सूर्य नमस्कार (sūrya namaskāra), lit. the performance of a bow, i.e. devotion, to the sun, is a very popular sequence of twelve yoga poses. Its performance is aimed at harnessing the divine energy of the sun in order to make the whole being prosperous and energetic. According to Vedic theory every living being simultaneously exists as a gross and a subtle form, as unstable matter manifested in the physical world for a limited time only, and as the immortal breath of the soul, the जीवात्मा (jīvātmā), hailing from the unageing regions of light – the abode of the gods. The aim of the performance of the sequence of yoga positions called सूर्य नमस्कार (sūrya namaskāra) is the invigoration of both these aspects of existence: physical and divine, mortal and immortal.

The twelve positions represent the twelve आदित्याः (ādityāḥ), the deities of the Vedic pantheon. The term आदित्य (āditya) literally means the one relating to अदिति (aditi), boundlessness or immensity. The word consists of the privative prefix अ (a), meaning not, and दिति (diti), from the root दा (dā) to tie, hence the state of being untied, i.e. not limited. Each of the twelve postures is traditionally initiated by the pronunciation of the vowel ॐ (ōm), which is followed by the dative, meaning to, of the name of one of the deities and the word नमः (namaḥ), bow, devotion. The first posture, for example, is initiated by ॐ मित्राय नमः (ōm mitrāya namaḥ), ohm – to mitra: devotion.

The number twelve also refers to the twelve units of existence, twelve elements of consciousness or manifestations of life energy – motion, breath, touch, vision, thought, etc. – organising living beings in a hierarchy of consciousness according to the number of such units possessed by them. Trees possess only a few units, they do not move and cannot see, animals more, they see, move and breathe but are not blessed with the gift of abstract though, and humans, whose body and mind is awakened, most. By the performance of the सूर्य नमस्कार (sūrya namaskāra) the yogi can energise and replenish these twelve manifestations of life energy and thus make existence more prosperous and fulfilling. Below is a list of the twelve poses with an explanation of their Sanskrit names. The general term for a yoga position is आसन (āsana). The word consists of the root आस् (ās), to sit and the suffix -अन (-ana), hence the action of sitting, a posture. It forms the end of all the compound words designating the different poses.

1. प्रणामासन (praṇāmāsna), from प्र (pra), forward or in front, and the root नम् (nam) to bow: the posture of respectful salutation. 2. हस्तोत्तानासन (hastottānāsana), from हस्त (hasta), hand and उत्तान (uttāna), from उद्, up or out, and तान (tāna), stretched, from the root तन्, to stretch: the posture of the stretched out hands. 3. हस्तपादासन (hastapādāsana), from हस्त (hasta), hand and पाद (pāda), foot: the posture of joining hand and feet. 4. एकपादप्रसरणासन (ekapādaprasaraṇāsana), from एक (eka), one, पाद (pāda), foot and प्रसरण (prasaraṇa), from प्र (pra), forth and सरण (saraṇa) from the root सृ (sṛ) to flow and the suffix -अन (-ana), the going forth: the posture of going forth with one foot. 5. अधोमुखश्वासन (adhomukhaśvāsana), from अधः (adhaḥ), down, मुख (mukha), face and श्वा (śvā), dog: the pose of the downward-facing dog. 6. अष्टाङ्गनमस्कर (aṣṭāṅganamaskara), from अष्ट (aṣṭa), eight, अङ्ग (añga), limb and नमस्कर (namaskara), from नमः, bow or reverence, derived from the root नम् (nam) to bow, and कर (kara) derived from the root कृ (kṛ), to do or act: the pose of paying reverence with the eight limbs. 7. भुजङ्गासन (bhujaṅgāsana), from भुजङ्ग (bhujañga), cobra: the pose of the cobra. 8. Same as the fifth pose. 9. अश्वसंचलनासन (aśvasañcalanāsana), from अश्व (aśva), horse and संचलन (sañcalana), derived from the root चल् (cal), to move, to which the prefix सम् (sam), usually together, but here the meaning is vague, and the suffix -अन (-ana) have been added: the pose of moving into a horse-like position. 10. उत्तानासन (uttānāsana), from उत्तान (uttāna), from उद्, up or out, and तान (tāna), stretched, from the root तन्, to stretch: the stretched pose. 11. Same as the second pose. 12. Identical with the pose from which the cycle started.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages