“The sūryanamaskāra form the foundation for the entire method of the practice of yoga—and, as we all know, if one’s foundation is firm, then whatever is supported by it will be stable as well. So, if the sūryanamaskāra are first learned properly and their inner meaning grasped, then all the various āsanas, prāṇāyāmas and the like that follow them will be useful and beneficial in their outcomes.” —Preface from Sūryanamaskāra by Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois (First Edition, 2005, Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute)
Aṣṭāṅga yoga is centered around the practice of sūryanamaskāra (sun salutation) developed by Śrī K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century. Familiar to many, Jois’s sūryanamaskāra sequence has been incorporated into—and influenced—several yoga styles around the globe. Sūryanamaskāra, however, is a tradition thousands of years old in which the sun is used as an object of devotion for the purpose of bringing good health and wellbeing, and seeking an understanding of higher truth and liberation from saṃsāra (the cycle of birth and death). In his book Yoga Mala, Jois fully describes the practice of sūryanamaskāra and the importance of following its principles outlined in the yoga śāstras (sacred texts containing philosophy and teachings for any given subject).
Here is a brief overview of what you need to know about sūryanamaskāra, which contains all the elements essential to yoga, including the physical, philosophical, and spiritual foundations. More specifically, these key elements are made of up vinyāsa, inhalation, exhalation, dṛṣṭi (gazing or looking place), bandhas (energetic locks), and dhyāna (meditation). Without including all of these elements, Jois indicates that yoga offers “little more than exercises and not true sūryanamaskāra.” As you practice suryanamaskāra, pay attention to these details and you will experience how each one functions as an inseparable part of your practice.
The Elements of Sūryanamaskāra
The sanskrit term vinyāsa can be broken down to “vi” + “nyāsa,” which literally means “special” + “placement.” The blending of these words refers to the order in which something is arranged or sequenced. For the purpose of Aṣṭāṅga yoga practice, Jois translates vinyāsa as a “breathing movement system,” or the way that movement and breath (both inhale and exhale) are integrated throughout the āsana practice.
Sūryanamaskāra introduces the practice of vinyāsa to teach you how to synchronize movement and breath. When the breathing system is strengthened and synchronized correctly with movement, the dynamic action of breathing supports each position taken in sūryanamaskāra, resulting in improvements in vitality, strength, flexibility and focus.
Covered in more detail in this tristhāna article, the “looking place” facilitates the opening of the body, both physically and energetically. Above all, it enhances concentration, allowing you to keep your mind focused in one place.
Related: Yoga Tutorial: Sun Salutation A
These “energetic locks” are mentioned in Yoga Mala, but not explained. It is believe that one should only learn this principle directly from a qualified teacher, which is why I will not go into detail about it here.
Jois writes extensively about the role of the sun as the spiritual and philosophical focus for the practice of sūryanamaskāra. It is meditation on the sun that brings about the ‘inner meaning’ of sūryanamaskāra. The sun is understood as the giver of life to all living things on the planet. It is imperative for our health and vitality. Without the sun’s light and energy, received daily, life on earth would cease to exist. Hence why the sun is eulogized in ancient scriptures with the following names (to mention only a few):
Pūṣān – the one that gives nourishment
Apāmpatiḥ – the master of waters
Gabhastimān – the one that possesses all rays
The sun as the object of meditation during sūryanamaskāra brings to mind these qualities, which have the capacity to bring about great improvements in your physical, mental, and spiritual health. Jois also discusses a mantra from the Aruṇa Praśna Upaniṣad that pays homage to the sun and guides us to ‘discern divinity in all objects of the senses through the strengthening of the senses.’ He suggests keeping this mantra in mind while practicing sūryanamaskāra and states that “it is a prayer not merely for the strength of the body, senses and the mind, and for the elimination of disease, but for inner happiness and ultimate liberation from transmigratory existence. If such happiness is to be gained, it can only be so by the healthy, not by the sick.” Therefore, it is by practice of sūryanamaskara with attention to all these aspects that we are able to gain good health, long lives and the full benefits of yoga.
If you are a beginner student to Aṣṭāṅga yoga, it is desirable to practice sūryanamaskāra diligently, paying attention to all the elements within. This will help you build a solid foundation upon which the practice of Aṣṭāṅga yoga can develop and bear fruit. It is important to remember, you should learn these methods with a teacher who is not only well versed in the science of yoga, but also who has attained the benefits of yoga through many years of their own practice.