Sun salutations provide many physical and psychological benefits. This post will tell you more...
Sun salutation is an important part of yoga. It is one of the easiest yoga routines, an excellent way to start with yoga if you are a newbie. Like all yoga, sun salutation or Surya Namaskara is a whole-body exercise. A full cycle of the 12 aasanas of surya namaskara, tasks and strengthens pretty much every muscle, bone, and connecting tissue in the body.
Traditionally, surya namaskara has been performed in the morning, facing the rising sun. Though the reason for this is that the exercise is performed in honor of the Sun God, it resonates with the medical advice that exposing your body to gentle sunlight in mornings produces more vitamin D; Vitamin D is essential in building denser and stronger bones.
Due to its nature as a muscle-stretching exercise, it is an ideal way to speed up recovery from earlier exercise sessions. It can be performed as a stretching routine after weight-bearing exercises. But since this is also a weight-bearing exercise in itself, it should preferably be performed on its own, or more static stretches should be added after it.
How Does Surya Namaskara Benefit You?
Here's a summary of the various health benefits imparted by practicing surya namaskara.
►Surya namaskara is an effective exercise for both muscle gain and weight loss, as well as general fitness. Like any exercise, regularly performing it helps slow down the effects of aging. It is a muscle-stretching exercise, and improves flexibility drastically.
►Unlike weight machines, which work a particular muscle to the exclusion of everything else, surya namaskara positions work the muscles, bones, as well as the ligaments/tendons in multiple areas of the body.
More than 90% of the body is worked upon during a cycle of surya namaskara. This leads to better muscle coordination, and, since the connecting tissues are also strengthened, much more functional strength is achieved. Better muscular coordination also leads to much better balance, and a wider range of motion.
► The positions in surya namaskara alternate between stretching and bending the spine. In today's sedentary lifestyle, this motion is particularly beneficial to the spine.
It helps relieve minor-to-moderate back problems, and also balances the chronic muscular contractions in the shoulder and the chest that arise from sitting in a chair for long hours. The cycle of alternately stretching and bending also enhances the functioning of the digestive system, and core muscles.
►Surya namaskara is, in essence, a weight-bearing exercise. Hence, it contributes to greater bone-mineral density.
►The positions in surya namaskara are accompanied by a specific breathing pattern, which increases lung capacity, teaches the body to use available oxygen efficiently, and enhances blood circulation.
►The psychological benefits of yoga have been explored and recognized by Western medicine. Regularly practicing surya namaskara is known to aid stress relief, and helps keep depression away. It promotes 'mindfulness', and, over time, imparts a calm, peaceful mentality to the practitioner. It also helps the practitioner relax in the short term.
►Traditionally, surya namaskara, like all yoga, is considered to be much more than just bodily exercise. The various positions in sun salutations are considered to have a positive effect on respective chakras in the human body. In the West, yoga has been practiced primarily as a physical exercise, and the spiritual aspect has been largely ignored.
There haven't been any studies proving a connection between this exercise and the various chakras of the human body, and believing in the chakra system is completely a matter of choice. Personally, I have been practicing surya namaskara for much of the last 7 years, purely as a physical exercise.
However, the alleged positions of the various chakras correspond, with surprising accuracy, to the positions of various endocrine glands and vital organs in the human body, and sun salutations may also enhance the functioning of these glands and organs.
The chakramost affected by each position can be said to be the one consisting of the organs and glands closest to the gravitational center of the body while performing the position (this is just a general rule of thumbs). Let's look at the benefits conferred by each of the 7 distinct aasanas in surya namaskara.
Although this is described as a 'resting pose', it helps you figure out the best way to balance your body. Tightened core muscles and thighs help you hold your body in a straight line, which is an oft-overlooked aspect of general fitness. It also helps you figure out any problems with your alignment.
This pose is said to have an effect on the Anahata chakra. This chakra is located in the chest, and can be said to be equivalent to the thymus and the heart.
2. Hasta Uttanasana
This is the first 'stretching pose'. As mentioned before, stretching your spine is one of the best things you can do for one of the most important parts of the body, before a day of sitting in a chair and hardly moving at all. It relieves the pressure on the spinal discs, acting as a deterrent against the likes of herniated discs and other spinal ailments.
Stretching the spine also 'wrings out' the abdominal organs, thus improving digestion, and increases the range of motion of the shoulder and biceps/triceps muscles.
This position is said to enhance the Vishuddhi chakra. This chakra, situated in the throat, can be said to correspond with the thyroid and parathyroid glands.
This is the first bending pose. Bending forward stretches the glutes, hamstrings, and the calves, and results in stronger, more flexible legs and hips. It also increases blood flow to the brain, but since the next position reverses this effect, this is not a major advantage.
This position is said to benefit the Swadhishthana chakra. This chakra, situated in the sacrum, can be said to correspond to the gonads.
This stretching pose imparts the same benefits as a lunge. It stretches the thighs and the groin, as well as engaging abdominal muscles and the lats. Correctly done, it also stretches the arm and shoulder muscles.
This position is said to work upon the Ajna chakra. This chakra, located on the forehead between the eyebrows, can be analogously compared to the pineal gland.
5. Adho Mukha Shwanasana
This step imparts roughly the same benefits as the Western exercise of plank. Sometimes, an actual plank is performed instead of this aasana. Balancing the body on the palms and toes strengthens the shoulders, wrists, core muscles, and hips. It also stretches and strengthens the calves and hamstrings, especially the former.
This position is said to enhance the previously mentioned Vishuddhi chakra.
6. Ashtanga Namaskara
This step is very similar to a pushup, except that the hips are raised above the body, and the knees touch the floor. Like the pushup, this position strengthens the shoulders, the core muscles, and the hips and thighs.
This position is said to better the Manipura chakra. Located in the abdomen, it can be equated to the pancreas, and the adrenal glands.
This is the 3rd stretching position in the sequence, and consequently relieves the spine, strengthens the shoulders, and enhances the functioning of the abdominal organs.
This position enhances the previously mentioned Swadhishthana chakra.
Position 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are simply repetitions of the positions 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1, respectively; this signifies the cyclical nature of this exercise.
Despite the universally beneficial nature of these exercises, some precaution must be taken. Surya namaskara is primarily a stretching exercise, and proper warmup should be done before starting this exercise. If not warmed up, forceful stretching of the muscles can cause serious injuries.
Like all exercises, a physician must be consulted before starting a new exercise regime, especially if you suffer from a spinal, cardiac, or respiratory condition.
Pregnant women should refrain from doing the full exercise, especially after the first trimester, and should consult a trusted yoga expert for a modified version of the exercise, which can actually be beneficial to the baby's growth and the mother's well-being.
DISCLAIMER: This post should not be used as replacement for medical advice. The advice of a medical professional should always be sought before starting any exercise routine.