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The Origin of the Sun Salutation

in Yoga Origins


Many of us rise and shine with the sun salutations, but do we know the history behind the sequence?* Yoga scholar Mark Singleton shares his take from his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, via Decolonizing Yoga.

Mark Singleton is also a co-founder (with James Mallison) of the Roots of Yoga project, a sourcebook that aims to “cover the major historical moments of yoga’s evolution within the Indian subcontinent (from about 500BCE to 1750CE) and show the continuities, disjunctions and developments that have characterized its theory and practice across the centuries.” Singleton and Mallison successfully raised over $50,000 on kickstarter last year to fund the project.

By uncovering the old, does it help us make sense of the new?

*for perspective, noted modern yoga styles that do not incorporate the sun salutation: Iyengar, Bikram, Kundalini. noted style that is all about it: Ashtanga (from which almost all of the “vinyasa flows” borrow.)



13 comments… add one
  • Very interesting, YD.

    Thank for reminding me about “Roots of Yoga”. Going to keep an eye on that one.

    Bob W.

  • Mark Singleton’s writings are fascinating and informative. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I have learned so much from his writings a research. I look forward to the completion of this work.

  • Andre Van Lysbeth, in his book “Yoga Self-Taught” (1971), entitles Chapter 28 “Suryanamaskar, A Salutation to the Sun.” The chapter begins “See how I write ‘A’ and not ‘the’ Salutation to the Sun: because there are many variants…”
    From traditional sunrise devotionals to burpees and calisthenics, I’m sure Mr. Singleton is not attributing to the bodybuilder Pratinidhi Pant a “trademark patent” to Sun Salutes like Bikram has to asana sequence. There is too much diversity in yoga to claim originality. It may enhance ones love of yoga or a method to claim it sacred and traditional – and that is how ideas survive – but the sun salute you do on your mat is what it’s all about.

  • John

    While since I read the book but doesn’t he also mention a quote to the effect that “Hindu Sun Salutations have no place in yoga”, possible origins of sun salutations including Hindu prostrations (and obviously buddhist ones) and mention a source of some detailed research into exact history (which I wasn’t able to track down)

  • I put up a post on this a while back with screenshots of and links to the old 1928 sun salutation booklet, The Ten Point Way to Health by Shrimant Balasahib Rajah of Aundh
    From Chapter X. Evolution of Surya Namaskara

    ” It was in 1909 that we first began to do Surya namaskaras in the old style. According to this the knees were not straightened while bending over, nor was the foot brought forward on a line with the palms, and it was not necessary to stand erect at the beginning of each namakara or to regulate the breathing in a way we have indicated”.

    Interesting booklet, cute pictures

    Looking forward to Mark and James’ Roots, how much longer, another year?

    • Yes, about another year before it’s done. We’re right now in the process of signing a contract with Penguin for the book (slightly tricky as Mark is up in the Himalaya somewhere). Thanks again to everyone who helped with the Kickstarter campaign.

  • Helena Andreou

    Interresting indeed.

  • Chris

    Dear YD,

    Please note :

    At the Iyengar-Yoga-Institute in Pune, Surya-Namaskars are certainly taught and practised. I myself leaned my Surya-Namaskar at the Institute. So, the Iyengar School of Yoga most certainly does include Surya-Namaskars.

  • 1. This is ridiculous. How did each pose get a sanskrit chant praising the sun ? Did that also come from the west ? When did West start saluting the sun like majority of nature worshippers in India ?
    2. It is well known that Krishnamacharya went to the himalayas to learn yoga from a monk in the cave. he taught Pattacbhi jois , BKS iyengar who brought yoga to the west as Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar yoga etc. Another notable gurus is Swami Sivananda. aLL of them had their wisdom learning , meditating, practising in the himalayas. How did european gymnastics reach the Himalayan mountains.
    3. If you go to Kumbh mela where Sadhus come down from the himalayas, you will see them do a lot of yoga postures and contortions which the west sould not have still seen. One e.g. which may be a common practice after 100 years is to lift heavy objects using the penis. Extremely complex postures are paractised by these yogis with absolutely no influence even from other parts of India , leave alone the west.
    4. The Indian government has taken steps to document all these postures , about 2000 in number in a Traditional knowledge database. These has been compiled from several texts. How many of them did mark access ?
    5. India was in penury during the 100 years between 1850 and 1950. its growth rate was .09%. Do you think Indians had the time to learn body building techniques, document it , associate it with Sanskrit mantras etc etc. Is nt it heights of Imagination ?
    6. If you look at traditional arts like Kalaripayattu, Natyashastra you will see lot of postures . Are these also from the west ?

    It is high time that the west acknowledges the contributions of Indian thinkers, philosophy. They are highly advanced and universal all emanating from the foundation of vedas and upanishads, called “Hinduism” a.k.a Sanathan dharma.

    • Been there

      Apparently you need to read Mark Singleton’s book, as well as the research by James Mallison and others.
      The chant that accompanies Surya Namaskar was taught to me by a Brahmin in India. It was not a western invention.
      Also note that the Chaturanga in the illustration was a later addition, based on the influences Singleton notes. The earlier move was to touch the chin and chest to the floor — the ‘eight point prostration’ at the root of the ‘Ashtanga’ name — not Patanjali (at least originally).
      Your comments do not preclude western influence in the development of yoga, despite the Himalayan influences to which you refer.

      • 1. European gymnastics’ roots most likely can be traced to India as well. When the Portuguese, dutch and the British traded / invaded India they could have taken the yoga postures, postures of India’s classical dances, malkhamb, wrestling, Kalaripayattu (many a theory states that martial arts like Kungfu came from Kalari) and put these poses in motion to form gymnastics.

        2. Even if himalayan yogis want to incorporate something new they would have taken from Kalari or Indian wrestling . Even that is implausible, but there is no way any european could have made contact with these meditating yogis, translated to sanskrit hymns, documented it and spread it across.

        3. The Times of India reports that the government in India is completing its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a database of 1,300 unique yoga postures that seeks to set a precedent by establishing them as public knowledge. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/7809883/India-moves-to-patent-hundreds-of-yoga-postures.html
        How many poses did Mark study ?

        • thefunkyom

          Mark is not saying that there are no poses associated with the “traditional” Yoga. He is just saying there was major influence from the west in that Krishnamacharcharya hung around with many people interested in such things like western gymnastics and wrestling. He was teaching to young boys who needed to be pushed physically therefore he added more challenging poses then one sees in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

  • Alexis

    Hymn of aten by akhenaten 18th dynasty Egypt. The Egyptians saluted the sun before any other race….Heliopolis aka On..temple of the sun was dedicated to this. The poses used in contemporary yoga are found on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples. The closest religion to the ancient Egyptian pantheon and belief system is Hinduism. At one point in history, they were siblings.

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