Surya Namaskar means “Salutations to the Sun.” In the context of yoga, the Sun is not only the celestial body that gives us warmth and daylight, but the radiant center of the human body, where our vital forces converge. This center lies along the middle of the spine, at the level of the first lumbar vertebra, in the area that is often referred to as the “solar plexus.” In this area, we find a dense tangle of nerves which has often been regarded as an obvious gathering place for our vital forces.
The center in question lies halfway between the pelvic floor and the heart, which is to say, halfway between the origin points of prana and apana, or the ascending and descending breaths. Hatha Yoga works with these breaths to balance the forces that shape our immediate experience. One of the principal techniques is to press these breaths together at the solar center of the body, allowing their opposing patterns to converge. This mudra creates an internal sensation of heat that radiates outward in all directions, in an experiential pattern that is homologous to the Sun. The experience of this pattern is the beginning of Hatha Yoga.
Surya Namaskar is one of the quintessential practices of Hatha Yoga, and it can take many forms. What is essential is the contemplative focus of our attention on the solar force within us. In Surya Namaskar, we are propitiating to the concentrated center of our vitality, the center of radiant heat that forms in the belly when we press together the ascending and descending breaths. We are showing our adoration for the solar force as it gathers above the base of the spine, and we are inviting that force to rise up from the altar of the pelvis, reach into the depths of our minds, and burn away our delusions, giving us insight.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa, each posture is situated within a unique instance of Surya Namaskar. These instances are then contracted into smaller vinyasa, just as Sanskrit words are contracted by the principles of sandhi, to bring them together into a lyrical flow. This means that Surya Namaskar is not only the opening line, but the backbone of the entire practice, the thread along which the melody of the practice is composed. And when we develop proficiency with this thread, we can string the postures together into beautiful garlands of forms. We can then give these garlands as offerings to the Sun, which is to say, to the solar force that sustains us—the creative force that underlies our vitality.
To practice Surya Namaskar with full depth and potency, we have to develop the myriad ways of working with subtle breath, and with opposing patterns of sensation, that sustain the experience of the Sun throughout the practice. These techniques, which include bandha, mudra, and intelligent movement and postural alignment, allow us to feel the warmth of the Sun gradually rising through the emptiness of the body. With these techniques, we can learn to practice with seductive fluidity. That is, we learn to practice with the kind of precision and grace that lures consciousness, as the lunar principle, deep into the solar radiance of the body. Then the practice becomes what it naturally longs to be, an endless exploration of the intimacy between HA and THA, between Sun and Moon, or between consciousness and the body. This exploration is the esoteric meaning of Surya Namaskar.