Sunday, July 15, 2012

Here Comes the Sun

That most familiar of asana sequences, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is as rich in symbolic and mythic overtones as it is in physical benefits.
By Richard Rosen
In many cultures, light has long been a symbol of consciousness and self-illumination. "The world begins with the coming of light," wrote Jungian analyst Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton University Press, 1995). "Opposition between light and darkness has informed the spiritual world of all peoples and molded it into shape."
Our primary source of light is, of course, the sun. When we look at our closest star, we may see nothing more than a big yellow ball. But for thousands of years, the Hindus have revered the sun, which they call Surya, as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world and the creator of all life itself. That's why one of Surya's many other appellations is Savitri (the Vivifier), who, according to the Rig Veda, "begets and feeds mankind in various manners" . Moreover, since everything that exists originates from the sun, as Alain Dani┼Żlou wrote in The Myths and Gods of India (Inner Traditions, 1991), it "must contain the potentiality of all that is to be known." For the Hindus, the sun is the "eye of the world" (loka chakshus), seeing and uniting all selves in itself, an image of and a pathway to the divine.

One of the means of honoring the sun is through the dynamic asana sequence Surya Namaskar (better known as Sun Salutation). The Sanskrit word namaskar stems from namas, which means "to bow to" or "to adore." (The familiar phrase we use to close our yoga classes, namastete means "you"—also comes from this root.) Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands mudra (gesture) touched to the heart. This placement is no accident; only the heart can know the truth.
The ancient yogis taught that each of us replicates the world at large, embodying "rivers, seas, mountains, fields...stars and planets...the sun and moon" (Shiva Samhita, II.1-3). The outer sun, they asserted, is in reality a token of our own "inner sun," which corresponds to our subtle, or spiritual, heart. Here is the seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana) and, in some traditions, the domicile of the embodied self (jivatman).

It might seem strange to us that the yogis place the seat of wisdom in the heart, which we typically associate with our emotions, and not the brain. But in yoga, the brain is actually symbolized by the moon, which reflects the sun's light but generates none of its own. This kind of knowledge is worthwhile for dealing with mundane affairs, and is even necessary to a certain extent for the lower stages of spiritual practice. But in the end, the brain is inherently limited in what it can know and is prone to what Patanjali calls misconception (viparyaya) or false knowledge of the self.

History and Practice
There's some disagreement among authorities over the origins of Sun Salutation. Traditionalists contend that the sequence is at least 2,500 years old (perhaps even several hundred years older), that it originated during Vedic times as a ritual prostration to the dawn, replete with mantras, offerings of flowers and rice, and libations of water. Skeptics of this dating maintain that Sun Salutation was invented by the raja of Aundh (a former state in India, now part of Maharashtra state) in the early 20th century, then disseminated to the West in the 1920s or 1930s.

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