Why do we rush our Sun Salutations? How can we flow without rushing? With so many parts of our lives on sped up, stressed out auto pilot shouldn’t we be doing the opposite when we hit our mats?
On an early morning Goa beach walk I came across a friend practising Surya Namaskar and marveled as I always do at the indigenous grace of yogis from India. His Surya Namaskar looked like prayer in motion and I could see by the ease of his movements that he was immersed in his practice entirely not just physically. The flow was so beautiful that I sat down to watch and I had no doubt the Sun felt suitably acknowledged with such a pure practise offered to it. I wondered…why don’t I look like that when I practice? Because I am not a man from North India I hear you say. No, I mean why don’t I look how he feels? Or why don’t I feel how he looks?
As a gift to myself and the people who live with me I have been consistently committing to an early morning Surya Namaskar practice irrespective of how busy my day is- 14 hour Yoga Teacher Training days, running two yoga schools on opposite ends of the earth & having the huge responsibility of looking after people from all over the world when they come to India can sometimes have you reaching for the coffee pot instead of your cotton mat early morning. As a way to make sure my practise is not lost in the sea of busyness I commit to at least 8 Surya Namaskar A & 2 Surya Namaskar B every morning and try my best for an afternoon practice too. Great right?
Well actually I had been getting a bit of an unusual twinge in my sacroiliac joint and my wrists were not feeling the best and to be quite frank sometimes with all the huffin and puffin on my first Sun Sal B I extended my Savasana and left out the second one…As you can see I’m also practising Satya which means being honest about the fact that I wasn’t loving Surya Namaskar B and sometimes the whole Surya Namaskar sequence felt a little stressful.
I mentioned it to my friend He of the Graceful Practice over coffee (I could have said herbal tea but there’s that Satya again). I commended him on his artful Sun Salutations. His reply has transformed my morning practise in less than a week. “People believe that Sun Salutations are a warm up- it is a complete practise in itself and even in 10 lifetimes you will never even begin to reach the depths of Surya Namaskar”. Oh. So no skipping that last B for this life then?
I got to thinking about the depth of Surya Namaskar…why do we treat it as a shallow practice?
We talk about this depth at Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre- we tell our trainee teachers that Surya Namaskar was developed by the great yogis & sages past to bring a 12 hour spiritual practice into a condensed version for us regular souls who don’t have 12 hours a day or a cosy cave where we can work on ourselves.
The practice of Surya Namaskar is a complete practice it was never a “warm up”but somehow especially out of India it has gotten this tag. Yes of course it warms up the muscles and the joints but it does so much more than that. It purifies every chakra in the body, improves the health of the spine through movement in different directions , it has a hearty inversion, it energizes and restore all systems of the body and most importantly when practised correctly it flows with such ease that we experience Pratyahara (sense withdrawal/moving inwards) and eventually stillness. So why was I rushing and missing out on so much?
I wondered how we can as teachers and students get the grace back into our Surya Namaskar?
Here are some ways to bring awareness to your Surya Namaskar. If you are a teacher I encourage you to bring these elements into your class especially for more advanced classes where these practitioners have often disconnected from the finer detail of this practice
For one round of your practice hold every individual posture within the Surya Namaskar series for 5 breaths. Try this once for a week and see how it affects your practice. It has really done wonders for mine.
How is your foundation posture? Ready to bring you towards a state of bliss? This posture needs to be solid enough to carry you through your entire series.
- Weight evenly distributed between 4 corners of the feet
- Quads engaged
- Bandhas engaged and Ujjayi breath activated (if part of your practice)
- Shoulders back and down
- Lifting through the spine
- Body entirely engaged with prana and energy
Raising the Arms
Here we lengthen the body whilst staying rooted and stable in our foundation. We really open up the chest and this is a great opportunity to deeply oxygenate the lungs and thus support our practice to come.
- Shoulders away from the ears
- Lumbar region not overextended by opening (not over extending) the thoracic area whilst engaging mula bandha
- Bringing front ribs down to avoid rib flare
- Feet and legs stable with energy rising upwards
- Using our dristi and extending without compromising space at the back of the neck
Our first flexion of the spine after opening and extending in the previous motion.
- Weight evenly distributed between four corners of the feet without leaning into the heels or toes.
- Neck in line with spine as we fold into the pose
- Shoulders away from ears
- Straight spine. Avoid bump in thoracic area in your forward fold- you may need to bend your knees to maintain a straight spine.
This extends the spine after your first forward fold flexion and is a great posture for the well-being of our spine especially disc health.
- Neck in line with the spine
- Hands on shins and knees bent if necessary (to encourage straight spine)
- Chest open
- Step back to plank and lower to chaturanga if your landing makes a noise when you jump back (this means you need to develop more core strength to support your jump back instead of dumping weight on the lower back when you land. This strength will come with time and also by utilizing your bandhas)
A great strength building posture that will carry you through to up dog with integrity when done correctly. If you need to then drop to your knees chest chin for some time then do so and enjoy!
- Hips and lower back aren’t sagging towards floor (especially after jumping back)
- Elbows are in against the ribs when coming from plank to chaturanga not flared out
- Shoulders are away from the ears and not dropping towards the ground.
Urdva Mukha Svanasana
Upward facing dog is a wonderfully uplifting pose that opens the heart fully whilst stretching the hip flexors and building core strength and rhomboid strength.
- Using dristi to focus without compromising space at the back of the neck (imagine a tennis ball at the back of the neck when looking up- this protects the cervical spine)
- Micro-bending the elbows to avoid hyper-extension
- Shoulders away from the ears
- Hips off the floor (unless modifying in Cobra)
- Mula bandha engaged to protect the sacroiliac joint
- Udyana bandha engaged to act as a brace for the lower back
- Front of shoulders stacked over wrist joint
Adho Mukha Svanasana
As the head is lower than the heart down dog is an inversion that detoxifies and invigorates whilst using a range of mostly underutilized muscles to hold us in place. It is a great all over stretch and works wonders on tight hamstrings and opens up the back muscles whilst strengthening the arms and legs. Also excellent for the health of the Thyroid.
- Shoulders away from the ears
- Grounding into all areas of the palm, middle finger facing forward and middle toe in line with the center of the heel.
- Micro-bend in the elbows to avoid hyper-extension but also to utilize our arm muscles to hold us in this posture instead of hanging out on our ligaments and joints. Absolutely everybody can micro-bend hyper-extension or not to build strength and integrity and avoid long-term wear and tear.
- Back straight bend the knees if you need to. Don’t compromise a straight spine because your ego wants your heels on the floor. Any arch is the spine in this pose will really remove most of the benefits.
- Gaze at the naval only with neck still in line with the spine
Warrior in Surya Namaskar B
Although we are only in this posture for a short time during our Sun Salutations we can still benefit greatly from practising with integrity and mindfulness here.
- Hip Square! You may need to raise your back foot to square your hip. If you can keep your back foot down with the hip square then do so. However without square hips in this posture we can not fully stretch out the hip in of the extended back leg. If we can’t get the full stretch the hips aren’t opening to their full potential and we won’t be able to eventually square our hips with the back foot down. We also lose integrity in the spine if the hips are not square here. Again don’t let your ego throw your alignment off- it really doesn’t care about your progress!
- Knee over ankle. Stack the joints to protect them
- Shoulders away from ears and front ribs down
- Space at the back of the neck whilst extending
- Tail-bone tucked under to protect the sacroiliac joint
Many practitioners hold their breath without even realizing it during the practice of Surya Namaskar. Our body is being challenged by an unusual range of movement and it is easy to either lose our breath or for our breath to follow the postures instead of the other way around.
A fundamental element of any dynamic yoga practice is that the asana follows the breath. If our breath follows the asanas we can not link the asanas through breath which makes a for a flowing practice. With every extension we begin with an inhale, with every flexion we begin with an exhale.
Here is where Ujjayi breathing can be really helpful. Not every tradition practices Ujjayi breath and bandhas but during your Sun Salutations where your body may need extra oxygen to support these more invigorating postures it may be helpful. Try it out.
When you have spent some time on your alignment utilize the fact that you are fluent in this sequence to develop it into a moving meditation where you can deeply connect with yourself and drop away any tension you are holding. Be fully present. Try doing one round of your Sun Salutations with your eyes closed and your breath as your soundtrack.
For the last week I have given this practice the respect it deserves as a complete practice. I have committed to being concious & aware of every movement. I have let my breath lead instead of my mind and body, I have reconnected with a practise that I have been taking for granted and I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow through mindfulness.
We will leave you with this video of Lalit practising Surya Namaskar for a little inspiration 🙂
With love from all the crew at Himalaya Yoga Valley xxx