Since yoga is so much taken up with breathing, it might seem very obvious, but it can take years for beginners to realize that the essential exercise series called Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) can be perfectly co-ordinated with normal inward and outward cycling of the breath.
Part of the essence of Hatha yoga is to coordinate each movement with controlled breathing. Good breathing can deepen stretches without straining the muscles. It can awaken the body to the demands of more challenging postures, and it can assist the body to relax in resting postures. It can even help the body to cleanse and purify itself.
Normally, in yoga, whenever the body bends forward or twists sideways and the abdomen and chest are compressed, the breath is exhaled. When the body straightens and lengthens, or when the back is bent backwards so the chest opens up, the breath is inhaled.
Surya Namaskar is a series of postures that seamlessly flow from one into another, beginning while standing in prayer position with the hands meeting in front of the heart. In the first movement, the arms are extended upwards, until the whole body is lengthened and the back arches back slightly with the raised arms, palms together, overhead. This lengthening and stretching is accompanied by a controlled inhalation. Ideally, as in all hatha yoga, the movement of the breath actually leads the movement of the body.
Next, the body bends forwards at the waist until the hands are flat on the floor, or resting on the feet, or dangling downwards. This movement is led by a controlled exhalation.
Then, fingertips aligned with toes and palms to the ground, the left knee bends and the right leg lunges straight back. Balancing on the flat of the left foot, the fingertips and the toes of the right foot, the practitioner arches the back and raises the head. This movement is led by a controlled inhalation.
In the following posture, the left foot moves back to join the right, the head goes down and the bum is raised so that the balance is on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. This “Downward Dog” is led by a controlled exhalation.
There are many websites and books that describe the entire Surya Namaskar series, which completes a total stretch and strength cycle for the front and back of the legs and body core. However, that’s not the focus of this article. Instead, the point is that it may take time to realize that Surya Namaskar is in fact a continuous cycle. Beginners may concentrate so hard on each individual part of the series that they fail to see how each posture flows into the next.
It can be a great realization that it is possible to move through the postures of Surya Namaskar in a natural breathing rhythm, slowly inhaling and exhaling with each new movement. It can also be executed more quickly, with a strong inhalation or exhalation for each movement, if the “power yoga” approach is preferred. Once beginners make this discovery, their understanding and appreciation of Surya Namaskar deepen immensely.