I discovered yoga a decade ago while I was living in South Korea and had no real clue what yoga even WAS. I fell into it by mistake, because Korean bookstores sucked. Let me explain.
Back then I thought yoga was something only old people did once they could no longer do “real” exercise. I know, I know…
But I was in my mid-twenties, I was living in a foreign country, nobody spoke of yoga (like EVER), Lululemon didn’t exist and neither did “jeggings”, (let alone yoga challenges on Instagram), OR for that matter, Instagram itself.
I’m pretty sure YouTube wasn’t around yet (or if it WAS, I certainly knew nothing about it), smart phones weren’t yet a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eyes, and we didn’t run to Google to explain all that we did not yet know. I simply didn’t know any better, and all the information we now have at our fingertips to fill in our knowledge gaps wasn’t all that accessible.
Nobody I knew did yoga. If you wanted a mind-body experience, you simply had to prevent your mind from talking you out of going to the gym.
One day I ran out of stuff to read. But because I was a bibliophile and the selection of English books in the Korean bookstores was slim pickings, on that day (out of sheer desperation), I bought a yoga book. That yoga book contained some yoga poses with a simple “how-to” description, and that’s about it.
There was nothing to put yoga, its history, philosophy, breathing, bandhas, the mind-body connection into context or perspective. In fact, it was nothing more than some pictures of a ridiculously fit and bendy person doing some basic yoga poses (which certainly didn’t seem so “basic” to me at the time). And to my surprise, the model wasn’t old.
All I knew THEN was that those poses, in that order, were HARD (and all my gym experience did little to prevent me from feeling the pain)and that I felt really really good after doing them for just 15 minutes a day. In fact, I enjoyed them SO much that I did JUST that for an entire year, and I thought that yoga began and ended there. I didn’t know that there were other poses out there, or even different types of yoga. Yet I still felt awesome just from those 15 minutes a day.
I NOW know that all the mysterious poses in that book, done in sequence, were in fact Sun Salutations.
Fast forward almost a decade later, and here I am: a devoted yoga practitioner who is trying to fit yoga into her hectic everyday life. Recently I wrote about the yoga funk I fell into a few months following my teacher training, and how I got out of it. http://yogabender.ca/lost-that-lovin-feeling-me-too-how-i-got-back-in-my-yoga-zone/
Sun salutes played a big part in extracting me from my yoga slump.
I now begin each morning by doing at least 10 sun salutations (before coffee, before brushing my teeth, before checking my phone). If I want to keep going after those 10, I DO, but I don’t do any other poses. I just keep saluting. So much so, that it’s not only become a ritual, but something I actually look FORWARD to once I (grudgingly) leave my comfy, snuggly bed.
Unlike 10 years ago, these days I have more access to information, context and reasons that help me understand why certain things make me feel just “so”. Naturally I got curious about the trusted sun salute, and wanted to know everything about it. And the cool thing is, I can share this with others. That’s you. So here ya go.
What exaaaactly is a sun salute?
The sun salute (Surya Namaskara), is a sequence of 12 positions which are performed as one continuous exercise. Each posture counteracts the one preceding it, stretching the body in an opposing way while alternating between expanding and contracting the chest, regulating breathing.
Sun salutations are meant to be done facing in the direction of the sun, either at dawn or sunset. They were originally meant to establish a personal relationship with the sun and instill awe, respect, and gratitude for the universal energy in which we live. Of course, it’s not always possible in our urban reality to greet the sun outdoors, but we can still get the benefits of the sequences on our mats, indoors.
The breath plays an important role in the sun salutations, as it’s meant to lead you in, out, and through each pose like a wave. Here are two links which do an excellent job of demonstrating Surya Namaskara A and B while focusing on proper alignment and breath and offering modifications to cater to different levels of practice or flexibility.
What are the sun saluations all about, and where do they come from?
The ancient Rishis recommended practicing Surya Nmaskar because regular practice of this sequence enhances the solar plexus (the central point of the human body, located behind the navel and believed in ancient cultures to be connected to the Sun), which in turn is thought to enhance one’s intuition and creativity. The sun salutations were gradually developed over a long period of time, and when they reached their optimal form, they became an integral kriya (exercise) in Hatha yoga, which embodied the principle of “using the body to transcend the body”.
What’s the optimal time to do sun salutations?
The optimal time to do sun salutations is at sunrise (or early morning), on an empty stomach. Better yet, if you can do them outside, DO. It will start your day off by connecting you with the dawning of a new day while you feel the fresh air on your face. There are few things as invigorating as this feeling first thing in the morning. If you don’t have access to the outdoors, try doing them in front of a window. Even better, an open window! Unless it’s winter and you live in Montreal.
Why are sun salutations so important in our practice?
Sun salutations work out the entire body, including all your muscle groups. They are an amazing way to stretch, flex, and tone every muscle you have, while laying the foundation for all the asanas that will eventually follow. Even more importantly, they keep us committed to our yoga practice. If you do your sun salutations every day, you will experience all their benefits, and instill a regular discipline of getting on your mat. After all, it’s better to practice for 20 minutes daily than to practice for an hour once in a blue moon.
What are the benefits of sun salutations?
First off, they make you feel empowered. The sequences are designed to energize you, and coupled with proper breathing they make you strong, centered, powerful and confident. As you begin to let your breath lead your movements, the repeated action of movement and breath becomes a moving meditation that keeps you in the moment, gets your blood flowing, and at times can even feel like you are being carried through the movements by something other than yourself. It’s amazing, and hard to describe.
Here are more specific health and mental benefits from doing just 10 sun salutes a day:
1. Improved cardiovascular health
If you do the sun salutes at a faster pace, it will get your heart rate up and function as a cardio workout. Other than toning and stretching your muscles, it gets your blood pumping faster and flowing through the veins, improving circulation throughout the body and flushing out harmful toxins.
2. Improved digestive system
A daily dose of sun salutes will keep your respiratory and digestive system healthy, as it gets oxygen circulating through your system and the lymph nodes pumping out good stuff while getting rid of accumulated “bad stuff” in your system.
3. Increased metabolic rate
Spoiler alert: this will help you stay (or get) fitter and leaner. Which means you can eat more It’s said that Surya Namaskar can do what months of dieting can’t: they help you lose excess belly fat by stimulating the thyroid gland, which is responsible for regulating your body’s metabolic rate, which (aside from toning you up), will ALSO increase your energy levels. You’re welcome.
4. Toned and strengthened muscles
Don’t be fooled by these seemingly simple poses. Sun salutes can be a strenuous workout on their own (if done at a faster pace, at least 10 times), or a great post-workout muscle stretcher. Either way, you’ll see and feel the difference in your muscle tone, and I can pretty much guarantee you that you WILL feel sore the first few times you do them. I had a student who was a true yoga skeptic, who runs, lifts weights, and is an avid gym goer. During our first private session, I taught her nothing but Surya Namaskara A and B (modified), and she called me the next day to apologize for any and all of her “yoga is for woosies” comments (there were many). She admitted she never felt more challenged, humbled or sore during or after a strenuous workout. And since that day, she fell in love with yoga, and keeps coming back for more. Enough said.
5. Improved balance/posture and decreased back/neck aches
Sun salutes will help align (and lengthen) your spine, improve your balance, and correct posture. By strengthening the muscles around your neck and spinal cord, they help prevent/rectify neck and backaches. Oh yeah, and you’ll eventually notice your shoulders naturally pulling back and down, which not only make you feel and look taller, but will also help you involuntarily stretch out and tuck in your abs. It’s a win-win.
6. Prevents and aids digestive disorders
The contracting, strengthening and stretching movements, done in sequence, help release trapped gasses that lay dormant in your digestive tract. At the same time, these movements also help your stomach secrete digestive enzymes that break down the food you consume more efficiently.
7. Improved skin tone and energy levels
By stimulating your circulation and activating deep breathing, sun salutations oxygenate the blood and remove toxic carbon dioxide from the body, which in turn improve skin tone and increase overall energy levels. Looking and feeling good? Yes, please!
8. Heightened “sixth sense” and intuition
With a regular practice of Surya Namaskar (ideally combined with meditation), the size of your solar plexus increases (from the size of a peanut to that of of palm). The solar plexus is also known as the second (more intuitive brain responsible for “gut feelings”), and when it expands, this in turn heightens our intuitive abilities and ability to stay clear-headed yet focused.
9. Decreased stress levels and anxiety
Sun salutations help you sleep better and reduce overall stress levels.
10. Increased mental, physical and emotional well-being
The Endocrinal system plays an essential role in determining our attitude towards life and our mental and physical well-being, as it consists of hormones which interact with each other. Surya namaskara helps remove hormonal irregularities by massaging hormone secreting glands and improving their blood flow, which in turn prevents or minimizes illnesses that are a direct result of hormonal imbalances, such as diabetes. Mental tension also causes imbalances in the endoctrinal system, and Surya namaskara helps calm and clear the mind.
So, there you have it. Even if you only do 10 sun salutes a day, you’ll reap the benefits. And who knows? Maybe you’ll just want to keep on going.