~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Salutation to the Breath

January 14, 2013
The classic sun salute, or surya namaskar, can be a beautiful, enlivening posture flow, and some days it feels like the perfect antidote to life's troubles.

On occasion, though, it feels like too much. Some days I want to nudge a little energy back through my body but I don't want to change into my yoga duds and roll out my mat. Some days I don't feel like jumping and bobbing and lunging. Some days I want something gentle and sweet instead.

And as a yoga teacher, I find sun salutations challenging for many. The deep bends ask a lot. The dog poses and chatturangas sometimes strain wrists and shoulders. Sometimes the flowing sequence just seems a little strained and bumpy.

I've been looking for a gentler alternative that can shake off the doldrums and wake up the body. I've been looking for something I can practice while standing in the kitchen or waiting for the tea water to boil. I've been seeking a flow allows me to feel like I can breathe again.

After monkeying around, I've created a short sequence of five different movements that I sometimes offer as a salutation to the breath, or prana namaskar. Students have asked me to write down the sequence, and I am happy to oblige.

Please accept these instructions as rather loose suggestions, and modify them in any way that feels best for you. Don't try to manipulate the breath in any complicated way. The movement itself will invite the breath to shift on its own. In between rounds, rest for a few breaths in tadasana or in a standing forward fold, or uttanasana. Think of these breathing salutes as some beautiful hybrid between yoga and tai chi.

Stand in mountain pose, or tadasana, with the legs together and arms at your sides. Let an inhalation carry your arms in front of you and then up overhead, and let an exhalation carry your arms out to the sides and back down by your hips.

These instructions are deliberately loose so that you can modify them to suit your needs. For example, I like keeping the arms slightly round and bent, but you may not. I like to let my gaze follow my hands on the way up and back down toward on the return journey, but that may not feel comfortable for your neck. And sometimes I let the legs bend slightly as I exhale, creating a more full-bodied experience.

Students have told me this feels like swimming the breast stroke (minus the kick). I always imagine I'm diving upward into the deep blue sky.

Repeat this for several rounds - five to 10 sounds about right to me.

Stand again in tadasana, this time with legs hip-distance apart and arms in prayer position, or namaste. Keeping the hands together, extend the arms out in front of you and draw the elbows toward each other. Keeping the elbows and palms touching, lift your upper arms until they are parallel to the floor and fold the elbows at a 90-degree angle so the forearms are perpendicular to the ground.

As you inhale, open the arms apart as far as possible, keeping the elbows at shoulder height and the hands directly above the elbows. As you exhale, draw the arms back together in front of you into the starting position, keeping the shoulders relaxed all the while.

I imagine that my arms form the front and back covers of my favorite book, and that in this action I'm spreading the covers apart and then closing the book again. Others tell me this feels like a clam shell opening and closing. Repeat this five to 10 times.

Stand in a very wide-legged tadasana here, with the hands at your sides. As you inhale, extend your right arm outward and then upward toward the sky, enjoying a long stretch to the right side of the body as you do so. As you exhale, retrace your steps until your hand returns to its original position.

Repeat this on the next breath on the left side of the body. Extend the side stretch as far as you like so you enjoy a comfortable but not overwhelming stretch.

Continue alternating back and forth for five to 10 rounds.

Return to tadasana with the feet hip-distance apart. Stand with your hands straight out in front of you. Begin tracing an infinity symbol (a figure eight on its side) with hands nearly together. Start out with smaller infinity loops, which will be straight out in front of you, and then begin making your loops larger and larger, until your torso twists along with the action and the infinity loops begin to wrap around your body, carrying your arms into the space to your sides (and possibly even behind you).

Let an inhalation accompany the upward sweeps of the infinity loop and an exhalation accompany the downward sweeps. I sometimes bend my knees along with the downward swoops, letting this become as full-bodied a movement as possible. This one is my favorite!

Repeat this five to 10 times on each side.

Return to tadasana with the legs together. Interlace your hands behind you. As you breathe in, raise the hands off the sacrum toward the wall behind you while squeezing the shoulder blades together and broadening across the top front chest. As you breathe out, release back to the starting position, resting your hands back onto your sacrum. Keep the elbows slightly bent in order to avoid hyperextending your arms.

Sometimes I look up as I inhale and down toward my toes as I exhale, and sometimes I bend my legs with the exhale, too.

Repeat five to 10 times, focusing on ironing out all of the wrinkles in your upper chest and scrubbing the heart clean.

After slipping through all five of these salutations to the breath, stand quietly for a few moments (or even settle onto the floor if you like) and notice how you feel and what has changed. Perhaps you'll feel a renewed bubbliness within, a sense of lightness and freedom, a delicious breathability. Maybe the inhalations will feel life-giving and the exhalations will feel like sweet sighs of relief. Perhaps you'll even feel as though you've finally cast off a straightjacket that only now you see was strangling you. At last, you’ll be able to breathe again, finally reclaiming that vibrant source of life within you.