The Ancient Origins of Surya Namaskar: Sun Salutation

November 21, 2014    BY Zo Newell

The student-teacher relationship lies at the heart of yoga. It is through our teachers that we learn the way to liberation. In Vedic times, the relationship between guru and shishya (teacher and student) was quite intimate, almost familial—a very different model than we have today, where yoga students can sign up online for a training, pay through Paypal or credit card, and complete that training in a fixed amount of time. Back then, the student lucky enough to be accepted by their chosen teacher would live in that teacher's ashram until the teacher said they were done. In the meantime, the student was responsible for serving the teacher in practical ways: chopping wood, fetching water, tending the teacher’s animals and crops, and generally doing whatever was required. The teacher-student relationship was literally priceless, but when the student completed his studies, he owed his teacher a leaving fee (guru dakshina). This might be money, but usually not. Often it was a service, and it could be anything at all the teacher asked.

In Vedic times, the relationship between guru and shishya (teacher and student) was quite intimate, almost familial.

In the Yoga Sutra (chapter one, verses 24-26), Patanjali speaks of Ishvara as the primordial guru, the teacher of teachers since ancient times. Ishvara is not an individual, of course, but that high state of consciousness which transforms us from our usual, constrained, ego­-based state to one of transcendence and boundlessness.

Since ancient times, human beings have employed symbols for that ultimate teacher. One of the most enduring symbols is Surya, the sun. The beautiful Vedic prayer known as the Gayatri Mantra addresses the sun as "the one who illuminates our minds."

Hanuman, the great monkey ­hero of the Ramayana, was fascinated with Surya almost from birth. As a baby he saw the sun in the sky and mistook it for a high­-growing, luscious mango. Pushing off from the earth with his powerful monkey legs and stretching up through his long monkey arms, he leapt and soared to seize the sun—and succeeded (even as an infant, Hanuman had supernatural strength). He popped the sun into his mouth and began to eat it, causing the universe to go dark, which of course alerted the gods that something was very wrong. The sun scalded Hanuman’s mouth, but that stubborn monkey held on until Lord Indra hurled his diamond thunderbolt (vajra) straight at Hanuman's jaw.

As a baby he saw the sun in the sky and mistook it for a high-growing, luscious mango.

That did it. Hanuman opened his mouth and dropped the sun, and the universe's light returned to normal. But that vajra hurt him. In fact, it broke his jaw (hanu), giving him the nickname by which we know him today, “the one with the broken jaw.” The gods temporarily took away Hanuman's powers, but, because they were sorry about his jaw (although not about saving the sun), they also gave him special powers of strength, speed, shape-shifting, a gift for celibacy, a prodigious memory, and the qualities of a true lover of God, all of which would be restored to him in the future when he would meet and serve Lord Ram.

In the meantime, Hanuman needed an education. “Why not ask Surya?" his mother, Anjana, suggested. "He drives his chariot all over the world everyday and sees everything, everywhere. He knows all the sacred scriptures and he flies even higher and farther than you can. I'm sure he has forgotten all about that little fruit incident when you were a baby.”

So Hanuman asked Surya to be his teacher, but Surya refused. He had forgiven Hanuman for trying to eat him, but said, “I have a strict schedule, and no spare time at all. I must keep moving. I can't stop to teach you, and besides, how can you learn effectively when I am moving?”

“What if I keep up with you?" asked Hanuman. "Will you take me as your student then?”

“You won't be able to," replied Surya, "but all right.”

Hanuman flew up and positioned himself with his face to Surya's, and Surya—who appreciated persistence in a student—began to speed across the sky, expounding scripture as he went. Naturally, this meant that Hanuman was always traveling backward, with his face to his teacher, but isn't that as it should be? You shouldn't turn your back on your teacher, it's rude.

Some say that Hanuman’s  backward­-moving trajectory was the origin of surya namaskar (sun salutes). If you think about it, you will realize that as you perform the movements of surya namaskar, you do tend to wind up at the back of your mat and then have to return to the front in order to continue the series.

Hanuman was such a  dedicated student that he mastered all the Vedas within a week. And what was Surya’s leaving fee? Surya, who was perhaps a little relieved to see Hanuman go, ­declined any payment. "Watching a devoted student learn was its own reward," he said.

"Well then," said Hanuman, "I can only offer you my gratitude and namaskars(respectful greetings)." And so the surya namaskar series was born as Hanuman's guru dakshina to Surya.

The Practice

Historically, the sequence of poses now known as surya namaskar may have developed from an early sunrise practice honoring Surya as the source of energy and light for the world. In the 1920s, the Raja of Aundh introduced a fixed sun salute series into the schools of his tiny kingdom (now part of Maharashtra) and published a small book, urging every man, woman, and child to adopt this practice for the sake of their physical and spiritual health.

Historically, the sequence of poses now known as surya namaskar may have developed from an early sunrise practice honoring Surya as the source of energy and light for the world

Today, most yoga students learn some version of this practice early in their studies (either with or without mantras accompanying the movement). While there is no definitively “right” way to do this practice, it generally involves a sequence of twelve poses, including a symmetrical standing pose (tadasana), lifting the arms, bending to touch the earth, a lunge, the V-­shaped asana commonly known as downward facing dog (although it has other names), a prone pose which flows into an upward­-facing lift of the chest, followed by a return to downward dog, another lunge, and once again touching the earth in a forward bend, then lifting the arms, and returning  to the initial standing pose. Through each cycle of the series, you move backward, then forward. Here is a beautiful example of the classical practice. 

As you move through your surya namaskars, imagine that you are facing your teacher—not just any teacher, but Ishvara, your ideal, the one who guides and illuminates your life and universe, just as Surya does for the world. Offer up each movement with love and gratitude.


Consider: Have you ever misjudged a situation or a person, as baby Hanuman did the sun? What happens when we leap impulsively for a goal which is not what we think it is? Think of a time when you were determined to go for something important. Maybe a job or a relationship that looked as appealing as a luscious mango, when in fact it was actually larger, hotter, and more indigestible than you had imagined. Did anyone try to dissuade you from your mistake? Did you listen? What did it take to break the hold that the supposed “fruit” had on your imagination? Were you hurt in the process? Did you receive any unexpected gifts as a result? Do you think that your mistake was spiritually significant?

Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>