What is Surya namaskara ?
If you have been to Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, chances are you would have seen the 12 sculptures of Surya namaskara. What better way to welcome travellers to the birthplace of Yoga. The Postal department of India even released a set of 12 postage stamps depicting each of the asanas of this very Surya namaskara on the occasion of International day of Yoga 2016.
Surya namakara (Surya Namaskaram in Samsrutam ) is a popular practice and very few yoga sessions begin without Surya namaskara these days. Loved by yoga teachers and millions of yoga practices, this practice has become a staple fitness routine, be it on the beaches, parks, lawns, yoga studios, health clubs or any Yoga event.
I first practiced Surya Namaskara during my stay in Bihar School of Yoga in Munger and instantly fell in love with it, the practice has a flow, rhythm, breath, and a complete physical body engagement. Over the years Surya namaskara has been a regular part of my daily practice and my Yoga teacher training sessions. Having dabbled in various exercise forms, I have found very few practices that match up to the simplicity and effectiveness of Surya namakara.
Having been teaching Teacher training courses since 2006, Its has always been Surya namaskara that I teach first in these programs, Over the years I was curious to dig deeper and to look up on its origins, scriptural references and evolution. Its this little journey of questioning, learning, reconditioning and acceptance that I will be sharing to the yoga enthusiasts in this post.
Firstly, is Surya namaskara a Yoga practice?
“NO”, Suryanamaskara is not a Yoga practice. We don’t find any mention of the word “Surya Namaskara” in any Hatha yoga texts ( Hatha yoga is what is mostly practiced as Yoga across the world albeit only a modern version of Asana ) nor is it mentioned in the classical yoga text “Yoga sutra” of Patanjali and many of its authoritative commentaries.
Suryanamaskara of modern day Yoga class is neither related to the Vedic practice of Reverence and Worship of the Sun ( Aditya Hridayam, Surya Aradhanam or Sandhya Vandanam), as is often claimed.
So where is Surya Namaskara from?
With a questionable antiquity, Surya Namaskara seems like a fairly recent addition to the pool of Asanas. A similar type of body exercise called “ Dand ” has been practices by the wrestlers in India for a long time.
Sri Samarth Ramdas, the 17th Century Spiritual Guru of Shivaji Maharaja is said to have taught a version of Surya namaskara to Shivaji Maharaj’s army, this practice seems to have little or no Yogic connection but a clear physical preparedness objective.
In 1908 Sri Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi, the Raja of Aundh (Aundh is a small princely state in Maharashtra), may have modified Sri Samarth Ramdasji’s Surya Namaskar for body fitness and health and publishes a book in Marathi on Surya Namaskar. Sri Bhawanrao Pant Pratinidhi, later publishes an English book “Surya Namaskars (Sun adoration) for health, Efficiency and Longevity” in 1929.
This could have led to adaptation across Maharastra and later India, including many popular Yoga Gurus / Teachers of the time who accepted this effective practice and gave it their own flavour. Further breath, 12 of the Surya mantras and 6 Beeja mantras were intelligently layered alongside the body component of the practice to bring to its current day version.
Current day Practice:
Surya namaskara, as is practice today, is a set of asanas done with breath coordination, the sequence involves forward and back bends of the spine and engages the upper, lower and more importantly the core of the body. The various schools differ slightly in the asanas and or breath coordination. Some such schools are:
- Swami Sivananda, Rishikesh
- Bihar school of yoga, Munger
- Ashtanga Yoga (Vinyasa) of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, Mysore
- Sri Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari
- SVYASA, Bangalore
Both Sri Pattabi Jois, Mysore and Sri BKS Iyengar, Pune added their version of Surya Namaskara. By the way, I still haven’t deciphered “Surya Kriya” as taught by Sri Jaggi Vasudev, Isha Yoga, Coimbator.
5 good reasons Why Surya Namaskara can be part of a Yoga session ?
- Has some popular modern day asanas like Bhujanga, Parvata, Padahastha, Ashwasanchalan
- The practices makes the body supple and light
- Increases awareness of ones Physical body
- The practice is done with coordinated breath hence trains breath, regulates nervous system
- Coordinated, repeated practice can lead to a meditated state of mind
When done correctly, Surya namaskar can qualify to be the Vyayama of the Ayurvedic Dinacharya. To elaborate – here Surya namaskara is practiced with half of ones maximum strength, repeated until one breaks a mild sweat, and breathing through the nose throughout the practice – This way one can reap all the benefits of a good Vyayama.
On the contrary we see a different approach of Surya namaskara in popular practice, fast paced, without complete coordination of breath and with mouth wide open for breathing (panting is a more accurate description ). Add to this the craze of practicing 108 rounds of Surya namaskara ( sure is fun once in a while ). Many yoga injuries start cropping up right here, especially that of lower back, neck, shoulders, knee, ankle, wrist (wait a minute, thats almost the whole body ), increased blood pressure, blackouts dizziness etc.
Since we don’t find any scriptural reference of Suryanamskara in any Yoga texts its hard to agree on its purpose and benefits. The modern-day Yoga teachers claims umpteen number of physiological benefits ( many of these claims needs some real, honest research ) like weight loss, metabolism and endocrine regulation. Also most of these benefits are not unique to Surya namaskara, can be achieved, to varying degree, through other forms of exercises. For a Yoga puritan, Yoga doesn’t need Surya namaskar, rather Surya namaskara needs Yoga.
Lets accept, Surya Namaskara is here to stay, In the same “breath” lets be “mindful” that Surya namaskara is not a classical Yoga practice. Surya namaskara is part of most present day Yoga class, When used judiciously, Surya Namaskara can be a fantastic physical practice, this being our biggest identified need among yoga practitioners currently. It also goes well as a preparatory practice to Yoga Asanas and Meditation.