The Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara) is a classic yoga sequence that has been practiced every morning by millions of folks in India for thousands of years. There are numerous benefits of this series of yoga postures (1), but there is one key, mostly unknown benefit in particular that I feel compelled to share. It remedies an imbalance that affects just about every modern-day human.
How the Sun Salutation Works
The sun salute activates the body’s breathing and digestive fulcrum, the junction point in the body where the rib cage meets the abdomen. It is where the diaphragm splits the body in half. Below the diaphragm is the liver and stomach, which are critical for digestion, and above the diaphragm are the lungs and heart, which are vital organs. If this area becomes rigid, the function of the organs above and below the diaphragm can become compromised. Keeping the diaphragm free, as we will see, is critical for optimal health.
The sun salutation is a series of flexion and extension postures that are coordinated with each nasal inhale and exhale. As the body moves into extension, or a back bend, the breath is inhaled deeply through the nose. During the inhalation, the diaphragm contracts as a way to pull air into the lower lobes of the lungs, while the body is bending backwards and upwards. In each extension posture, as depicted in the diagram and demonstration video in this article, as the rib cage moves up and back, the diaphragm pulls the lower chest and abdomen down and in. This provides a deep stretch with the diaphragm pulling the rib cage, heart and lungs down, while the extension of the spine stretches them up. The abdomen, stomach and liver are pulled down in this process, creating more space under the diaphragm for optimal digestion and freedom for deep breathing.
The extension postures are then immediately followed by a flexion or forward-bending posture that brings the rib cage and abdomen together. This happens while the diaphragm is relaxing, and the rib cage squeezes the lungs in an effort to exhale. Like an accordion, when the body flexes forward and the rib cage and abdomen come together, softening the tissues or organs around the diaphragm occurs, allowing for increased blood flow and the restoration of elasticity.
Each stretch or extension posture creates further flexibility, while potentially breaking up scar tissue in the related muscles, organs and tissues. (1,2) Each flexion posture relaxes the related tissues and increases blood flow, which is needed to lubricate and maintain the health and elasticity to the associated organs and muscles in that area. (1,2)
The whole exercise links one flexion exhalation posture with an extension inhalation posture. While creating elasticity and flexibility throughout the body, doing this focuses the effect at the junction between the diaphragm and the abdomen – from where a host of health problems stem. (2) Proper practice of this exercise can support healthy breathing for stress, weight control, sleep, heart, lungs, and structural strength for the back and neck. By creating elasticity between the diaphragm and the abdomen, the sun salute can support healthy digestion by preventing against occasional heartburn and a host of other upper digestive concerns.
The Stress Effect
Stress causes everyone to take more shallow quick breaths through the mouth. If you were startled by a bear for example, you would take a big, gasping breath through your mouth and run up a tree to save your life. This type of shallow breathing or emergency gasping fills the upper lobes of the lungs first in order to activate fight-or-flight receptors that predominate in the upper lobes of the lungs.
Breathing through the nose has an opposite effect that allows the inhaled air to be processed through the turbinates of the nose, which turbine the air in order to drive the air deeply into the lower lobes of the lungs where there is a predominance of calming and repair nerve receptors. (4) To breath into the lower lobes of the lungs, the diaphragm must contract fully to pull the air through the nasal turbinates into the lungs. The sun salutation insures optimal function of lower lung diaphragmatic breathing by linking flexion/exhalation and extension/inhalation postures. (3)
The rib cage can become rigid and the diaphragm tight as a result of years of being under stress and being inactive. This forces most people to breathe primarily into the upper lobes of the lungs. The more we become upper chest, shallow mouth breathers, the more rigid the lower rib cage becomes and the less the diaphragm can contract and relax fully. The long-term result is that we begin to breathe 26,000 breaths a day into the fight-or-flight upper lobes of the lungs, which sends the recurring message that “life is an emergency.” (3)
Lack of normal rib cage elasticity turns the ribs, which act as massaging levers for the chest, heart and lungs into cage-like constricting bands that can compromise circulation and lymph drainage of the rib cage, heart and lungs. The sun salute repeatedly breaks up rib cage and diaphragmatic inelasticity, while simultaneously boosting circulation and lymph drainage. (2)
Release Stomach Pressure
Below the diaphragm, the stomach and liver hang in very close proximity. After years of stress and poor diaphragmatic function, the stomach can be pulled up too close to the diaphragm and begin to adhere to the underside of the diaphragm. This is commonly exacerbated by a slow emptying of the contents of the stomach that allows food and digestive acids to linger in the stomach, putting upward pressure on the stomach into the diaphragm. Over time, the stomach can begin to adhere to the diaphragm and inhibit the diaphragm from contracting, as well as severely compromise the function of the stomach. This can cause bouts of occasional heartburn, poor digestion (such as gluten and dairy intolerance), and in extreme cases, a hiatal hernia where there is so much upward stomach pressure on the diagram that the stomach herniates through the diaphragms lower esophageal sphincter. Read more about this process in my series of articles and videos here.
A Weight Loss Bonus
A study published in the British Medical Journal determined that the primary organ of fat removal in the body is the lungs. (5)
Triglycerides are the type of fat stored on the body that is carried into the blood by the foods we eat. Triglycerides are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. When fats break down, the hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water (H2O), which is excreted through the urine, sweat, and feces. The remaining carbon is breathed out of the body as carbon dioxide (CO2). (5)
New science has shown that the body removes waste through the removal of CO2 (fat), out of the body by breathing fully and deeply through the nose. Studies show that there is a significant increase in CO2 released during nose breathing compared to mouth breathing. (6)
The findings suggest that by breathing through the nose, both at rest and during exercise, more CO2 would be expelled (exhaled), and the removal of fat in the form of broken down triglycerides would be significantly increased.
The key to breathing, according to Ayurveda, is to use all 5 lobes of the lungs and, most importantly, to access the lower lobes – to both calm and repair the nervous system and remove toxic waste out of the body.
The sun salutation literally pulls the stomach and abdomen down away from the diaphragm and rib cage with each extension – inhalation posture. With each flexion posture, as the rib cage and abdomen are pushed together as the diaphragm relaxes, the adhered tissues between the stomach and diaphragm are fed with an increased blood supply that slowly breaks down the scar tissue restoring youthful elastic function to the diaphragm, lungs (2) and stomach.
This process will ensure optimal digestion well into your elder years, while maintaining complete breathing access to the lower lobes of the lungs, activating the rest, digest and repair nervous system, optimal circulation and lymph drainage to the heart, lungs and upper digestive organs, and the efficient excretion of fat and toxins from the body through optimal function of the diaphragm and lower lobes of the lungs.
To support the sun salutation in boosting digestion by pulling the stomach away from the diaphragm, see my Stomach Pulling video here.