The meaning of sun salutations in vinyasa flow yoga
I love Sun Salutations. I love doing them exactly the same way every day. I don’t need to be creative with them. But do you know why we practise sun salutations in vinyasa flow yoga? When asked about keeping up a yoga practice, I often say “consistency is what really matters. don’t worry about duration or intensity, just do something every day.” When asked about sequencing one’s practice for home or a classroom environment, I’ll defend the power of simple movements repeated several times with breath taught over many classes over complicated choreography that’s shifting and changing from one moment to the next and never repeated again from one class to another. If asked why, I’ll say “repetition of simple movements with breath is what will help the nervous system and mind relax, too much new and complicated will just stimulate and potentially lead to new stress.”
I say these things, know them intuitively to be true, but beyond tradition (yoga sutras definitely emphasise repetition and consistency, and the movements of sun salutes are very much present in Eastern prayer tradition) really haven’t had much to back it up. But I think I’m beginning to get a clearer picture.
By emphasising repetition and consistency in our physical vinyasa flow practices we are working towards entry into a psychological state of flow which brings the mind into a state of relaxation, further calmed by a nervous system in balance. Let me explain more why we practise sun salutations in vinyasa flow yoga
Why we practise sun salutations for the repetition
Every time we repeat an action like those involved in sun salutes, we increase the amount the steps and thought processes involved in executing it become hardwired into our brains. After an extended period of consistent practice and repetition, our brains no longer have to go through an involved conscious decision-making process to execute those actions and we can become deeply engrossed in the physical flow so much it can enter a state of psychological flow. To simplify and bring to yoga land, the more we do a sun-salutation, for example, the more it becomes second nature and we don’t have to try to remember every little alignment cue to get us there. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains flow using the example of elite athletes:
The brain waves of an athlete in flow are not crazed by the chatter of conscious deliberation. During flow, the brain enters a state of hypofrontality, meaning that parts of the prefrontal cortex temporarily become less active. These are areas involved in abstract thinking, planning into the future, and concentrating on one’s sense of self.
Eagleman further explains that when we have hardwired a skill into our brain and no longer have to ‘think’ about it too much to execute it, EEG scans register increased alpha waves in the brain, associated with calm and rest.
I feel confident that having a hearty chunk of your yoga practice dedicated to simple, repetitive movement (for me, it’s sun salutations) executed regularly can have a major effect on your mental health and ability to relax. It’s that feeling we get when doing those repeated sun salutations without much fuss or clutter. When we overcomplicate the flow, it becomes something a bit more involved and potentially stressful for the brain when we struggle to learn new things – which isn’t necessarily bad, just should be regarded as a separate component of the practice (more on that later).
Why we practise sun salutations for breath
The function of the mind is only part of the story. Of course, we have a body. We breathe into it. Hormones and chemicals run through it. The nervous system regulates a great deal of this and when it’s out of whack, so are all the functions of our body.
Along with encouraging a relaxed mental state, repetition of basic movements with breath in the sun salutation can encourage an even rhythm between inhale and exhale. Studies quoted by Rick Hanson in Buddha’s Brain show that this leads to greater balance within one’s heart rate variability and through that a better balance between the fight or flight and rest and digest functions of the nervous system.
I find as a practitioner and teacher that repetition and consistency (and the familiarity it gives to posture combinations and movements) lead to an increased ability to breathe in rhythm. When we introduce loads of new elements all the time, have to figure out how to do them and what comes next, we start to lose the ability to easily breathe in rhythm, easily calm the nervous system, and easily calm the brain into flow. I have emphasised easily here because as we move into more complicated poses and transitions we then start working with our resilience through challenge and take the skills of breath and consistent repetition we developed in non-fussy actions into more complicated ones.
Why we practise sun salutations when it gets tough
Meditation teaching usually emphasises developing the ability to concentrate first before seeking greater transcendental insight. You have to be able to sit calmly and breathe before you can start connecting to anything richer and deeper and/or discovering what may be blocking your path. Similarly, in posture practice, we have to be able to calm and focus ourselves before we see how we interact with disruptive forces of more complicated poses and transitions.
No matter who you are, life is gonna throw challenges at you and you have to be able to deal with them. I believe that when we first develop the state of flow and the ability to rest the nervous system, we give our minds and our bodies a well-needed break – don’t forget the brain expends energy too and gets tired. Now calm or calmer we can face whatever task is at hand with clarity and focus. Additionally, with a discipline of repetition and consistent practice as part of our personality (as well as all the learnings and daily battles it may have taken us to get there), we can whittle away at challenges with less frustration.
So I will continue my love of sun-salutations and include them happily in the beginning segments of every active practice I do and teach. I will also keep thinking, questioning, and considering why we practise sun salutations.