& Its benefits
If you’ve ever attended a hatha yoga class, you’ve probably done Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations.) Seeing Sun Salutations performed, it’s easy to see how the movements can be a means to honor and show gratitude to the sun, with its forward folding deep bows and the movement of dropping to one’s stomach — similar to the prostrations practiced in some religious rituals. But this sequence of movements is also designed to provide the practitioner with a number of benefits to body and mind. Below, we’ll discuss several of these benefits, and explain how they come about.
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Counteracting excess curvature:
You may have noticed that elderly people often tend to carry their head forward with a rounding in the upper back. But the fact is, this problem is becoming much more common among young people — so much so that it’s now called iHunch, owing to the role of time spent over phones and laptops in creating the problem.
In older people, this forward slump increases the risk of falls, and falls are often much more devastating than the bruises or breaks they leave behind. A vicious cycle of deterioration of health often follows because cautious or fearful seniors become less active, attempting to avoid future falls. That inactivity results in faster restriction of range of motion and loss of strength, resulting in yet greater chance of future falls (not to mention other problems that we’ll learn about below.)
Lest a youngster think that their low risk of falls means that this isn’t a problem for them, consider that with the head angled forward at 45-degrees, the load on the body is increased by 22kg (49lbs.) Over time, that added load results in the shortening and stiffening of muscles, in turn resulting in reduced range of motion and possible back pain, neck pain, or headaches. A rounded back also makes it more difficult to breathe freely and fully because we are compressing the chest.
Surya Namaskara counteracts this tendency toward excessive curvature in the upper spine in several ways.
First, the exercise strengthens the core muscles through movements such as the plank (a.k.a. Phalakasana, Santolanasana, or Kumbhakasana,) and stronger muscles hold the spine upright against gravity more effectively.
Second, the cobra pose (Bhujangasana) offers a counterpose to the slumped posture, counteracting the shortening and stiffening of muscles.
Third, downward-dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) helps us to maintain a full healthy range of motion in one’s shoulder girdle. With the rounding of the spine one often sees a reduced range of motion in the shoulder.
Moving the Lymph:
We all know about the circulatory system, the heart pumps blood through blood vessels to all parts of the body. However, you may not have heard much about the body’s second, but related, system of fluid transport, the lymphatic system. Here are a couple of things you should know about your lymphatic system. First, it’s extremely important to one’s immune system activity. You may have heard about “lymph nodes” that sometimes swell up when one is sick, that’s because these elements of the lymphatic system are on the body’s front lines in the war against invaders. (The swelling results from increased white blood cells — infection fighters extraordinaire.) Second, unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump that works like the heart. Instead, lymph is circulated when we move our bodies, and that’s one of the reasons why moving the body is important to good health and to maintaining a vigorous immune response.
Because Surya Namaskara involves movement of large muscle groups (particularly in the legs and core) and partially inverted positions, the practice is very helpful in keeping our lymph circulating as it should.
Preventing the imbalances from sitting or standing:
When we were discussing the problem of spinal curvature, we said that keeping the back rounded can lead to shortening of muscles. It’s true that if we spend too much time in any position without activities like yoga to balance our musculature, imbalances can occur. When we are sitting all day, our hips are in a flexed position that allows the body to get increasingly used to the shortening of the hip flexor muscles. When we stand much of the time, the hamstrings at the back of the leg can become tight because those muscles are engaged to keep us upright.
Sun Salutations will help keep you balanced whether your day involves a lot of sitting or a lot of standing. When one does the forward lunge (i.e. Ashwa Sanchalana,) and one feels the stretch on the front of the thigh muscle, below the front of the hip, that stretch is counteracting all those hours of slack flexors while sitting. Both the forward fold (Padahasta) and down-dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) stretch the hamstrings, preventing them from tightening up excessively from long periods of standing.
Slowing and Controlling the breath:
When one first begins to practice Sun Salutations, one of the challenges that is frequently experienced is matching one’s breathing to the movement. One is taught to either inhale or exhale (but not both) as one completes each movement in the sequence. This generally requires slowing and deepening the breath. At first, it can be a challenge as one gets used to the physical exertion, but in time that slow / deep breathing produces a number of benefits including: increased Heart Rate Variability (HRV,) stronger and more supple breathing muscles (i.e. the diaphragm and intercostals,) and reduced stress along with increased cognitive functioning.
Moving into Meditation:
The gains from Sun Salutations aren’t just seen by way of stretchier, stronger muscles. It’s also a practice for the mind. Surya Namaskara might seem like something very different from meditation. After all, Sun Salutations are an exercise involving constant movement and meditation involves sitting in place, right? Not exactly. Remember, any time one holds one’s attention on one thing, bringing the distracted mind back to that object non-judgmentally, one is doing a kind of meditation. With Surya Namaskara, in the beginning one will need to hold one’s attention on the sequence of movements, but — in time — one will be able to shift the point of focus to one’s breath.
For many, moving activities — such as Sun Salutations — can be a means to make inroads into meditation. For those who have tremendous difficulties with focus, or who become demoralized due to the inability to concentrate one’s mind, moving activities may come more naturally, allowing the individual to gradually transition to more stationary forms of meditation.
Let’s not forget the origin of the practice — saluting the sun. Researchers have found that those who practiced taking time to be grateful experience a heightened sense of well-being, exercise more regularly, and have few physical symptoms than those who don’t. If one can’t be grateful for that big ball of flame from which we obtain all the energy we need to exist, what can one be grateful for?
Of course, at first it may be challenging enough to get the movement down, but in time one may find that that one can do a true sun salutation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the benefits that one might derive from practicing Sun Salutations, but I hope it offers some motivation to give this practice a try.
1. The widely cited figure is that for every 1 inch forward the head moves, it produces an additional 10 pounds of load on the muscles (i.e. for each cm, 1.8kg added load is incurred.) The source of the number in the text is: – (motamem.org); i.e. Hansraj, K.K. 2016. “Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head.” Neuro and Spine Surgery [Surgical Technology International XXV.] 25: 277–9.
2. HRV offers insight into how effective the body’s rest and digest functions are. Researchers have found that slowed breathing tends to produce greater HRV (See: Lin IM, Tai LY, Fan SY. Breathing at a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute with equal inhalation-to-exhalation ratio increases heart rate variability. Int J Psychophysiol. 2014 Mar;91(3):206-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.12.006. Epub 2013 Dec 28. PMID: 24380741.
3. Research findings involved something called Coherent Breathing which, in yogic terms is a 1:1 Sama Vrtti Pranayama done at a rate of about 5bpm. See: Richard P. Brown, Patricia L. Gerbarg, Fred Muench. 2013. “Breathing Practices for Treatment of Psychiatric and Stress-Related Medical Conditions,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 36(1): 121-140
4. See: Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377-89. doi: 10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1687. PMID: 12585811.