A Sun Salutation Is Pretty Much A Glorified Burpee (And That's Cool)

The sun salutation — a common series of postures used as a warm-up in yoga classes — is revered by some yogis as an ancient ritual practiced for thousands of years in honor of Surya, the sun god. But the sun salutation, called Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit, and its many variations is more likely a product of calisthenic and gymnastic exercises that became popular just a century ago. The sun salutation, therefore, may be more aptly described as a glorified burpee than a ritualistic movement.

sun salutation burpee d3

Reducing yoga’s most recognizable sequence to little more than a common workout may come as a let down to some practitioners, who see yoga as a more special form of exercise in part due to its history. Certainly, there is a magic and a mystery to the practice and its origins. It’s a wonderful thing to imagine yourself practicing the same exact movements that yogis were doing millennia ago — I practiced under this illusion for many years. It's a nice thought, but it's also one that could get you hurt. As I argue below, the myth that the sun salutation sequence is as old as yoga itself has likely handicapped the sequence's evolution and contributed to the persistence of injuries in yoga.

While it's true that yogis have been honoring the sun for thousands of years, there is little to no evidence to suggest that the ancient ritual involved any movement at all. Rather, history suggests that old fashioned sun salutations consisted solely of verbal prayer and hand gestures at most.

Yoga asana (yogic postures and movement) broadly, including the sun salutation, as we know it is much more of a modern invention. Yet, paradoxically, it remains stuck in the past. In many studios yoga asana is hardly discernible from what it was a hundred years ago, well before modern revelations in fields such as physiotherapy, biomechanics, and kinesthesiolopgy.

"What's the difference between a stretch and a yoga pose," I once asked a mentor.

The difference lied in the history, I was told. The psychophysical exercises known as yoga poses, she said, had been passed down from one generation of yogis to the next since well before the common era. And by virtue of being more ancient, my teacher proclaimed, it made the asanas more correct.

This common line of thinking among yogis is both incorrect and problematic. Caught under the fantasy that all yogic movements and poses are thousands of years old and therefore too sacred to be tinkered with only makes yoga’s injury problem worse. And make no mistake about it: There is a huge injury bug that is just beginning to surface in the scene (see the 2012 NYT article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body). If yoga is to continue thriving in the west, then those of influence in the community would be wise to push forth a new style of asana that is far less likely to hurt people. Re-thinking the sun salutation is one overdue advancement that should come as part of a broader overhaul of popular sequences and poses.

Don't get me wrong, the sun salutation does have its merits — it's warming, strengthening, and when mastered it becomes a wonderfully fluid and cyclical dance.  But the frequency at which it is taught in most yoga classes would make you think it was the holy grail of movement.

Its popularity is its achilles heel. Many teachers — myself included — burn through that same series of poses dozens of times in a single class, often with little guidance to their students. Because it is so common and familiar it is often not given the attention it deserves.

This is a mistake. Doing something relatively vigorous, multiple times per day, multiple days per year, and many years in a row is a recipe for repetitive strain injury. The Ashtanga primary series, for example, contains 60 chatarungas, a low pushup position contained within the sun salutation sequence that some detractors have dubbed: "the shoulder shredder." Power yoga classes contain about 30 repetitions of this pose. A run-of-the-mill vinyasa yoga class might contain any amount within that range.

Even if everyone had perfect alignment and the strength to do a pose like chatarunga safely, it might still put too much stress on joints like the shoulders and wrists over time. But, adding insult to injury, most students are not doing this pose safely. They are hyper-extending the wrists and dumping too much weight forward into the shoulder gurdle (For more, see Ariele Foster's article: The Hidden Pulling Actions In Chaturanga). Chatarunga is followed by upward facing dog pose, and thanks in part due to poor alignment in the previous position, many students arrive in the backbend with the shoulders too far forward, further stressing the wrists and pinching the low back.

The injury issues associated with chatarunga, up-dog, and other components of Surya Namaskar are widely known amongst yoga anatomy wonks, but not so much by anyone who doesn't live in the micro-cosm of yoga and movement research.

Re-writing the script on the sun salutation so as to, for example, omit chatarunga and up dog altogether, would be a sac-religious move for many teachers. Like everyone else, yogis are resistant to change, particularly when it comes to messing with the ritual of their practice. 

Re-booting the sun salutation along with a number of other popular poses and sequences will undoubtedly change what a yoga practice looks like, but it does not, in my view, need to come at the expense of that which makes the practice sacred.

To get there, I think it's useful to understand the history of yoga asana, which reveals that the roots of yoga that so many teachers are trying to stay true to were mostly cooked up by just a few guys in the last century. These men were innovators. They made something new out of something ancient. Now it’s our turn.

How we got here: The origins of the Sun Salutation

The genesis of Surya Namaskar is emblematic of how yoga postures and movements developed and how they became widely misunderstood.

Prior to the rise of Hatha yoga around the 15th century, there were only around 15 known poses. All of them were floor poses. Later texts describe 84 classical poses in varying detail, with the Hatha Yoga Pradapika providing the most comprehensive list. Still, among that list of 84 poses, the text only describes 32 essential poses, more than half of which are floor poses, and there is no description of downward facing dog or upward facing dog, two building blocks of the sun salutation. Within the broader list of 84 poses, there are enough poses to string together something that could look like a modern sun salutation, but with no how-to guide on how to practice those poses, it’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly the Hatha yogis were doing with their bodies. In fact, the series of poses known today as sun salutations are not mentioned within any of the ancient Hatha texts.  

It's not until 1928 that we see any documentation of the sequence, when the King of a small principality in India began distributing the sequence to all of his schools as a means to keep students strong and healthy. In other words, it is quite clear from the publication, The Ten Point Way To Health, that the King, Raja of Aundh, designed his version of the sun salutation to be more like a burpee than a prayer.

Not that it should matter, but this revelation tells me that history is giving us permission to work with this thing without worrying about any dead yogis rolling over in their graves.

The series of poses known today as a sun salutation is not mentioned within any of the ancient Hatha yoga texts.

To be fair, it is unclear where exactly Raja of Aundh learned the poses or the transitions of the sun salutation in the first place, though he claimed to have been practicing them since childhood. But even if the sequence was passed down to him, it was only after extensive practice that he publicized the manual, suggesting that he spent years tinkering, mastering, and modifying Surya Namaskar before distributing it to the masses.

Around the same time, Sri. T. Krishnamacharya, often called the father of modern yoga, also began teaching sun salutations at a Yogaśālā in Mysore, India. Like Raja of Aundh, the source of his teachings are also unknown, though his son T. K. V. Desikachar said that Krishnamacharya developed many of his sequences himself. Krishnamacharya's version may also have been influenced by the tradition of British gymnastics in the Mysore palace. It may have been that that Krishnamacharya taught Raja of Aundh, or maybe the other way around.

Yoga historian Mark Singleton concludes in his book “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” that Krishnamacharya’s method was “a synthesis of several extant methods of physical training that (prior to this period) would have fallen well outside any definition of yoga.”

Basically, we don’t know when or how sun salutations first appeared, though the evidence clearly points to the sequence being more of a modern invention than an ancient practice. It is also clear that no matter how old Surya Namaskar is, it has been tweaked many times over the years. Why stop tinkering now?

Cover photo courtesy of Desert Dwellers