath, yoga is simply acrobatics". The special thing about surya namaskars is the clear opportunity they provide to create a connection with breath. It is not the repetition of words in my mind that is so powerful (although they alone, I find quite soothing, like an old friend); it is the breath. The distinct inhale and exhale. The purposeful filling and emptying of my lungs. The effect is slowing, calming, grounding. We breath all day and all night. Yoga practice makes us think about it. Surya namaskars make us mean it.
Here you will find a brief (and less than professional) video. I am leading you through surya namaskar A, in three variations. The first two times are the most basic and are meant for beginners. The next two are more intermediate and the final two are traditional (thus for a more advanced practice). Watch them. Try them. Practice them. Say them out loud. Say them in your head. Do all as basic. Do all as advanced. Make your practice your own.
(NOTE: Traditionally, surya namaskars are practiced 5 times in a row. There are 6 here, so that you can see two of each variation. On your own, I suggest doing groups of 5.)
Don't forget to breathe!
VIDEO: surya namaskar a