Om bhur bhuvah svah
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.
The eternal, earth, air, heaven
That glory, that resplendence of the sun
May we contemplate the brilliance of that light
May the sun inspire our minds.
-Translation by Douglas Brooks
The Gayatri mantra first appeared in the Rig Veda, an early Vedic text written between 1800 and 1500 BCE. It is mentioned in the Upanishads as an important ritual, and in the Bhagavad Gita as the poem of the Divine. According to Douglas Brooks, PhD, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester and a teacher in the Rajanaka yoga tradition, the Gayatri is the most sacred phrase uttered in the Vedas. “It doesn’t get more ancient, more sacred, than this. It’s an ecstatic poetic moment.”
The mantra is a hymn to Savitur, the sun god. According to Brooks, the sun in the mantra represents both the physical sun and the Divine in all things. “The Vedic mind doesn’t separate the physical presence of the sun from its spiritual or symbolic meaning,” he says.
Chanting the mantra serves three purposes, Brooks explains. The first is to give back to the sun. “My teacher used to say the sun gives but never receives. The mantra is a gift back to the sun, an offering of gratitude to refuel the sun’s gracious offering.” The second purpose is to seek wisdom and enlightenment. The mantra is a request to the sun: May we meditate upon your form and be illumined by who you are? (Consider that the sun offers its gift of illumination and energy to all beings, without judgment and without attachment to the outcome of the gift.)
Finally, the mantra is an expression of gratitude, to both the life-giving sun and the Divine. Brooks encourages taking a heart-centered approach to the mantra. “The sensibility it evokes is more important than the literal meaning. It’s an offering, a way to open to grace, to inspire oneself to connect to the ancient vision of India,” he says. “Its effect is to inspire modern yogis to participate in the most ancient aspiration of illumination that connects modern yoga to the Vedic tradition.”
Christopher Key Chapple, professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University, says Surya Namaskar is nothing less than the embodiment of the Gayatri mantra, a sacred prayer to the sun. “As we sweep our arms up and bow forward, we honor the earth, the heavens, and all of life in between that is nourished by the breath cycle,” he says. “As we lower our bodies, we connect with the earth. As we rise up from the earth, we stretch through the atmosphere once more, reaching for the sky. As we bring our hands together in Namaste, we gather the space of the heavens back into our heart and breath, acknowledging that our body forms the center point between heaven and earth.”
The original Surya Namaskar wasn’t a sequence of postures, but rather a sequence of sacred words. The Vedic tradition, which predates classical yoga by several thousands of years, honored the sun as a symbol of the Divine. According to Ganesh Mohan, a Vedic and yoga scholar and teacher in Chennai, India, Vedic mantras to honor the sun were traditionally chanted at sunrise. The full practice includes 132 passages and takes more than an hour to recite. After each passage, the practitioner performs a full prostration, laying his body face-down on the ground in the direction of the sun in an expression of devotion.
The connection between the sun and the Divine continues to appear throughout the Vedic and yoga traditions. However, the origins of Surya Namaskar in modern hatha yoga are more mysterious. “There is no reference to asanas as ‘Sun Salutation’ in traditional yoga texts,” Mohan says.
So where did this popular sequence come from? The oldest-known yoga text to describe the Sun Salutation sequence, the Yoga Makaranda, was written in 1934 by T. Krishnamacharya, who is considered by many to be the father of modern hatha yoga. It is unclear whether Krishnamacharya learned the sequence from his teacher Ramamohan Brahmachari or from other sources, or whether he invented it himself. In The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, yoga scholar N.E. Sjoman identifies an earlier text called the Vyayama Dipika (or “Light on Exercise”) that illustrates athletic exercises for Indian wrestlers, including some that are strikingly similar to Krishnamacharya’s version of Surya Namaskar.
“Certainly, modern asana practice—and Surya Namaskar, after it was grafted on to it—is an innovation that has no precedent in the ancient Indian tradition, but it was rarely formulated as ‘mere gymnastics,'” says Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. “More often, it was conceived within a religious [Hindu] framework, and was seen as a spiritual expression as well as a physical one. But in modern India, for many people, it made complete sense for physical training to be conceived as a form of spiritual practice, with no contradiction implied.”
So, it appears that Krishnamacharya was influenced by both athletics and spiritual practice, and it was the emphasis he placed on the breath and on devotion that set his teaching of yoga asana apart from a purely athletic endeavor. According to Mohan, co-author (with his father, A.G. Mohan) of the forthcoming From Here Flows the River: The Life and Teachings of Krishnamacharya, it was the attitude of Surya Namaskar that Krishnamacharya cared about. Whether he was teaching the Vedic mantras or the sequence of postures, the intention was the same. “One is offering salutation to the Divine, represented by the sun, as a source of light removing the darkness of a clouded mind and as a source of vitality removing the diseases of the body,” says Mohan.