The Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) is a basic movement sequence in Vinyasa yoga. 

Prasana---sunrise-sun-salutation-yoga-water-beach

It became central to our modern practice in the early 20th century; however, it is rooted further back in time than our contemporary yoga of the body.

Though it has been contested by others, Chris Tompkins recently claimed that a very early form of sun salute-like movements can be found in a text of early tantra. His claims that, as early as 100 CE, a small Proto-Tantric sect called the Pashupatas had transformed Surya Namaskar into a practice that circumambulated a linga (phallus), representing both the Shiva and the sun.

Outside Tompkins’ claim, we know the Pashupatas incorporated linked poses inspired by the sacred dance tradition described in the c. 100 commentary on the Indian arts called the Natya Shastra

The Pashupata Sutras commentary that reveals this information was known to Krishnamacharya, the father of our modern Sun Salutation tradition.

Apparently, the ensuing Tantra tradition built on the work of the Pashupatas. The Pashupatas and Tantrics were transforming an older Vedic technology (see below) that had been used for centuries. In the Tantra tradition, we see Surya Namaskar integrated into a larger cycle of everyday rituals performed by householder initiates.

The argument for Sun Salutation in the Vedas comes from the variant chants for Surya Namaskar found there (c. 1500 BCE).

In this tradition, daily sun worship was meant to fortify the body and mind for a householder’s affairs du jour but not to take him to moksha (liberation) like the yoga traditions later articulated in the Upanishads (c. 500 BCE).

How Surya Namaskar was integrated into Hatha yoga in the early 20th century is told in Mark Singleton’s revolutionary book on modern yoga history, Yoga Body (2010). He tells us that, in the mid-1930s, “Suryanamaskar was not yet considered a part of yogasana.”

This is roughly true, but a close observation of the tradition reveals that there was rarely a strict demarcation between bodily practices used for worship, the stimulation of kundalini, the building of tapas for personal power or self-abnegation, or even for fitness.  The category of “yogasana” became more strictly defined in the 20th century, and, yes, at this point, Surya Namaskar was formally integrated into yoga’s pose vocabulary by Krishnamacharya and his lineage.

As a rite of sun worship, classic Surya Namaskar includes 12 points of prostration, each with its own posture and complex mantra.  These elements are correlated to the 12 houses (or dasas) of the sun.

The mantra follows the formula: “om” + bija (seed) mantra + paada (name for the sun) + “namaha.”

For example, in the first asana (what yoga calls Tadasana) one chants, “om-hraam-mitraya-namaha.”

Hraam is said to vitalize the brain, nerves and lungs, and Mitraya evokes the “friendliness” (mitra) and intimacy one experiences in response to the sun’s constancy. Chanting “mitraya” primes the practitioner for activating friendliness in his/her day.

The sun salutation is a nitya vidhi practice (nitya: “eternal, daily, obligatory,” and vidhi, “ceremony, application, way,” compare the Chinese kung fu, “daily effort”). Hence, it is meant to be practiced every morning—before, or as the sun rises.

Mantras [1] for one of these forms of Surya Namaskara come from three lyrics (ruchas) taken from the first book (mandala), 50th hymn (sukta), ninth recitation (anuvaka) of the oldest of the four Vedas, the Rig Veda. The verses used in the Aditya Prasna form of the chant are taken from the first chapter of the second youngest Veda, the Yajur Veda, in the portion called Taittiriya Aranyakam.

The longtime student of Krishnamacharya, Srivatsa Ramaswami, reports learning a set of sun salutation chants from the Aranyaka (“Forest Book”) of the Krishna Yajur Veda.  Its chant-cycle was interspersed with Sun Salutation prostrations and is 132 paragraphs long. The Gayatri Mantra is a part of it. 

Though it was a householder practice, the Indian epic myths, which gained centrality in the tradition as early as 400 BCE, grant the sun salutation magical powers.

In the epic poem, the Ramayana, the story of the king (and god) Rama’s fight to reclaim his wife, Sita, the Aditya Hridayam form of Surya Namaskara is taught to Rama by the sage, Agastya, before his fight with Ravana (his wife’s kidnapper).

There appear to have been divergent forms of the practice in the past, just as there are in the modern day.

That said, prostration practices follow familiar forms in India.

Indeed, at holy mountains, one can see sadhaks (renunciants) following patterns of salutations in circumambulation that are probably not that far changed from those done millennia ago. They toss a rock a few paces, then rhythmically kneel, prostrate, and stand as they move the many miles around a peak. This practice is called dandavat parikrama, “going around (parikrama) like a stick (dandavat)”—because the sadhak lays down each time like a fallen branch of a tree.

Such “mountain circlings by prostration” are perhaps more common with both indigenous Bon and Tantric-practicing Tibetans. Their circumambulations may go for as much as a hundred miles. The well-known parikrama of the mythic birthplace of Shiva, Mt. Kailash––where Krishnamacharya met his yoga guru––is 32 miles long.

These bowing practices have the generic name of “namaskars” and are said to make one integrate the attributes of the mountain—which, in the case of Mt. Kailash, is said to be the attributes of the god Shiva himself! Similar bowing marathons take place in mountain caves, where prostrations are done in sets of tens-of-thousands in months-long seclusions by Buddhist monks.

Guided by these monks, the Ukrainian yoga teacher, Andrey Lappa, reported participating in this activity for many weeks at a point early in his career.

Our earliest mention of the practice in the modern period comes from Brahamananda’s c. 1850 commentary on the c. 1450, Hatha Yoga Pradipika. There he says the strenuousness of sun salutations make them inappropriate for Hatha practice.

Later, Simhaji’s, 1897, Short History of Aryan Medical Science reports:

“There are various kinds of physical exercise indoors and outdoors. But some of the Hindoos (sic) set aside a portion of their daily worship for making salutations to the sun by prostrations. This method of adoration affords them so much muscular activity that it takes to some extent the place of physical exercise.”

Aundh high school students performing Surya Namaskar, 1924

Bhavanrao Pant (1868–1951) the King of Aundh (a small principality in British-ruled India) noticed this muscular activity and latched onto the practice as an Indian alternative to European styles of exercise in the late 19th century. He required it to be taught throughout Aundh as early as 1898—when he just was a minister in the government. This happened at the dawn of the modern yoga movement. (Swami Vivekananda had introduced America to yoga only five years before.) We get diagrams of the practice from Pant’s writing and from that of his son, Apa, (who became a diplomat when Aundh was dissolved after Indian independence in 1947).

We know that the Hatha yoga asanas and the pose-like karanas of Indian dance (described in the 1st century Natya Shastra) have remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years. 

We also see sadhu (holy man) tapasic (heat-building) practices where one or two arms are held up for months or years at a time. This practice is referenced in the 2nd Century Maitri Upanishad. The modern movements of the Sun Salutation practice, first popularized in books by Swami Sivananda beginning in the 1920s, may be centuries or millennia old.

Krishnamacharya, the guru of Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, was one of many prominent teachers who used the sun salutation in their early 20th-century yoga routines. However, he modified it to increase its athleticism, creating the form popular today.  

Popularized byt K. P. Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, it highlights danda (“stick”) movements: updog, downdog, plank and chaturanga. 

The bethak–the half-squat we call Utkatasana–and the dands are common exercises in Indian wrestling and Krishnamacharya may have learned them from his colleague, Kola Iyer, who employed them in routines with yoga and weights.  K re-engineered the Sun Salute with these vayam (fitness) add-ons to make the practice more athletic (partly for nationalistic aims) and then taught them to Jois and others. 

Jois made Sun Salutation and lightly modified forms of K’s work world-famous through his international teaching of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.  This worldwide work began in 1964, when the president of the Belgian Yoga Association, Andre Van Lysbeth, studied with Jois for two months.  Jois took his first trip abroad, lecturing at a Sao Paulo, Brazil yoga conference in 1973 and taught his first Americans–David Williams, Norman Allen, and Nancy Gilgoff in Mysore that year. In 1975, he traveled to America for the first time, teaching at Williams’ studio in Encinitas, California–which Williams handed off to Jois’s son, Manju, after KPJ left town. 

The sun salutes that use the dandas, bethaks, Warrior One, Tadasana, and other discrete elements now found in throughout Hatha Yoga, is a set vocabulary that Jois incubated in Mysore for 40 years before teaching beyond India’s borders after 1975.  Krishnamacharya taught similar forms as early as the late 1920s. He offered them in book form in Yoga Makaranda (1934) and Yogasanagalu (1941). 

In the 1980s, the Ashtanga teacher, Tim Miller, and the Iyengar teacher, Roger Cole, began mixing and matching Jois’ Surya Namaskar elements in Southern California. This began the modern Vinyasa yoga revolution.  They called their innovations “Surya Namaskara C,” but now we just call all of this creative yoga movement “vinyasa yoga.”

READ MORE AT ELEPHANT JOURNAL

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER