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Yoga: Sun Salutation

Body+Soul, 2007

As I inhale and raise my arms, stretching toward the ceiling, I can almost hear my waist sigh with relief. If my shoulders could talk, they'd whimper -- too many hours at the computer. Gradually, though, I feel their stiffness melt away. My hamstrings, at first cold and tight, begin to release with each forward bend. Easing into the flow of one pose to another, my chest opens, my breathing deepens, and warmth spreads across my body. And as for that constant mental chatter that normally scatters my focus? After several energizing rounds, it all but disappears.

No matter how many Sun Salutations I do (and after 10 years of practicing yoga, I'd put the estimate somewhere around 5,000), I'm always amazed by the way a few sets leave me refreshed, revived, and ready to meet the challenges of my life. Known as surya namaskar in Sanskrit, this sequence links 12 yoga poses, one for every month of the solar calendar. It's performed in one continuous flow in tandem with the breath, which helps the mind focus and relax. On a subtle-energy level, the series encourages prana (energy) to flow more freely through the body, while physically, it strengthens, tones, and promotes flexibility from head to toe.

Ancient yogis traditionally practiced the sun salute at sunrise, facing east. While the sequence has seen countless variations throughout its rich history, the idea of paying homage to the sun hasn't changed. The name offers a hint as to why. Surya in Sanskrit means sun, but it also refers to fire, long associated with transformation in the yogic tradition. Namas refers to a bow or show of respect, while kara, which shares an etymological root with karma, means making or doing. "Taken together," says Nicolai Bachman, Sanskrit teacher and author of "The Language of Yoga," "surya namaskara means 'making reverence or acting respectfully toward our own ability to learn and change." By practicing sun salutes, we invite the warm glow of enlightenment into our lives to grow more grounded, open, supple, and strong.

For many practitioners, the beauty of this flowing series lies in its completeness: The sun salute contains all the elements of a good yoga class. Moving through standing poses, forward bends, back bends, and even a mild inversion in Downward-Facing Dog, the sequence leads your spine through a full range of flexion and extension. But there's a spiritual element, too. "Every time you step outside, the radiance of the sun naturally inspires feelings of gratitude, relief, relaxation, and joy. The Sun Salutation magnifies these feelings," explains Shiva Rea, M.A., a renowned teacher, yoga innovator, and creator of more than a dozen yoga CDs and DVDs. "Just as the sun is the source of life on our planet, Sun Salutations are a way of reconnecting to your own source."

While you'll find as many versions of surya namaskar as you will different yoga schools that teach it, the sequence we present here is the most common. If you're brand new to yoga, go slow with it. Start with three or four rounds and gradually work your way up to 12 after several weeks -- or months -- of regular practice. How do you know if you're pushing too hard? Your breathing will tell you. "Always link your breath to the movements and rest if your breathing gets short," explains Srivatsa Ramaswami, a longtime student of Indian yoga master Krishnamacharya and author of "The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga." "The breath is the friend of the mind. If you can keep your breath smooth and under control, you'll unite your body and mind -- and that's one of the definitions and a main goal of yoga."

Text by Shiva Rea

Sun Salutation
Perform asanas each time with a fresh mind and with a fresh approach.

1. Tadasana
Translation
Mountain Pose

How to Do It
Stand with big toes touching, heels slightly apart. Create a straight line from ear to shoulder to hip to knee to heel. Relax your shoulders. Engage the legs; lift your kneecaps. Bring your hands together in front of your heart, keeping the collarbones and chest broad. Lift the crown of the head upward, as you take deep breaths in and out through your nose.

Modification
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes facing forward.

What It Does
Energizes the legs and focuses your attention, grounding you in the present moment.

2. Urdhva hastasana
Translation
Upward Hand Pose

How to Do It
On an inhalation, sweep your arms out to your sides and bring the palms to touch up above your head, keeping your shoulders down. Reach through the sides of your body so your torso becomes long, gently bringing your gaze to your hands.

Modification
If you begin to feel compression in the shoulders, keep your hands 6 inches apart, palms facing each other, and look straight ahead.

What It Does
Opens the chest area and the lungs, increasing your lung capacity. "From the yogic perspective," says Rea, "this pose activates the solar, or expansive, energy in your being."

3. Uttanasana
Translation
Standing Forward Bend

How to Do It
As you exhale, sweep your arms out to the sides and bend at the hips to come into a deep forward bend. Bring your fingertips to the floor alongside your feet. Let your head gently release toward the floor.

Modification
If you feel tight in your hamstrings or lower back, bend your knees so that you can bring the fingertips to the floor, or rest your hands on blocks.

What It Does
Stretches the backs of the legs and lengthens the spine. "This bowing forward is the essence of the Sun Salutation," Rea explains. "You’re bowing to the perfection of our solar system -- how we're moving around the sun and how it forms the rhythm of our life."

4. Lunge Pose

How to Do It
Keeping your fingertips where they are, inhale and take a giant step back with the right foot. The left knee bends at a 90-degree angle. (Note: In your subsequent rounds of Sun Salutation, alternate the lunging leg to keep both sides of the body evenly balanced.)

What It Does
Opens the legs and pelvis; warms up and energizes the base of the body; elongates the spine.

5. Plank Pose

How To Do It
As you exhale, bring your palms to the floor and step the left foot back to meet the right (a starting push-up position). Grip the mat with your fingers to take the weight off your wrists. Reach the top of your head forward and your heels back. Engage the abdominal muscles to come into one even line. Be careful not to let the hips either rise up higher than the lower back or sink down toward the floor.

What It Does
Activates the entire body; builds upper-body and core strength; creates heat; develops your sense of confidence and power.

6. Chaturanga Dandasana
Translation
Four-Limbed Staff Pose

How to Do It
At the end of an exhalation, bend your elbows straight back and lower your body down to the bottom of a push-up. Keep elbows close to your sides. Continue lengthening through the heels and the crown of the head to keep your entire body long and engaged, as you draw the navel in to activate your core muscles.

Modification
Lower the knees to the mat, coming into a modified push-up.

What It Does
This pose helps to build strength throughout the entire body. "Being strong is just as important as being flexible," notes Rea.

7. Urdhva mukha svanasana
Translation
Upward-Facing Dog

How to Do It
As you inhale, roll forward over your toes and straighten your arms. Your hips, thighs, and shins should all be off the floor. Press into the tops of your feet and palms, as you melt the heart forward past your arms. Gaze straight ahead.

Modification
Come into cobra pose instead: Rest hips and legs on the floor and straighten the arms comfortably, reaching the chest forward through the arms.

What It Does
Creates suppleness in the spine while opening the chest, lungs, and heart. So vital to our well-being, this area is frequently compromised by chronic bad posture. "Creating openness across the chest is strengthening and revitalizing," explains Rea.

8. Aadho mukha svanasana
Translation
Downward-Facing Dog

How to Do It
As you exhale, roll back over the toes and lift the hips to come into an inverted V shape. Press your fingers into the mat and reach the thighs back, lengthening the sides of the body and the spine. Keep your shoulders down. Release the weight of your head.

Modification
If the hamstrings or lower back feel tight, bend your knees slightly. If you are unable to keep your arms straight, bring the knees to the floor and push back into Child's Pose.

What It Does
Serves as a counterpose to Upward-Facing Dog; cools the mind; improves circulation.

9. Lunge Pose
How to Do It
As you inhale, step forward with the leg you initially stepped back with, coming back into Lunge pose. Keep your front knee at a 90-degree angle and your fingertips on either side of the front foot.

10. Uttanasana
How to Do It
Exhale and step your back foot forward; fold over your straightened legs, keeping your fingertips on the floor. Take a moment to notice whether your hamstrings or back muscles feel any looser than they did at the beginning of the cycle.

11. Urdhva hastasana
How to Do It
As you inhale, rise back up to a standing position as you sweep your arms out and up over your head.

12. Tadasana
How to Do It
Exhale and float your arms back into prayer position. Keep the chest broad, the legs engaged, and the spine long as you enjoy the stillness of this pose. You can choose to end your session here or go on for another round.

Add a Chant
Bring more energy to your Sun Salutations by saying this mantra before and after you practice. Called the Gayatri Mantra (gayatri comes from a root word meaning "sing"), it's considered among the most powerful of the yogic incantations. "In the yogic tradition, light equals knowledge," explains Bachman. "This particular mantra is about linking the sun with your thoughts and enlightening yourself by means of higher knowledge." First recorded in the Rig-Veda, the ancient Hindu scripture dating back more than 5,000 years, the Gayatri Mantra is a beautiful -- and meaningful -- prayer for sunrise, noon, or sunset.

Chant: Om bhur bhuvah suvah
Pronunciation: Om boor boo-vah-ha soo-vah-ha
Translation: Om, earth, atmosphere, heaven

Chant: Tat savitur varenyam
Pronunciation: Tut sah-vee-toor vah-rain-yum
Translation: May we meditate on the radiant light

Chant: Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Pronunciation: Bar-go day-vass-yuh dee-ma-hee
Translation: Of that brilliant creator

Chant: Dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
Pronunciation: Dee-yo yo na-ha prah-cho-die-yot
Translation: Who may guide our thoughts