This year, the central government has issued a directive to conduct a mass musical Surya Namaskar session to be held countrywide on January 26, 2022. This initiative is planned to commemorate the 75th anniversary of India's Independence.
In the light of this event, I take this opportunity to recount the health benefits of this 12-step workout.
It is common knowledge that the sun is a giant ball of glowing gases, with a core temperature of 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. It is the heart of the solar system and very special to us. Life on earth would not be possible without the sun. It is no wonder that the ancient cultures and civilizations of the world worshipped the sun and many of them even represented it as a deity.
Egyptian, Indo-European and Meso-American civilizations developed their religions around solar motifs. All of them have the strong ideology that the sun is the ruler of the upper and lower worlds. There is almost a universal connection between sunlight, illumination and enlightenment.
Egyptians believed that the sun God Ra is the most powerful among all their deities. Sun also occupied a central position in Sumerian culture. Ancient Indian traditional texts have also accorded high significance to the Sun. Surya devata is glorified in the Vedas and believed to expel darkness, disease and evil. A dynasty of rulers in ancient India was said to be descendants of the sun, called Suryavamsis. Medieval Iranians also ardently celebrated sun festivals in pre-Islamic times. Evidence of sun worship has also been found in Roman, Aztec and Japanese cultures. The Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, was considered the supreme ruler of the world and given high importance to such an extent that to this day, the sun symbol adorns the Japanese National flag.
Scientific Significance of the Sun
Modern science has now established the various ways in which the sun affects the human body:
The UV rays of the sun are fatal to microbes and bacteria. Ample sunlight exposure, therefore, disinfects surfaces, water, human skin and prevents infectious diseases.
Sunlight exposure is essential and the most abundant source of vitamin D for the human body. The precursor of vitamin D 7-dehydrocholesterol is synthesised in our skin. This molecule is converted to vitamin D3 only in presence of sunlight. Further, it gets metabolised in the liver to form the active form of vitamin D, called calcitriol.
Plants convert the light energy from the sun into glucose and oxygen, through photosynthesis. Oxygen is the life-giving gas to humans, and plants serve as one of the major nutritional sources to us.
The main regulator of our daily sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm is the duration of sunlight exposure. When we are exposed to sunlight, the brain synthesises a hormone called serotonin. It helps keep us awake, focused and boosts our mood. During the night, the absence of light triggers the release of melatonin which is responsible for sleep. It is important to maintain the proper duration of light exposure in order to have a regular sleep-wake schedule.
Ayurveda recognises the effect of seasons on our health and has always advocated ritucharya or seasonal regimen. Modern science has now identified that seasons with lower sunlight may affect our mood and result in a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder.
The sun being the life-giver, ancient Indian sages developed the Surya namaskar or sun salutations and practised it during sunrise and sunset. It is a common misconception that Surya Namaskar is a religious rite. However, there is no mention of any religion or dogma in the traditional yoga texts.
In very simple terms, it is a universal kind of exercise, right for all ages, for children, women and men, costing nothing, capable of being performed in a short time, without any accessories, at any moment, anywhere.
It sounds too good to be true, but Surya Namaskar is the ultimate workout and is a one-stop solution to all health problems.
It consists of a series of 12 postures or asanas performed along with rhythmic inhalation and exhalation. Each posture is also associated with a specific sound called as bija mantra which enables vibrations in the body.
Regular practice of Surya namaskar does greatly improve muscle strength and physical health, acting as a workout regimen. But it also goes beyond just this and helps with mental health, emotional resilience and stress management.
Evidence-based effects of Surya namaskar on our body physiology include:
- Muscle strengthening and improved muscle tone result in better overall musculoskeletal health.
- Promotes cardio-respiratory fitness. It increases the strength of the heart muscles, improves oxygen consumption, increases blood flow to the extremities of the body and also increases lung capacity.
- Helps in body weight-loss. During the practice of Surya namaskar, about 7-9 kcal/min of energy is expended. Just 20 minutes of Surya namaskar is equivalent to cycling at 15 mile per hour and jogging at 8 miles per hour.
- The practise of Surya Namaskar increases the production of heat in the body, therefore increasing the metabolic rate.
- Improves neurocognitive functions such as alertness, memory, awareness, attention-span and reaction time.
- It also produces a feeling of relaxation, mental quiet and physical relaxation while reducing stress, worry and negative emotions.
- It has also found clinical applications in diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, bronchial asthma, low back pain, insomnia etc…
The sun is no doubt, an important entity that has ensured the survival of life on earth. Many ancient cultures of the world have indulged in solar worship. Scientific evidence also backs the significant effects of the sun on human health.
Surya Namaskar, therefore, is an apt way to show our reverence to this cosmic giant while enjoying the health benefits of this wondrous practice.