Many styles of yoga start the class with a flowing series of postures called Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutations. In Sanskrit, Surya means sun, or divine light, and Namaskar (from the same linguistic root as the greeting Namaste), means to greet or bow to.
Designed to warm, awaken and open the body, the series physically prepares the body for deeper asanas as the class progresses. Starting with the simple standing posture Tadasana (Mountain pose), or Samasthiti (used to describe both the physical posture and the intention of conscious awareness, steadiness and ease), the student is encouraged to feel grounded and a sense equanimity. The flow then moves through postures designed to elongate the spine, stretch and strengthen the whole body and open the hip flexors, shoulders and back. Each movement is linked to an inhalation (stretching, backbends) or an exhalation (forward folds), and helps the student to build a conscious connection between the movement of the body and the breath.
As the student becomes more familiar with the series of postures, the alignment for each and how the breath helps smooth transitions between poses, the practice becomes a moving meditation. As well as helping the body open for deeper postures, it helps the mind become calm, clear and focussed for the rest of the class.
While some say that Surya Namaskar is thousands of years old and originated as a ritual prostration to the dawn, there is no mention of the series in the classical yoga texts. Other theories are that Indian yoga teacher, father of modern yoga and teacher to Iyengar and Patabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya, developed and popularised the series in the early 20th century, and another that the Raja of Aundh, developed it as physical fitness exercise based on gymnastics.
Wherever the origins come from the sequence is well established within the modern yoga tradition. And at the darkest time of the year, many yogis practise 108 Sun Salutations, to celebrate the days starting to get longer again, a perfect opportunity to warm and open the body and bring our awareness back to the sun and the light, consciousness, self-awareness and higher wisdom.