Years ago I brought a 45-page booklet, Namaz: The yoga of Islam, by Ashraf F Nizami (published by DB Taraporevala Sons & Co). I was fascinated by the common thread stringing the book: of similarity between the flow of postures held during Islamic prayer and the yogic sequence.
1,25,000 children participate in 'Suryanamaskar Day' at New English High School in 2009. File photo
One example from the book is of how the sajda posture in namaz is similar to Shashankasana or the hare pose that some yoga schools use as part of their sequence! And the Muslim jalsa pose is similar to the Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose). Such attempts as by Nizami show how cultural practices bind rather than separate.
Originally, perhaps, the sun salutation was meant as a prayer. But today, in a general yoga class and even in yoga ashrams, it is primarily used as a warm-up preparatory to the rest of the practice of yogic postures and breathing. Mental focus, breathing sequentially and muscular effort are of importance as one executes the flow which gifts the practitioner with a bouquet of benefits which is longer than I can compile here.
I will attempt to present just a few: hormonal balance, spinal flexibility, a healthy metabolic spike, prevention and control of major problems like diabetes (which is endemic among Indians) and chronic respiratory problems like bronchitis and asthma, back problems and headaches. It helps control problems of the liver and the digestive tract, relieves constipation. It cleanses the body by engaging the lymphatic system, clearing toxins. It keeps the skin clear and young for the same reason. The lunges in it work on the uro-genital system, one of the most difficult systems to manage in terms of health.
Its poses press into and massages major endocrine glands that control not just our body but also our mind, through their secretions. If children are taught the Suryanamaskar early on, it postpones the onset of puberty (a problem of modern age when children are increasingly attaining puberty at an earlier age) so that their mind and body mature together (now their bodies acquire maturity before the brain is ready to handle the responsibility for that). Are we to allow a reaction to the name of the practice block our eyes from looking at what it means in terms of health?
perhaps the above list may not satisfy those who wonder if the sun salute is a prayer or a health practice. It can be both. For yoga itself is like a large ocean into which different streams may flow. You can dip into it for different things and serendipitously come up with what you wish from it. However, to a large majority of those who practise the sequence, it primarily remains a flow of immense health benefits.
There may be fence-sitters who worry if yoga must be practised because of its spiritual underpinnings. But for those who make the fine distinction between spiritualism and religion, such confusion will not arise. For others, I can only say that yoga does have spiritual underpinnings, but to reach into that depth needs a different orientation, long-term study and another level of commitment that goes far beyond the physical yoga which is today referred to as hatha yoga. At the physical level, where it is practised largely for health and mental focus, it offers itself as a fantastic healing science and may be embraced as such without any confusion.
I recall when training to become a yoga instructor at a yoga ashram that large groups of youngsters came (and I know they still come) from Islamic countries for the same training. They would specially hire and fly down a translator from their own country, so they can follow the lectures and give their exams for the yoga trainer certification in their own language. There were many women, too, training to become yoga instructors. They all were eager to go back to their home countries to teach yoga.
That is because yoga teaching is now the sunrise industry the world over. Some yoga trainers on the international scene have attained more celebrity status than rock stars. Are we to deny our youth -- by preventing them from practising yoga -- entry into a job market that will offer them immense potential to earn, become independent, create their own styles and studios so they can offer the health that comes from an ancient, time-tested science?
Shameem Akthar, Yogacharya, who trained with SivanandaYoga Vedanta Centre, is an author of two books on Yoga and a columnist with several publications.