Oṃ sūryaya svaha, sūryaya idam na mama
praja-patayē svaha, paja-patayē idam na mama
Vedic Fire (Agni-Hotra) Ceremony, sunrise prayer
Meaning: I offer this oblation to the sun and the Lord of creation. This offering is not for my benefit alone, but for the welfare of all. – Translation by Austin Sanderson
Over the past few years there has been a lot of talk about the appropriation of yoga and the need for western yoga teachers to teach yoga from a perspective that honors the long cultural tradition that yoga was founded upon but sometimes it is easier to look for connections to past heritage, rather than focusing on our disconnects to tradition.
Yoga can be traced to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, 5,000 years ago. The term yoga is first mentioned in the Rig Veda, the world’s oldest spiritual text. The Vedas are a collection songs, prayers, mantras and rituals to be utilized by Brahmans (Vedic priests) for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. In 1.115 of Rig Veda, Sūrya, Surya or the sun, is mentioned with particular reverence, thinking the “rising sun” and proclaiming the sun as “dispeller of spiritual darkness”. Prayers asked Sūrya to empower humanity with higher knowledge. Sūrya is described as everything that is the good in the world and is seen as the life giving energy of the material universe (Prakriti). Hence, they adored the Sun as the principal deity in the Gayatri mantra. Addressing Surya in the Gayatri mantra: “Dhiyo yonah Prachodayāt” – May that quality of Light, within us and around us, awaken our spiritual intelligence, set in motion sun worship in the Indus Valley.
One has to ask, “is the Sun worthy of worship?” The Sun, like others stars, is a ball of gas. In terms of the number of atoms, it is made of 91.0% hydrogen and 8.9% helium. Hydrogen is essential for the growth of plants and living beings. Nothing is more important to life on Earth than the Sun. Without the Sun’s heat and light, the Earth would be a lifeless ball of ice-coated rocks. The Sun warms our seas, stirs our atmosphere, generates our weather patterns, and gives energy to the growing green plants that provide the food and oxygen for life on Earth. So, the ancient Vedic culture intuitively knew that the Sun was worthy of worshiped.
As time went on Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutations were created as a ritual way to worship the Sun. Surya Namaskar literally means “Bowing to the Sun.” The date of the first Surya Namaskar as a yogic practice is vague. Yet today Surya Namaskar is one of the most well-known yoga sequences connecting the modern yoga practices back to its Vedic roots. Originally a Surya Namaskar would have only be practiced facing the east, now that is not the case.
We know that somewhere between 500-1500 CE Tantric Yoga turned the Surya Namaskar into a daily ritual adding mantras, mudras and adding the concept of Vinyasa Krama. The Sanskrit word Vinyasa comes for conjunction of two Sanskrit words, “vi” meaning “sequence” and “nyasa” meaning “to place in a conscious way” which implies that a vinyasa is “the conscious placement of a sequence of events”. The movement within a vinyasa of Surya Namaskar is smooth and graceful, no asana is held or given preference over another asana. The Surya Namaskar allows us to connect to the daily “sun rise and sun set” journey that the sun makes daily. Each movement is performed on an inhalation or and exhalation depending on the asana that the practitioner is transitioning into, giving a “flowing effect”. Thus in practicing vinyasa, we do not “do” downward-facing dog, the “do” Chaturanga Dandasana, then “do” upward-facing dog in a choppy, static, compartmentalized way, but rather we let each asana unfold into the next, blooming of a rose bud into a full open rose blossom.
The five components of Vinyasa in the Urban Sadhu Yoga Method are as follows:
1. Higher intention
2. Ujjayi pranayama
3. Mula bandha
4. Drishti or gaze
5. The uninterrupted movement from one asana to the next
Daily spiritual rituals at sun rise and sun set can be found in every culture. However the ritualization of Surya Namaskar is still the one spiritual Sadhana (practice) that connects the modern yogi back to yoga’s Vedic heritage. The key to this connection is the daily ritualization of the Surya Namaskar. This is why all Urban Sadhu Yoga Open Classes require five minutes if Surya Namaskar vinyasa.
Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion said, “A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.” Because we still practice Surya Namaskar today, Lord Surya is the only Vedic god that still is revered some 5000 years later.
Each time we step onto our modern western yoga mats we have the ability to reconnect to the ancient wisdom of yoga, if we have that higher intention. An ancient eternal wisdom is as radiant as the Sun itself and the nourishes all creatures.
Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu