It’s June 21! Finally, the Summer Solstice has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s time to celebrate the long awaited first day of summer — the longest day of the year, and the ideal time to contemplate the power of the sun. For some of us, this may mean 108 painstaking Sun Salutations at our local yoga studio… but what is the spiritual significance behind Sun Salutations? And why 108?
Like much of yoga today, the practice of 108 Sun Salutations on the Summer Solstice is a New Age observance, merging ancient and contemporary ideals. It is exceptionally physical but can also be devotional. By understanding its meaning, we can begin to harness the therapeutic energy (Prana) behind this ancient practice and auspicious date to connect with our true nature as well as the divine.
Since time immemorial, the sun has been a symbol of life. Ancient engravings and paintings depict the sun’s rays as the interim between our bodies and the celestial heaven. Our ancestors not only saw the sun as life-giving energy but also as the origin of all spiritual life.
Yoga is no exception. According to the Vedas — ancient Yogic revelations recorded by the world’s earliest sages — the sun (Surya) is not only the creator of all life (and sunburns!), but also the physical manifestation of the soul. The sun illuminates our true nature so we may cultivate compassionate connections with ourselves, others, and the cosmic world. In short, the outer sun represents our “inner sun” – the domicile of higher wisdom and our true selves. As such, yogis have developed many practices to worship the sun that are still practiced daily in many parts of India today.
Of those, the most well-known practice are Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara). Many of us practice Sun Salutations to produce internal body heat during our practice. And boy, do they make us sweat! Despite its ability to tone our bodies, this 12-asana series represents the circle of life. Each of the 12 asanas co-relates to the 12 astrological sun signs in which the sun passes through in one year. Because the quality of solar energy changes every 30 days, we can harness the energy of this powerful practice to deepen our personal and spiritual growth, as well as heal our bodies and minds.
Simply completing one set of Sun Salutations floods the nervous system with solar energy, both balancing emotions and increasing higher cerebral activity.
But why 108? In the Yogic tradition, 108 is a sacred number. Vedic mathematicians viewed 108 as a number of spiritual completion. The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the earth, while the average distance of the sun and moon to earth is 108 times their particular diameters; in astrology, there are 12 constellations and 9 planets (12×9=108); there are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet and each has a masculine and feminine form (54×2=108); there are 108 petals in a natural rose; and, malas come as a string of 108 beads that orbit like planets around the sun or “guru bead.” These are just some of the many examples that exist which support the significance of 108 in various religions and traditions around the world.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “How the hell am I going to complete 108!?!” It doesn’t matter… you may complete 108, or simply 20. Don’t worry about how many you do. Yoga is not a competition. Your intention behind the practice is what matters most. If you remember to breathe deeply and intentionally, you will be astonished at just how many you are able to complete.
This practice creates a tremendous amount of upward energy in the body, and, as a result, stagnant energy and emotions will begin to move throughout the body. Acknowledge whatever comes up for you during your practice and let go of the things that no longer serve you. Only you have the power to shift your perspective.
With that in mind, it is also very important that you listen to your body! Never hesitate to take a break in Child’s Pose if you feel dizzy, or to modify poses when your alignment is compromised from fatigue. You can bring both knees down to the mat for Chaturanga or try Baby Cobra instead of Upward Facing Dog. Remember, stopping or modifying your practice is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength because you are in tune with your body.
Although the practice of 108 Sun Salutations during the Summer Solstice is a New Age observance, the observance acts as a wonderful reminder to us all that we are interconnected with one another and the cosmos. With each Sun Salutation, it is as if we orbit the sun and return back to earth with our feet firmly grounded and re-energized. But most importantly, we are one step closer to uncovering our ultimate purpose in life. Surrender to your breath, and allow your inner intuition to guide you through the movement. Don’t worry, you will be just fine.
Madeline Plucinska is a yoga teacher in Princeton, NJ. She is passionate about empowering her students to heal from the inside out through yoga, meditation, sound, and nutrition. She has her B.A. in Psychology from Franklin University Switzerland. In her free time, she loves to travel and be outside of her comfort zone. You can connect with her on Instagram at @little.madeliine.