Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, the first official day of Summer and the longest day of the year. Many yogis recognize the day by practicing sun salutations, 108 of them. This practice is common not only for Summer but at all the seasonal transitions – to cleanse the body and mind and recognize the changes that the seasons bring, both within and without.
Why 108? Here’s Shiva Rea’s take:
“But 108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun). A mala is used for counting as you repeat a mantra—much like the Catholic rosary.
Renowned mathematicians of Vedic culture viewed 108 as a number of the wholeness of existence. This number also connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth: The average distance of the Sun and the Moon to Earth is 108 times their respective diameters. Such phenomena have given rise to many examples of ritual significance.
According to yogic tradition, there are 108 pithas, or sacred sites, throughout India. And there are also 108 Upanishads and 108 marma points, or sacred places of the body.” Rea, Shiva. “Q&A: What’s So Sacred About the Number 108?” Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal, 13 Nov. 2007.
Typically sun salutations are part of a class sequence, done nearer the beginning of a practice to warm and prepare the body. A sun salutation is a series of asanas, or poses, eight to be exact, that stretch and challenge all the major muscle groups, So each one is a mini-workout for your body. Ideally, each pose is linked to the breath so the flow is in tune with the body’s natural rhythm.
I decided, after being a yoga practitioner for over ten years, that I was ready to try this crazy thing. I gathered 54 coins in a bowl, moved one out of the bowl after each salutation, then moved them back when the bowl was empty. It was hard, and I was drenched when it was over (and just a tad sore the next morning), but what I got was much more than physical. Here’s what I discovered:
When you do that many sun salutations, it’s easy to lose the breath, the pose, the mind. The challenge is to keep them all together, time after time after time. This takes mindfulness and concentration to not only breathe, but to perform each pose safely and with awareness. To be safe you need to make sure you’re not getting “sloppy” with each pose. You must pay attention to your body because the movements are so repetitive. Otherwise you risk injury at worst or boredom at least.
Slow and steady wins the race. Whenever I started to look at all the coins in the bowl, I remembered that each one offered an opportunity. That it wasn’t about moving all the coins, or finishing in a certain amount of time, but making each one meaningful.
It’s really okay to give yourself a break, pausing when necessary, even if only for a brief inhale and exhale. Giving yourself a break when your tired. Recognizing that “this is f***ing hard” and you are worthy of rest, that those salutations will still be waiting when and if you are ready. Sometimes the only rest needed is a breath, or two or three. To feel your heart beating, or the energy flowing in your body and noticing how you’re feeling. Where and how. And how that always changes with each breath.
So what makes this different than a long run or a hard workout? Intention. This is what keeps you going. Each salutation is a meditation, a prayer. I dedicated my practice to opening my heart – to the sun, the summer, but mostly to myself. When I was through, standing in tadasana, I felt the Earth supporting me, and felt its energy. I felt calm and cleansed and connected. And, yes, proud that I did it.
And what if I didn’t complete 108? I’m sure I still would have gotten the same benefits with the added benefit of realizing it’s not about emptying the bowl, but knowing that what was emptied was done with intention and awareness.
Thanks to the number 108, I begin summer recognizing that it’s important to slow down, pay attention, give myself a break when I need it – even if it’s just a few breaths – and live with intention. Not too shabby for an hour and fifteen minutes worth of sweat.