You did HOW many? A gaggle of faces stunned into something. Horror? Pity? Pure, unadulterated admiration? Hard to tell. And this was just twenty-seven in. Sun salutations that is. A Thursday evening yoga class, and news of our forthcoming challenge – and confirmation that one of us at least was taking it seriously – had dropped nonchalantly into the usual pre-class chatter.
Pat, it seemed, had already begun training – hence the twenty-seven. Me, I’d decided to wing it. Not a policy I generally apply to any exercise regime these days, what with that long road home from back pain. But winging it. Definitely. I mean… 108 sun salutations? One after another? Are you mad?
It was all my fault too. Idly scrolling down the newsfeed, I’d fallen upon a gem – an ‘all-time most popular article’ apparently – helpfully illustrated with the customary ‘yoga guru’ product shot. Lean. Bendy. Young. Minimal Lycra. Glowing with irrepressible health.
‘Mention doing 108 sun salutations in a row to most people, even regularly practising yogis, and their eyes widen, as their mind says ‘No way!’ wrote Kara-Leah Grant in the Yoga Lunchbox.
‘Yes way!’ She went on. ‘Not only can your average yoga practitioner easily complete 108 sun salutations, but it’s such an energising practice, that at the end of 108, some people actually feel like they want to do more.
‘Remember,’ adds Kara-Leah, solemnly. ‘Yoga is not exercise. It doesn’t wear out the body, but energises the mind, body and soul. The greatest obstacle to completing 108 rounds of sun salutations is not the body but the mind.’
Hmm. I’ll be the judge of that, I thought. But interest piqued, I fire it across to Pat, yoga teacher and pal and, to be honest, it wasn’t intended as a serious suggestion.
‘Idea for a future workshop?’
But clearly I had seriously underestimated Pat’s penchant for a challenge.
‘It’s one of those things – so far from what I typically do that it just might work’, she mused back, clearly thinking as her fingers hit the keyboard. ‘Are you in?’
And so it was that, two days into the new year, we were duly assembled in my still Christmas-strewn front room, furniture pushed back, yoga mats side by side, to ‘see how far we could get’, with a view to Pat running a workshop at the Spring Equinox.
Here comes the sun!
Now I probably should make clear that I’m very much the yoga pupil in this relationship, Pat the qualified teacher. Without doubt, undertaking 108 sun salutations is a physically intense exercise and not for beginners. I do practise yoga and Pilates regularly, in classes and at home – and my physio has been practically on speed-dial for two years – so there’s a level of understanding if not always the ability to do stuff.
This was an experiment as much as a challenge for me – to see how far this particular wrinklie could take it – so my observations are entirely personal. If you fancy having a go at this yourself, I would highly recommend you do it under the watchful eye of your own yoga teacher.
Anyway, that’s the disclaimer out of the way. So. For all you non-yogis who’ve scrolled this far down (and for this, I thank you), you might be wondering what exactly a ‘sun salutation’ is.
Surya Namaskar (in the Sanskrit) is a key component of any yoga practice. Yogis honour the life-giving force of the sun with a series of postures – a dynamic ‘asana‘ sequence – each salutation beginning and ending with prayer-like palms touched to the heart.
Lining up 108 on the trot is quite a thing, it seems, with any number of blogs extolling the virtues – and the mental and physical benefits – of regular practice.
Shiva Rea, a teacher of prana vinyasa flow and yoga trance dance who teaches all over the world, likens the two and a half hours or so it takes to complete such a ‘Yoga Mala’ to a marathon, inspiring entire classes of yogis to practise together – and even to use the occasion to raise funds for a chosen charity.
In truth, though, this isn’t quite the breezy walk in the spiritual park these (usually much younger) online yoga gurus – more accustomed to threading themselves into human pretzels than I – would have us believe. But more about that later.
So this is how the sequence went, in a nutshell. (Other, more complicated, sun salutations are available!)
- Start in Mountain Pose (Tadāsana), palms folded into the heart centre. Inhale and exhale.
- Raise arms above the head (Hasta Uttanāsana), gaze fixed to the fingertips. Inhale.
- Fold forwards (Uttanāsana) and exhale.
- Lift to flat back. Inhale.
- Fold forwards again and exhale.
- Step backwards with one leg then the other, into straight-armed Plank (Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana). Inhale.
- Lower both knees to the mat, then chest, then chin. Exhale.
- Push up into Cobra (Bhujhangāsana). Inhale.
- Push back into Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svānāsana), pushing the hips towards the ceiling. Exhale.
- Step forward with one leg then the other, returning to a forward fold. Inhale and exhale.
- Sweep the arms back above the head, gazing upwards. Inhale.
- Exhale as you bring the arms down in prayer position to the chest, once again in Mountain Pose.
Repeat 108 times.
The number 108 appears many times in both mathematics and spiritual practices. The traditional ‘mala‘, used in both Buddhism and Hinduism, comes as a string of 108 beads, used for counting as you repeat a mantra.
We’d already agreed to do this in four rounds of 27, throwing a marble counter from one bowl to another each time we returned to the top of the mat – although neither of us was convinced we didn’t forget this a few times, so there may have been more!!
So, how did it go?
Twenty-seven marbles in, the bits of me I’d naively assumed were now returned to full, pain-free working order following that two-year back rehabilitation were beginning to find their voice again. Only a whisper, but loud enough for me to hear. A gentle ‘uh-oh’ stirred, somewhere at the back of my brain.
Another twenty-seven marbles on, Pat had barely broken sweat. Unlike me. And the volume was up on those whispers, that once-gentle ’uh-oh’ gentle no longer but centre stage, waving its tiny arms, begging my attention.
Early on in this set, I was in danger of getting sloppy, as muscles I don’t usually use quite so much in rapid succession began to tire. The inhales and exhales were out of synch and I was starting to wobble as I stepped back to the top of the mat, ever so slightly light-headed.
Consequently, I’d become much more focused on getting into the correct position before moving to the next (a luxury I don’t always feel I have in a yoga ‘flow’ class), but there was no getting round it. This was starting to hurt. In the shoulders, the triceps and the lower back.
‘I think you should stop,’ said Pat, the voice of reason. Wisdom on so many levels: yoga teacher, Traditional Chinese Medicine acupucturist, Tui Na therapist, friend.
And maybe she was right. Do I risk all my hard work for what some might call a daft challenge, leave the marathon sun saluting to the pretzels?
But we’d done a bit of research beforehand – and between sets.
In praise of Cat-Cow
One option was to modify the sequence by using a Cat-Cow movement in place of Plank and Cobra.
So, at the point when Pat was lowering herself from Plank through knees-chest-chin and on to Cobra, I would bring my knees to the floor straight away into a ‘four-point kneeling’ position, inhale as I hollowed my spine into Cat Pose, then exhale as I rounded my spine in Cow Pose. Then it would be up into Downward Facing Dog to complete the sun salutation as before.
As performing a studied Cat-Cow sequence (focusing on the incremental movement of my spine, one vertebra at a time) has been central to my daily (often twice or thrice-daily) back-rehabilitation routine, I wanted to try this.
So on we went. And guess what? Gradually, the whispers stopped. The ‘uh-oh’ settled. My spine, happy to be moving through an accustomed routine, warmed to the pace. No longer focused on that right-sided twinge over my sacroiliac and the fear of future pain, the inhales and exhales flowed with the movement. Another twenty-seven marbles in the bowl and I was on fire!
Twenty minutes later, as the one-hundred-and-eighth marble dropped into the bowl, I could indeed quite happily have done more.
But what did I learn?
Well, I could go all la-la and talk about this being ‘an effortful act of surrender towards a higher purpose’. Or wax lyrical about ‘transformative practice’ and ‘integrating the inner with the outer benefits of meditation’.
But, actually, it just felt bloody good. And energising. The hamstrings took a week to forgive me and the mat-burns on the top of my knees were interesting, but I’d have been surprised if something hadn’t fought back.
It made me pretty damned proud that instead of giving in and writing myself off when a radiologist pinned me with ‘severe degenerative lumbar disc disease’ and ‘discal bulging’ (as noted in my recent ski blog), I’ve turned things round to the extent I’m happy to have a go at stuff like this.
More importantly, I’ve learned that you don’t need to be under-35, with the body of a swimwear model and amazing hair – much less, capable of balancing on one perfectly manicured finger on a sunset-framed rock – to make it work. Because, clearly, I am none of those things.
Mad, however? Yes. Only ever so slightly so.
Post script: To read about Pat’s experience of our 108 Sun Salutations – and her yoga teacher’s take on it all – read her blog too.