“To master the practice of the sun-salutations is a life-long pursuit.”

As one of my teachers commented on the Surya Namaskara in this way in the early days of my Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice, my immediate reaction was that of ‘OK, it’s physically hard, but there can’t be that much to it’. Little did I know.

A beautiful opening to the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, traditionally done in the early morning, the Surya Namaskara – ‘surya’ meaning the sun, and ‘namaskar’ to greet – is a complex assembly of postures linked to the breath. Facing east, we devote ourselves and our practice to whatever we feel comfortable with; it might be simply to the day ahead, to the wellbeing of our beautiful children, to a certain aspect of our practice (e.g. forgiveness) or as suggested in the shastras (yogic scripts), to something greater than us. It is a devotional practice of leaving our ‘self’ – as opposed to ‘Self’ – behind, recognizing there is more to life than how we see it, trusting that the right things will come our way, helped along by a regular spiritual practice. For a moment it is a bit easier to leave our ego behind, and focus on what really matters. We are clearing out the mental cobwebs, bringing clarity of mind.

The pure physicality of this demanding flow of asanas – postures, assists in taking our mind off the worries, preoccupations, judgments, and any persistent, un-ending thoughts we might be having. It is an immediate turning inward of our awareness. We let the sequence unfold, and encourage our minds to be fully focused on the breath.

After having done only the few postures comprising the Sun-Salutation A, we have already moved our spine in four of the six possible directions it can take. What an amazing achievement! This is why simply ‘greeting the sun’ is a practice in itself, and makes you feel a whole lot better in only 5 minutes. In the B variation of the sun-salute, we continue to challenge ourselves again on a deeper level.

Let’s have a look at this in more detail:

Beginning by inhaling and raising our arms above our head, we ‘lengthen/stretch’ the spine skillfully – I won’t go into the anatomical terms. Exhaling, we move forward and down, which includes both a forward bend and an inversion = upside-down posture. We have only taken one breath so far, and have already covered three movements of the spine. Then we jump back, and inhale into upward-facing dog-pose, which is a backbend. Breathing out continuing with downward-facing dog-pose, we are back in the combination of a mild inversion with a forward bend.

On a muscular level we stretch the whole of the back of our body, as well as the front. The chest opens for better breathing, which particularly, downward facing dog-pose helps us with; our shoulders are stretched, and prana – life force – moves more freely throughout our body, removing blockages and build-up around the joints. The wonderful process of detoxification has begun. Moving continuously from upward facing dog to downward facing dog flushes clean our system. We now also start to open our hips. And as much as we have stretched so many parts of our body after only a few sun-salutes, we have also strengthened it very efficiently.

Why do I get so excited about moving the spine in all these different directions?

What is fascinating about this is that there is always a mental and emotional component linked to the way we move our spine.  Bending forward makes us a bit more reflected and inward drawn. Back bending opens our heart, makes us more outgoing. Inversions teach us to look at things from another angle, quite literally. Once having moved a bit further into the AV series, we have also covered side stretches and twists, which amongst other things are about making decisions, and the direction we take in our lives.

Have you ever noticed that you feel kind of balanced after a yoga practice? You have covered an array of bodily movements and spinal stretches, some you could do well, and others, which were more challenging for you. After having addressed some of the different emotional states, the practice has leveled us out. Our ‘thoughts can be more easily directed exclusively towards one chosen object, and this direction can be sustained without distraction’ Yoga Sutra I.2 Yogah Citta Vrrti Nirodhah.

… just brilliant!

OM Shanti