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What is Sun Salutation?

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

The origin and meaning of Surya Namaskar

Angeles Moreno / 2009 / Acrylic on canvas

Be still like a mountain, and flow like a great river.” - Lao Tzu.

Most yoga practitioners are familiar with the sequence of Surya Namaskar as part of a class warm-up. But where does it come from, and what does it mean within Hindu culture?

When I first started practicing yoga, the first sequence I learned was the Sun Salutation, Surya Namaskar. But, honestly, I had not given the origin of the sequence, nor its meaning much thought until I became a teacher (a little late, I know).

When I started to teach meditation using Surya Namaskar, I began to study and understand its meaning. In essence, Surya Namaskar can manipulate the physical body to produce positive change. However, it also offers an avenue to tap into the subtle body - the combination of the mind, the intellect, and the ego. Through the subtle body, the yogi observes.

If you’re curious about the sun salutation, below is a simple summary I’ve compiled from years of attending philosophical lectures and having conversations with yogis in India.

Surya Namaskar as part of a class warm-up. But where does it come from, and what does it mean within Hindu culture?

Surya - The sun

Ganga River, Varanasi

We can’t begin to answer any questions without explaining the ancient Vedic tradition of sun worshipping across India.

The Vedic religion existed well before Hinduism, and deeply impacted the core of this widespread belief, as much of its texts, mantras, rituals, and theology were adopted and adapted into the expansive and ineffable core of Hinduism. Yogis became particularly interested in studying the sun and how physical space and weather affect our environment.

Across a myriad of religions, the sun is a strong spiritual figure. It is worshipped in many different forms: people use flowers, rice, incense, and chanting as invocations to the sun. Yogis believe in the benefits of sun worship.

Although the dynamic sequence of Surya Namaskar is not mentioned in the traditional Hatha yoga scriptures, it was later included in the official practice. The 12 poses in Surya Namaskar –created by Patanjali Maharishi and adopted by Hatha yoga practitioners– are a way for yogis to use their bodies as a medium to worship the sun.

Namaskar - salute, worship

It’s important to remember that “worship” has many different meanings in each religion and language. In Hebrew, it means to bow down and submit. In Greek, it has three meanings; one literally translates to kiss or adore, much like how a dog licks its owner's hand. There are several kinds of worship in the Christian Bible, one of which is to obey and to serve. In Hinduism, it means to respect, show gratitude and return kindness.

Many Hindus pour a bowl of water out from where the sun rises. In yoga, the heart chakra Anahata is the region of the sun. Yogis offer water to the internal sun instead of the external sun; they pour it onto the chest to show respect and gratitude and to return kindness to the inner sun.

Ganga River, Varanasi

When yogis move, they offer their body and mental space to worship the sun. The yogis are interested in finding the connection between the sun in our solar system and their own inner sun. They have created and practiced Surya Namaskar to worship the sun inside us. Surya, the sun, represents the vitality in the body. Yogis’ interpretation of Surya Namaskar is to perceive the sun inside. Did you know that’s why you can’t find a single yogi temple in India? Yogis believe that the body IS the temple and that our mind is the tool. We observe and worship ( i.e., return the kindness and show gratitude) not only to the beings around us but also to the consciousness inside us, and we worship it with our minds.

The origin of Surya Namaskar

In Vedic culture, certain gods are seen as energies. All the different gods are seen as one concept; the concept of god has no form. However, Yogis recognize the importance of the sun and the inner sun.

There’s no indication of when or by whom Surya Namaskar was created. The anthropologist Joseph Alter states that Surya Namaskar was not recorded in any Haṭha yoga text before the 19th century. It is also not recorded in the Vedas. A bit of a letdown, isn’t it?

Document-based history has its limitations. History based on written documents often only tells us about the lives of the rich and powerful. That’s because until a century or two ago, most people couldn’t read or write. But our understanding of collective learning suggests that they probably started to share their knowledge early on.

Despite widespread illiteracy, those accounts started to become the basis for further historical accounts. In addition, written documents began to be seen as more authoritative than oral stories because once something was written down, it was much harder to keep changing the narrative. So, despite the unfortunate fact that we don’t know who or when it was created, we do know how it became what it is today.

After learning about the meaning of the translation in Sanskrit and the culture and origin behind the practice…

What do you think?

  • What is your intention or purpose when you practice Surya Namaskar?

  • After reading this, might it change the way you practice Surya Namaskar?


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