Prostration or Potentiation?

Hindu Ritual, Physical Culture, and the “Sun Salutation” (Sūryanamaskār)

  • Stuart Ray Sarbacker Oregon State University


The so-called “Sun Salutation” (S. sūryanamaskāra, H. sūryanamaskār), is one of the most ubiquitous and iconic of all modern yoga practices. As Alter (1992, 2000), Goldberg (2006, 2016), and Singleton (2010, 2016), have discussed at length, the modern history of yoga, and of the sūryanamaskār in particular, is deeply rooted in the soil of Hindu ritual, Indian nationalism, and the emergence of a cosmopolitan middle-class physical culture in late 19th and early 20th century Europe and India. The goal of this paper is to explore three interrelated issues connected to the sūryanamaskār. First, we will further explore the genealogical and morphological relationships between the sūryanamaskār exercise and Hindu traditions of ritual worship. Second, we will examine the thesis forwarded by Mujumdar (1950) that the sūryanamaskār was taught in a communal exercise (H. akhāṛā-vyāyām) mode by Samarth Rāmdās to the Maharashtrian culture-hero Shivaji (Śivajī), considering his principal work, the Dāsbodh (17th century CE). Lastly, we will discuss the tensions between religion and physical culture associated with the sūryanamaskār and with yoga as understood in the work of Bhavanrao Pant and Swami Kuvalayananda, key proponents of the respective systems. We will conclude with reflections on the ways in which the modern sūryanamaskār and modern postural yoga demonstrate an ongoing process of interpretation and expression between the poles of the demonstration of religious piety (prostration) and empowerment through physical culture (potentiation), and why their conjunction, particularly in the modern era, makes sense historically and philosophically.

Author Biography

Stuart Ray Sarbacker, Oregon State University

Stuart Ray Sarbacker is a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Philosophy in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University (USA). His work centres on the relationships between the religious and philosophical traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, especially with respect to mind-body discipline (yoga). He has written three books, including Samādhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga (SUNY Press), The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), and Tracing the Path of Yoga: The History and Philosophy of Indian Mind-Body Discipline (SUNY Press). He is a co-founder of the American Academy of Religion’s Yoga in Theory and Practice unit. Sarbacker is an active yoga practitioner and teacher, having trained extensively in India, Japan, and the United States.

How to Cite
SARBACKER, Stuart Ray. Prostration or Potentiation?. Journal of Yoga Studies, [S.l.], v. 4, p. 303 – 329, apr. 2023. ISSN 2664-1739. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 15 june 2024.