Sun Salutations: A Dance with the Breath
I wish I could speak like music.
I wish I could put the swaying splendor
Of the fields into words
So that you could hold Truth
Against your body
I am trying the best I can
With this crude brush, the tongue,
To cover you with light.
I wish I could speak like divine music.
I want to give you the sublime rhythms
Of this earth and the sky's limbs
As they joyously spin and surrender,
Against God's luminous breath.
Hafiz wants you to hold me
Against your precious
When people talk about yoga, they often speak about it like a love affair: how things changed once they “found” yoga, and that they’d never go back to life without it. There’s a certain ecstasy that can be found in the yoga practice, a moment here and there when everything in your world falls away, and suddenly, you are dancing.
The ancient yogic sages have always known there was something about the breath that contributes to this ecstasy. Our English words anger and anxiety come from the Greek root ankhone, which means “a strangling” or “to be without breath.” Perhaps the magic of yoga happens simply when the breath and the body can connect without any struggling or “strangling.”
In yoga philosophy there is a principle called Shakti. This divine feminine energy is what gives life to everything, what animates the world and creates the spanda, or pulsation, of life that is always in a process of being born or dying. Shakti is the energy in everything, and Shiva, the masculine principle, is what gives that energy its form. Neither can exist without the other. When we connect breath and body, we are bringing Shiva and Shakti together in an incredibly simple but deeply profound way.
I’ve come to understand the intention of the ubiquitous Sun Salutations as nothing other than the creation of this connection. There are many versions of the Sun Salutations, and my favorite is Surya Namaskar C: a beautiful, flowing sequence that I learned via yoga teacher Shiva Rea, and which I’d like to share with you.
When we practice this sequence, we are inviting the breath—the Shakti—into the room so she can stay with us as we explore the form and other aspects of our yoga or simply as we enter into the rest of our day. As you move through this, allow the inhales to feel like the crests of a wave, and the exhales the valleys. Waves don’t stop, they don’t freeze mid-motion, they literally just go with the flow. Listen to the oceanlike sound of your breath, and let it lead you in the dance. As always, check with your doctor before trying anything new if you have any health concerns.
Surya Namaskar C
1) Inhale and reach your arms up.
2) Exhale as you hinge from your hips to fold earthwards.
3) Swell your heart halfway up as you press your hands into your shins or the mat, creating a long spine.
4) Exhale your right foot to the back of your mat and lower your knee down. The core will engage as you complete your exhale.
5) The inhale waves your heart and hands towards the sky for Low Lunge pose, or anjaneyasana. Savor the moment at the top of your breath, the peak of your wave.
6) When the exhale comes, plant your palms to the mat and step to Downward Dog.
7) The inhale swells your heart forward to Plank pose, or the top of a pushup.
8) Exhale to your snake belly, using your knees if you like. Your elbows should stay over your wrists, so your arms move through a 90-degree angle as you come forward and down.
9) Untuck your toes and inhale your cobra heart forward and up, rolling your shoulders onto your back.
10) Exhale all the way back to Downward Dog by bringing your hips to your heels, and then unfolding your legs towards straight.
11) Inhale your right leg into the sky. Your exhale slowly pendulums the foot between your hands. Lower your back knee down.
12) Inhale to Low Lunge on this side. Savour the top of your inhale as you reach up.
13) Exhale your hands down, and step your feet to the top of your mat.
14) Halfway lift on your inhale.
15) Exhale and release to the earth again.
16) Inhale all the way up to standing.
17) Exhale your hands at your heart in Anjali mudra, palms touching.
18) Repeat this sequence at least one more time, leading with the left foot.
Rinse and repeat as many times as you like. Especially if you are new to moving in this way, it may take a while for the breath connection to feel natural. One day, when it does, even if it’s just for a moment, you’ll forget everything else, and I hope you can hold your breath against your precious body and dance, dance.