Trend Celebrity endorsements and patronage from the West have turned surya namaskar into a body sculpting exercise, writes Aparna Karthikeyan

“Why don’t you do Surya Namaskars?” a friend asked me, as I wheezed up the stairs after her. “It doesn’t take very long, makes you quite fit, and you don’t even need to step out of your house.” In fact, 108 surya namaskars everyday, she confided, was what many actresses did to stay slim; I needed to begin with just 12 sets and I might even, she added temptingly, soon rediscover my waist. “Just look it up online, there are plenty of videos that teach you,” she told me breezily, before she left. Curious, I decided to find out if surya namaskars was the panacea it was made out to be…

But first, some background…

Surya namaskars evolved as a series of postures linked to one another, explains S. Sridharan, Trustee of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and a disciple of Desikachar for 40 years. “The practise began with the recitation of ‘arunam’, (a passage in Krishna Yajur Veda) in ancient times. Since it was a long passage, arunam was broken up into several parts, and after each part, they would prostrate to the East, facing the rising sun. But instead of simply falling to the ground, they followed this series to prostrate fully, putting all the limbs on the ground, in a shastanga namaskaram,” he says. Most postures then were practised in a serial way, a bit like learning Carnatic music, step-by-step, from the swaras.

Over the years though, surya namaskar, like yoga in general, thanks to celebrity endorsement and patronage from the West, became hip, a fad even. Personal trainers tripped over each other to attribute popular actors’ teensy waists to hundreds of surya namaskars every morning, and it became the ‘it’ exercise.

“But asanas are just one limb of yoga,” Srimathy and Ravi of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Shala tell me. “Yoga is about the mind, about achieving a state where you can suspend the activities of the mind. The physical practise of asanas is only a tool to go there. Unfortunately, people tend to stop with the asanas, and moreover, they become obsessed with it.” And that somewhat explains the numbers game — 100 surya namaskars every morning. Or 200. All in the pursuit of a perfect body.

“People have taken a fancy to surya namaskars and promoted it,” agrees Sridharan. Years ago, he tells me, Eugene Sandow, a well-known foreign body-builder played a role in popularising the sequence, and there were booklets that showed him doing surya namaskars. “But while surya namaskar is a fantastic warm-up, it cannot be considered a full body exercise,” he says, adding that, to qualify as one, you should’ve moved your spine in all the directions, whereas surya namaskar does not move the spine in the five possible ways.

Typically, surya namaskars are performed in the morning, on an empty stomach. You begin the series standing, with your hands folded; and in 12 postures that stretch and strengthen the back and limbs, you get back to the first position. Different schools of yoga also incorporate variations in the technique. But surya namaskar is not just a mechanical practise, says Srimathy, while Ravi demonstrates it, moving from one posture to another with enviable grace. “You need to connect with your breath, as well as get your kann dhrishti (focus the eyes) and bandhas (internal locks) right. All of this requires sustained practise under an experienced guru,” she tells me.

While surya namaskars sound eminently doable in theory, it’s actually not for everybody; if somebody forces themselves to do it, it can damage the back, as the postures and movements work and make demands on the back. “We have people who come to us after overstretching their backs,” says Sridharan. With a good instructor, you can be taken to the full surya namaskar, slowly, over a period of time. And it is definitely not advisable, he cautions, to follow a book or video and try this.

If practised correctly, Surya Namaskars can change the way you look, trimming the extra flab besides stretching, strengthening and toning the body. It also contributes to your overall wellbeing, by improving flexibility, circulation, digestion and the nervous system. But more importantly, it de-stresses and has a positively impact on your mental well being. When Yoga is a holistic practise, ask the experts, why just treat it as a set of exercises?