Last January I began doing Sun Salutation first thing in the morning. Before I committed to this practice, it had been so long since I’d done any that I could barely remember the sequence of even one round. But I found a lovely video on youtube by a woman named Barbara with a German accent who clearly demonstrated the sequence as I remembered it being taught by my own teacher long ago. It was very hard to complete even one sequence at first, so I decided that if I thought of it literally as my greeting to the sun, and that I greeted the sun this way in thanks for another day of living before I did much of anything else, aligning myself with that fundamental spirit would help me relax into the sequence of poses. I decided to think of it as a kind of prayer I would “say” with my body.
One morning early into this new practice, on January 21 to be exact, I had the following experience:
“As I was arching my back to begin sun salutation this morning, the sun coming through the dining room window beamed right at my face and eyes, like being kissed by a diamond. It was pure joy. I have been waiting for it be high enough to meet me in some way. . . .And today it was!”
By February I was doing 4 each morning. Then 5. Now I usually do anywhere from 8 to 11 of them each morning. But the number doesn’t really matter. There is so much in each part of the sequence to focus on: how I am breathing in and out, where my eyes look in each position, how I breathe into each stretch, and what it’s like to be caught up in the overall feel of saying thank you to the sun for another day. It’s always magnificent in some way I can never quite put into words.
The other day, as Halloween approached, I was, once again, arching back to begin a sequence and the sun met my face and eyes through the south window of my dining room in exactly the same way it had in late January. Only instead of slowly climbing in the sky each morning, it’s now descending. And I realized that this meeting of the sun makes my practice part of the oldest calendar of all—the movement of the sun across the sky through the seasons. When I began this practice, and the sun first “kissed” my eyes and face through the same window, it was approaching its cross-quarter position half way between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. And now, 9 months later, it’s meeting me at the same angle, halfway between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice, as it descends to the lowest point in the Northern Sky for the year.
I expected doing sun salutations would help improve my flexibility, my breathing, my balance and overall well-being. But there are other more surprising discoveries I’ve made. The physical act of practicing the sun salutation sequence, even once all the way through, helps me with cognitive tracking. Trouble with cognitive tracking was one of the earliest symptoms of MS that plagued me intermittently, even long before a diagnosis arrived. I first experienced it teaching a class of upper division writing students when I was in my mid thirties. I was talking away about the reading we were doing and turned to write a key concept on the board. As I turned my body, the word I was going to write completely disappeared from my brain. I experienced split seconds of pure terror as my arm moved toward the board with my mind a total blank. Somehow, miraculously, the word “reappeared” as my hand hit the chalkboard. Afterward, I laughed it off as “weird.” But it kept happening. And it got worse. By the time I was diagnosed, if I started writing myself a list, by the 4th or 5th item, I was repeating the first item without realizing it.
So when I started practicing the sun salutation again, I had to really concentrate about when and where to place the right foot and the left foot as I bent and lunged. And at first it was the same kind of thing. Often I would discover I was out of sequence after I was out of sequence. But it stopped mattering so much. The important part was to move. And as time went on, my whole body began to grasp the entire rhythm of the sequence in ways I can’t articulate in words, and it became easier to follow. Daily practice allowed my body time to learn and feel the order, and for my mind to trust the feeling from my body, and follow it.
Like any meditation practice, I can still fall into “monkey mind” and out of this river of continuity. But as I continue to move literally, and to return my focus to the breathing and the various positions of the sequence, my “monkey” climbs back up into the tree and sits quietly, enjoying the experience, and the light streaming through the “leaves.”
Because I have been blessed with inspirational riches in the course of my daily walks, I am well aware of how physical movement can activate the imagination and the heart or calm the mind. I don’t know why I was so surprised to find the same thing happening on my living room floor while stretching and bending in greeting to the sun, but I was. The flash of insight and courage that allowed me to see I could paint Plein Air without having to be driven out into the countryside by someone else came while I was doing this morning practice. Sometimes lines of a sonnet come. The inspiration for how to write this post is the most recent arrival.
The most amazing and unanticipated surprise, though, is how deeply moving this “moving” meditation would become. I did not expect when I began sun salutation as a morning prayer, that simply this general intention would carry me so completely into the rhythms of a day as it begins, and the relationship each day has to the position of the sun, and within that the turn of the year as it folds and unfolds the spark of life over and over. That my very own face, like Stonehenge or the Anasazi Kivas, or the ancient Celtic mounds, can now be a reflective marker of the sun’s position. It gives the passage of time a true relevancy. It’s another way of listening to the Earth and being able to “hear” the ways it can answer me, if I am willing.
Since I began my daily walks four years ago, I’ve come to experience the “day” as an entity, an ephemeral but living breathing presence, bringing me its unique 24 hour life, never to be repeated. And I’ve long enjoyed honoring the seasons of the year and their halfway points. But I didn’t anticipate how profound it would feel to experience my body become part of that cycle, that ancient calendar, as it arches and bends in concert with the position of the sun. It gives me a kind of immense balance that goes beyond the trials and challenges of my individual body, mind and life.
As time goes on, I have to try less to breath in and breathe out at the “correct” times in the sequence. Instead, to my surprise, I’ve discovered how to let the breath in. I can’t say how this has happened, but it’s more delicious than eating a piece of cake. I don’t always remember I can find it, but daily practice is the best place to look. Each morning. Rain or shine, when I am saying hello-I-love-you to the sun. If I need to pause between rounds to find my breath more fully, I pause in mountain pose, pretending I AM the mountain, my immense ancient face always gazing into the elements, watching the sun rise and set, letting time, wind and water slowly etch my features to ragged grandeur.
I have a very clear and happy memory of singing “Here Comes the Sun” with Michael in the car on the way to his preschool. We did this more than once. We loved singing our happiness about a sunny day. I’m not able to rush around in the car anymore, but I’m grateful my slow life has given me this new yet ancient way to say “thank you” to the sun that brings me “life the very life of life” each morning, and helps me remember to bless it all.
Maria’s “monkey mind” playing with a bright shiny object while up in her “tree.” Dig the snazzy pajama pants.