December 5, 2009
article by Nicole Becker. All rights reserved.
The Sanskrit word Vinyasa means “placing the body”. We often encounter it as the name of a style of Yoga class which focuses heavily on postures that flow together coordinating with the inhale and exhale. Vinyasa is also commonly used to refer to the Plank-Chaturanga-Upward Facing Dog-Down Dog series that is relied upon as the athletic “chorus” between the “verses” of the standing postures. Although you may know that this little series of poses is a small portion of the traditional Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) series, most of us are never taught the meaning behind these ubiquitous postures.
The traditional Surya Namaskar series is made up of 12 postures that correspond with 12 aspects of the Sun. Being essential to Life, the Sun has a special place of honor in many traditions, Yoga being no exception. Each posture in the Sun Salutation is meant to be a meditation on a particular aspect of Light. When taking the postures of a Sun Salute, one is mindful of the corresponding chakra/area of the body and is repeating the mantra internally three times. For example, in Plank, which arrives with an exhalation, the focus is on the throat chakra, and the mantra is “Om Khagaya Namaha“. Khagaya refers to “The One Who Moves Through the Sky”, or “The All Pervading Light”, signifying the unending passage of time and eternal light that pervades it. As we repeat the mantra, we meditate on our own Life and the Light of Consciousness – our eternal nature and also our impermanence in this bodily form. It might occur to you that this could take awhile to contemplate! That is why the mantra is repeated three times (to slow the movements down), and the Sun Salutation series is usually repeated 12 times, or multiples of 12.
Although ever present in modern yoga classes, Chaturanga – that clever yoga push-up – is not part of the traditional Sun Salute series. Instead, Eight-Point Pose (Ashtangasana) follows Plank, still on the exhalation, offering toes-knees-chest-chin to the ground. With the attention to the Solar Plexus/Navel, this posture honors the “Giver of Strength and Nourishment”. Repeating silently “Om Pushne Namaha” we honor the aspect of the Sun “Pushne” which is the source of all our food and thus all our strength.
Inhaling into Upward Facing Dog (or sometimes Cobra), we turn our focus to the pelvic chakra and open the chest, looking upward, honoring “Hiranya Garbhaya“, the Golden Cosmic Self. Signifying the absorption of the individual into the universal Ocean of Light, our small movement becomes a bigger offering to shining interconnectedness. “Om Hiranya Garbhaya Namaha.”
With Downward Facing Dog we repeat inwardly, “Om Marichaye Namaha“. Fingers and toes spread wide, hips reaching to the sky, we shift our focus from pelvis to throat. Like rays of the sun beaming through parting clouds, our limbs mimic the brilliant rays of the Sun. We become “Marichi” – The Light.
Understanding the meaning behind the movements, the Vinyasa becomes much more than just a means to get buff yoga arms, or spice up the practice with extra heat. Each movement becomes an opportunity to connect with an aspect of your self and the Natural Order of Things.
Ultimately, the Sun Salutation is a practice that honors the Inner Light that radiates from our own Hearts. Now maybe that Chaturanga will be a little more enjoyable. Better yet, replace it every once and a while with Eight Point Pose.
* Update: Nicole is teaching a 2-hour “Mantras of the Sun” workshop at her Northern California studio, Ojas Yoga Center on Saturday, June 17 from 3-5 p.m. Click here for registration details.