By Shameem Akhtar
The Surya Namaskar exposes to the beginner just how unhealthy the body is. And why. Whatever your favorite sports, you need to incorporate this into your daily regime to ensure complete fitness.
Surya Namaskar is an exquisite miniaturized version of all that yoga embodies. This dynamic set of 12 asanas encapsulates the essence of yoga—just as a perfume captures the essence of spring flowers and just as miniature art presents an entire era within its tiny frame.
Surya namaskar together offers all the practices of yoga’s seven steps, starting with yamas and niyamas (practices that ensure social and individual purity), asana, pranayama or breathing, dharana or concentration, dhyana or meditation.
In its complete form, surya namaskar has to be done with sequenced breathing which, as you advance, must also include the Vedic prayer that secularly reminds you of the ultimate divinisation all of us are lucky enough to seek. It is a constant reminder to go beyond the pettiness of the physical self. And in that interesting paradox that yoga is, it uses the physicality of asana practice to embed this message and mental attribute into us.
It is almost always impossible for beginners to get the individual poses of the surya namaskar just right. Interestingly, while teaching it I have found that those who overindulge maniacally in a hardcore exercise regime are too stiff for the poses that if done well give a complete stretch to each muscle group, internal organs, as well as the glands.
In fact, the surya namaskar exposes to the beginner just how unhealthy the body is. And why, whatever your favourite sport, you need to incorporate this into your daily regime to ensure complete fitness that allows you to bounce back from any injury or ailment. Novices to physical fitness find it easier to mould their bodies into the poses, an argument I offer to those who feel intimidated at the thought of 24 asanas in each round (one set comprises 12 asanas, starting with the right leg. The second set, starting with left leg, completes another round).
Most people smugly wind up with just one round. But for complete efficiency you can do six to 12 rounds. This will help you zip through the rest of the day with a high that is incomparable. And you will find that you can complete 12 rounds (24 sets, meaning 288 asanas) in 10-15 minutes as you become more physically fit and efficient!
Obviously, you cannot leap into such a strenuous regime (though some schools even let their advanced students do over 100 sets) in the first week itself. Each individual has his own specific cardio-pulmonary capacity of which he is the best judge. But as you advance in the practice you will find that the initial breathlessness in the poses disappears!
The Bihar School of Yoga, which has scientifically studied its impact (detailed in the book Surya Namaskar by Swami Satyananada Saraswati), suggests that surya namaskar may be introduced in a phased manner even for heart patients. But since this is a powerful practice, you need to do it with the guidance of a teacher. My only suggestion is that if you are already into the practice, challenge yourself further by upping the ante!
Most people skip the prayer. But since it is so beautiful, in sound and texture of its meaning, it is a good idea to incorporate this along with breathing sequence. During the first move as you lift your hands up in salute to the Sun, giver of life, chant Om Mitraya Namaha (this means, I salute you friend of all), thereby reminding yourself to be gracious towards the rest of the world just as the sun is. Whatever it shines on, never being partial to its subject whether it be a pile of garbage or a blushing rose. Thus each prayer runs you through your resolution to remember how to channel chaotic thoughts, progress in life, practise humility, remember how life is just maya, etc.
There are also beej or seed mantras for surya namaskar which may be repeated when practising it. The mantras focus your mind, disallowing it from swivelling around thoughts. Research shows that deliberate focus channelises the flow of blood within the brain while scattered thoughts disturb blood flow, dissipating energy. Whenever you feel disinclined to be ‘spiritual’, remind yourself that being so helps you physically and mentally!
Also, surya namaskar offers the best warm-ups for intensive sadhana practice.
You will find that by the time you finish the fourth round your body has become loose and flowing, and the final poses are arrived at effortlessly. Surya namaskar is a great way to lose weight and tone up. It can also control your moods—drive away depression through fast rounds or cool down hyperactivity with slow rounds. Ashtanga yoga incorporates tratak or eye focusing with each pose, helping you to work out your equipoise too!
It is also a great detoxification sequence, offers the most complete workout to all the major systems of the body—circulation, the mood-controlling endocrines, and helps teens slowly enter adulthood so that they stay longer as children and are well-prepared to handle the raging hormones which adolescence brings. In fact, I have personally found that whenever I am required to do a lot of work—either physical or mental—a round of surya namaskar invariably freshens me up. You can use it as a good substitute to a cup of coffee.
Asana of the Month
Parvatasana (mountain pose): Also called Adho Mukha Svananasana or downward facing dog, or simply the inverted-V. Since I can only detail one asana I chose this since it offers the most challenge in terms of advancing in a pose as well as being a complete workout. You enter this pose from the cobra pose, where your chest has been raised while you lie on your belly, your legs stretched out behind.
Without moving your palms (placed flat on the ground alongside the chest) and your feet, push your hips up into the air. Press down the soles of the feet flat on the ground, pressing down also the heels as much as possible to really stretch the large leg muscles. Now tilt the hips back a bit so that the weight of body shifts to upper shoulder and your arms too begin to take the weight. For the final pose you continue to press down both palms and heels as your hips remain up in the air, forming a perfect inverted-V.
The advanced pose is when you can completely rest your heels on the ground and your head touches the floor! And though most beginners cannot believe they will ever reach such perfection, it is really a matter of practice. This pose tones the nerves, muscles, and strengthens the spine completely.
Contraindications: To be avoided by those with fever, boils, high blood pressure (but may be introduced after BP is brought under control in a phased manner), heart problems, digestive and back problems.
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