Cosmos and Cultures: Unearthing Yoga's Sun Salutations
A glowing bead of air, Held gently by gravity
Casting to the eye, A life to be and see.
Sun Salutations are the foundation stones of Yoga. Also known as Sūrya Namaskāra, they’re a series of twelve gracefully linked poses devoted to our Sun.
On the mat, they initiate focus and connect our body, mind and breath. But why do we salute the Sun, and what links does this star have to our consciousness?
The Sun has shone rays of timeless fascination across the whole of the World. Throughout history, the cosmic wonder has intrigued countless cultures and adoration of curious men. Because it created, preserved and destroyed all life, the grand luminary was understood as the "Life Force" (Prashna Upanishad, 1.6, 1.7) and the "Soul of the World" (Rig Veda 1.115.1).
"Sun is the sustainer of the Universe comprised of movable and immovable.”
(Rig Veda 1.115.1)
Sun, Science and Spirit
The science of Sun
A nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, the Sun is our Solar System's largest astronomical body (NASA, 2008). Its nuclear reactions in the core heats it to incandescence, illuminating itself.
Through orbits carried by its gravitational power, the timekeeping Sun dissolves a circadian rhythm into every organism’s nights, days and seasons.
On Earth, solar energy presents itself in innumerable forms. Plants convert it into chemical energy, which we then convert into kinetic, sound and various energies. And it is also the light and heat energy that evaporates water, produces winds, sustains the seas, and that which emblazes beautiful sights for us.
“The Sun is not in love with us,
Nor the corrosive Sea.
Yet both will burn our dried-up flesh
In deep intimacy.”
(Demetrios Capetanakis, “The Isles of Greece”, 1944)
Our ancestors heard the quiet spin of the Sun into every earthling's fate. They articulated this with Sun worship, which passed down through stories and grand monuments.
Across continents, the sanctified Sun found different names. The Mayans knew it as “Kinich Ahau”, the Egyptians as “”Ra”, the Chinese as “Taiyang Xingjun”, the Romans as “Mithras”, the Greek as “Helios”, the Hindus as “Surya”.
To many, the Sun filled the middle space between Heaven and Earth and was a mystical extension from the skies where the Gods lived. It was the celestial link between death and resurrection, between the unknown and the known.
Various depictions of Sun Gods: (From left to right) Kinich Ahau, Ra, Taiyang Xingjun, Helios, Surya.
Sun Salutes are attached strongly to spiritual meanings. The Indians characterised the Sun with five divine qualities (Stec, 2017, p.27). We’ve already mentioned three above, which are:
Prana (Vital life force)
Niyama (Daily rise and sets)
Shakka (Capacity to produce food through heat and light rays) And the last two being:
Ananta Pavitrata (Absolute purity)
Krimi Nashak (Destroys harmful germs).
For these five traits, Sun Salutes thus came out as a ritual worship to be accomplished with faith and devotion.
It was an attempt to replicate the rhythm of the Universe into the Human body and mind through three elements: Rhythm, Energy and Form (Stec, 2017, p.52).
Rhythm The unchanging repetition and pace that parallels universal and natural patterns (eg. Day and night, life and death, etc).
Energy/ Prana (Life force or Subtle energy) The coordination of breath with movement that rouses vitality and spirit, which unites the Sun both inside and outside the body.
Form (Asana/ Pose) An eloquent flow of twelve poses that each symbolized a zodiac phase, travelling the belt of celestial coordinates within the self.
The sequence was thus a technology of psychic hygiene that primed the human for the deeper processes of Yoga (ie. Samadhi/ Union).
Physical vs. Metaphysical Technique
Nonetheless, Sun Salutes can be detached from their spiritual weight for fitness searchers.
Here's how to approach them either physically or metaphysically, and their corresponding benefits!
*Note: 1 round = 1 side, 1 cycle = Complete 2 sides.
Even with many variations of Sun Salutations today, the Hatha version remains one of the most classic, referenced and practised.
If you’d like to find out how to do Sun Salutations and what other types there are, watch my latest video:
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