For several years now, I have begun my daily yoga practice with surya namaskar, salutations to the sun. As I raise my arms in the opening gesture that prefaces these twelve flowing movements, I find myself spontaneously affirming my intention to greet whatever the new day may bring in the same open way. As my palms meet overhead, I observe how my body enjoys the stretch and, as I lower them slowly to mid-chest, I warm to the quiet surrender of the age-old experience of praying hands and heart. Continuing through the sequence of movements, I am aware of being at first opened and then grounded, over and over again. I also sense that each and every day, in some mysterious way, this practice is enabling me to get in touch with yet another aspect of my inner self previously unknown to me.
For several years now, I have begun my daily yoga practice with surya namaskar, salutations to the sun.
The First Attempts
Of course, I was not always able to enjoy moving through the sun salutation in the same way that I do now. As a yoga instructor, I am often reminded of how easy they appear to be to the novice watching them being done well, and how awkward our first attempts feel while we are developing the strength and flexibility that the movements require. I recall one student’s perplexed expression as she looked back at the foot that she had expected to be beside her hand: “Hmmmm!” she said to herself, “that will take a bit of time!” Quite so!
“Don’t bother,” I assured her, as I had once been assured, “just get it there and continue flowing.” And then there’s the full frontal collapse that sometimes occurs when the body makes its maiden voyage through the arms and into bhujangasana, the cobra. In my own novice days, just watching surya namaskar being done properly was enough to imbue me with a sense of calm and fluidity. Knowing that the body’s acumen often follows the mind’s interest, and wanting to be able to flow through this elegant sequence myself, I persevered. By breathing my way through the rough spots, I, too, was eventually able to enjoy more glide than glitch.
The Gifts of Yoga
Discovering the power of the breath and developing a greater body awareness are probably the two most treasured gifts I have received from hatha yoga. They have made me much more sensitive to the breath’s effect on the nervous system’s ability to function properly. Like too many women, I was a shallow breather and, like so many people today, I lived almost entirely in my head. I now have a much healthier nervous system and, at the age of 62, enjoy a sense of well-being I had never expected to have. And, wonder of wonders, I look forward to growing even older with all that entails, including lots more to let go of and to learn, and still deeper insights into the more subtle aspects of being.
Surya namaskar has deepened my sense of the limitlessness that the Upanishads invite us to realize we are and what it is that prevents us from being that. As I face the rising sun throughout the year, I remind myself that I am experiencing maya, that the sun only seems to be moving. It’s true that at summer solstice I see it rising over a particular group of trees and at winter solstice I see it rise at the end of the laneway. Recognizing the fact that illusion, maya, superimposes itself on reality in this and in so many other ways opens me to the vast possibilities of what lies beyond. It also enables me to contemplate pure is-ness, unconditioned knowing, and the awesome potential of fullness that the term sat-chit-ananda (truth-consciousness-bliss) conveys.
Surya namaskar has deepened my sense of the limitlessness that the Upanishads invite us to realize we are and what it is that prevents us from being that.
I have been fortunate in wanting my practice of yoga to be grounded in the teachings of the ancient rishis and those who have a deeper understanding of what life is really all about. And this study has imbued my practice of surya namaskar, yoga asanas, and pranayama with an even deeper meaning and purpose—which is probably why I keep at it. Rather than feeling diminished by this all-encompassing take on life, I find it an enormous relief to be reminded that I am, at one and the same time, part of the whole and the whole itself, as is everyone and everything. At the same time, the arch- and ray-like movements of surya namaskar, in conjunction with the breath, speak to me of the inherent connections between my body, mind, and spirit via the central nervous system, and to the universe at large via the continual exchange of prana. As I face the morning sun, whatever egotistical notions I may be harboring about my place in the overall scheme of things evaporate, and feelings of wholeness and gratitude take their place. What is more, the constant movement that surya namaskar entails reminds me that the energy that is the universe is the very embodiment of change, and that we human beings would be better off becoming more comfortable with this fact rather than persisting in our eternal search for a permanence that simply does not exist.
The Qualities of the Sun
That we depend on the sun’s attributes for our existence is a well-known fact, but we are not usually as familiar with how these attributes can be used as metaphors for the more spiritual aspects inherent in human life. During my Vedic chanting studies, I came across a group of twelve mantras for paying homage to the twelve qualities of the sun. These are to be chanted mentally as the practitioner moves through the twelve movements of surya namaskar. And because the meanings of these mantras recall for me the light of knowledge that replaces the darkness of ignorance, I began to use them in my own practice. I find them particularly helpful when my morning mind is overly eager to rush into the activities of the day. As I move through the sequence, the more subtle energies of breath and unspoken sound pervade my entire being with a deep calm, strength, and clarity that shows me where my priorities really lie.
The Twelve Mantras
1. Om mitraya namah: Raising my arms upward, I take in the abundance and well-being of friendship and compassion, mitra.
2. Om ravaye namah: Stretching into a backbend, I honor Rava, “the twelve,” the collective name for the twelve suns known to the rishis.
3. Om suryaya namah: As I move through the forward bend toward the floor, my fingertips tracing its own orbit, I feel the abundance and fullness of the noon and summer solstice sun, surya, and invite the radiance of the wisdom available to humanity if we would but humble ourselves enough to receive it. Hands now on the floor beside my feet, body bowed in obeisance, I give thanks and enjoy the balancing effect of being in contact with the ground.
4. Om bhanave namah: One leg stretched out behind, my lower body sinks into the lunge, chest open wide to receive the prana of every inhalation, the mind pervaded with the brightness and beauty of perception and knowledge that is bhana.
5. Om khagaya namah: Pressing up with my arms into adho mukha svanasana, I am aware of the energy coursing through my body, removing the obstacles to health and well-being, just as a fast-flowing river flushes aside the debris in its path. Khaga, the sacred Ganges’ celestial equivalent, reminds me that this practice is flushing away obstacles to my spiritual health as well.
6. Om pusne namah: Sweeping along the mat, as I drop first my knees and then my chest, my body completes the orbit that will open it yet again, reminiscent of the paths of dark and light that mark the summer and winter solstices, governed by that aspect of the sun known as Pusan in Vedic lore.
7. Om hiranyagarbhaya namah: Stretching up into bhujangasana, the cobra, it is as if I too am emerging from the “primordial egg,” just as the subtle principle, consciousness, is said to be born out of the Golden Egg known as hiranyagarbha.
8. Om marichaye namah: Pressing into adho mukha svanasana again, I am reminded of the radiance of mirage, maricih, that can so easily pass itself off as reality if we are not vigilant. The inverted V posture serves to reinforce the two-sidedness of reality and mirage, deceivingly symmetrical in appearance but not at all in fact.
9. Om adityaya namah: Body arched once more into a lunge, I feel the warmth of Aditi, Mother of the twelve sun gods, aditya being their collective name.
10. Om savitre namah: Stretching forward and down, the sense of obeisance returns, this time to Surya Savitri, the female aspect of the sun, goddess of both the dawn and the winter solstice, the time of deepest reflection and inner connections.
11. Om arkaya namah: As I return to the upright position and stretch my arms overhead and back, I open to the light, warmth, and healing power of the sun’s rays, arka, breathing deep into the solar plexus to stoke the fires, also known asarka, that enable me to emit love and light to others and to carry out my duties.
12. Om bhaskaraya namah: As I lower my arms, palms together, my body and mind reflect the sun’s light, the sun itself but a reflection, bhaskarah, of That from which it derives its existence, as do we all.
I never fail to enjoy the sensations of released tension transforming itself into abundant energy within the realm of my own inner experience.
When I have completed twelve rounds, I open my arms wide, raise them, and then let them fall in a large all-embracing arc, affirming, once again, my intention to embrace whatever the day might bring. Remaining quietly in place, eyes lightly closed, feet anchored by the ground, observing the breath and the body’s condition, I never fail to enjoy the sensations of released tension transforming itself into abundant energy within the realm of my own inner experience.
On some days, when my mind is naturally quiet, it may not pick up on the twelve mantras; instead, it simply watches the body’s response to the bends, stretches, and rhythmic breathing of the movements that keep the spine flexible and the mind focused. It also notes how attentive or, more to the point, inattentive, I am to my practice. Surya namaskar having worked its magic, I sink to the floor in shavasana, in full contact with the ground, to ready myself for the nine asanas and pranayama that complete my morning practice. As much as I yearn for a world in which everyone knows such peace and fullness, for the moment it is enough to be open to their dawning within this aspect of creation that I call “myself.” Om surya namaskar.
Beverley Viljakainen is a grassroots health care advocate and shiatsu therapist who shares her knowledge of yoga with those who are finding their way back to health.