American yogis often gravitate toward practices of fiery, strength-building intensity. In fact, the most ubiquitous sequence in the West is surely the ultimate heat builder, the Sun Salutation. The sequence’s Sanskrit name, Surya Namaskar, is literally translated as “bow to the sun.” And as you lift your arms and then bow down, as you lengthen forward and jump back, you begin to embody solar energy. You stretch, strengthen, and warm your whole being from the inside out.
But on days when you’re feeling depleted, overstimulated, or overheated, it’s good to know that Surya Namaskar has a soothing sister sequence known as Chandra Namaskar, or Moon Salutation. As the name suggests, Chandra Namaskar is a quieting sequence that invites you to bow to and cultivate the moon’s soothing lunar energy.
Perhaps Chandra Namaskar isn’t as well known as Surya Namaskar because it hasn’t been around as long. In all likelihood, it’s an invention of the late 20th century. The Bihar School, which is a yoga school in India founded in the 1960s, first published the sequence in asana pranayama Mudra Bandha in 1969. (The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health created a variation of Chandra Namaskar in the 1980s that differs from the sequence that we’re presenting here.)
But the idea of looking to the moon for rejuvenation is certainly not new. In fact, the Shiva Samhita, a 500-year-old Tantric text, regarded the moon as the source of immortality. In The Alchemical Body, David Gordon White, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes how practitioners of Tantra (a form of yoga that preceded hatha yoga) believed that the “sun” was located in the solar plexus; the “moon,” in the crown of the head. The moon was thought to contain amrita, “the stuff of the macrocosmic moon, the divine nectar of immortality,” which “pours itself into the world in the form of vivifying rain.” While the fiery sun in the abdomen was important for triggering the yogic process, its heat would, over time, cause aging, decay, and death. To reverse this process, yogis did specific practices, such as inversions or mudras (locks, or seals), to both preserve and produce amrita. The act of turning upside down was believed to draw vital fluids from the lower chakras up to the crown, where they would be transformed into amrita (also referred to as soma).
Get in the Groove
Pay special attention to the quality of each movement. Instead of moving quickly, jumping into and out of poses as you would in Sun Salutations, move slowly, as though you were moving through water. You can also add some spontaneous movement within the forms of the poses. For example, instead of pressing immediately into Cobra Pose, which is a heat-building backbend, try circling your shoulders back and swaying side to side until you arrive at your own natural version of Cobra. Rea calls this sahaja, which she describes as “the spontaneous movement that comes when we’re receptive to our innate inner wisdom.”
When you can, practice Chandra Namaskar in the evening. Surya Namaskar is traditionally practiced at sunrise as a way to pay homage to the sun and to warm up the body for the coming day. It makes sense, then, to practice Chandra Namaskar in the evening when the moon is out. Not only is it a great way to prepare yourself for sleep, as yoga teacher and Yoga Journal contributing editor Richard Rosen points out, sunrise and sunset have always been considered powerful times for practicing hatha yoga. “During these times, there’s a balance between light and dark. It’s not day. It’s not night. You’re at a junction between the two,” he says. “This reflects internally in your body: Your hot and cold energies are also in balance. It’s a natural time to do the practice.”
This meditation, adapted from the Bihar School of Yoga, can be done before or after you take the final resting pose, Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Slowly become aware of the space between your eyebrows. Within this space, visualize a full moon in a clear night sky, shining brightly on the waves of the ocean. The full reflection of the moon penetrates the deep waters, and the cool shade of moonlight catches the tops of the waves as they dance.
See the image clearly and develop an awareness of the feelings and sensations that are created in your mind and body. Slowly let the visualization fade and again become aware of the whole body.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal article Moon Shine by Shiva Rea