“Japaa kusuma sankaasam Kaasyapeyam mahaadyutim, Tamoorim sarvapaapaghnam, Pranatosmi divaakaram”
As she finishes the last line of the surya pranaam mantra, 56-year-old Keya Ghosh pours water on the tulsi plant and folds her palms towards her chin before looking towards the sun. This has been her morning routine for the last 30 years, which she learnt from her father-in-law. “I do it because I believe that the sun is the most powerful thing in the universe. Worshipping the sun every morning strengthens me and gives me power to fight all odds of life,” says the academician who lives in Asansol, West Bengal.
Sun gazing, though only for a few seconds each day, is an ancient technique used by many cultures such as Mayan, Egyptian, Aztec, Tibetian and Indian and has scientifically reported several healing benefits. It has several names across disciplines and cultures—solar healing, solar gazing, sun staring, sun yoga, surya yoga and solar yoga. But, the most popular one is the ‘HRM phenomenon’ coined after Hira Ratan Manek, the man from Bodhavad in India who submitted himself to NASA for scientific testing. Funded by NASA, a team of medical doctors at the University of Pennsylvania observed Manek for 24 hours a day and seven days a week for 100 days. NASA confirmed that he was indeed able to survive largely on light with occasionally a small amount of buttermilk or water during this time. Following him, Nikolai Dolgoruky of Ukraine—who calls himself the ‘sun-eater’—has been practicing sun gazing for the past 12 years and has largely subsisted off solar energy since he began.
“I’ve not heard about this research, but what I do know is that by directly looking at the sun, your chances of developing cataract becomes higher and faster,” say Dr V Ravindran, a general physician who has been running his private practice for over 50 years. He adds that looking at the sun during a prayer or suryanamaskaram in the morning or evening is fine, but he advises against looking at it anytime between 10 am and 5 pm. “Even that has to be just for a few seconds and needs to be controlled,” he says.
Dr Meenakshi CT, an ophthalmologist in Chennai, says that she is not certain about the evidence presented. “There are high chances of developing foveal burn or outer retinal hole due to the harmful effect of UV rays on the eye,” she says.
“In Ayurvedic texts there is no mention of looking directly at the sun. But praying to the sun is a part of Ayurveda. It mentions that prayer, depending on the time of the day, is to be performed facing the direction of the sun,” says Dr Ramesh R Varier, managing director and senior physician at AVN Arogya Ayurvedic Hospital in Madurai. He assures that the sun rays do have healing properties. “There is a lot of controversy regarding this. In Ayurveda, one way to take care of the eyes, as the texts explain, is that people should not see anything that is extremely bright, too small or anything that moves fast” he says.
Another sun salutation that brings in health benefits is the sandhyavandana. “It is a religious practice that brahmins perform at morning, noon and evening facing the direction of the sun,” explains Sundaresan Balasubramanian, who has been practising this ritual for the last 15 years. “Technically the ritual is to be done with the sun’s rays falling upon you. But, most people do it indoors,” he explains, and says that a better posture, breathing and an alert mind can be gained through this practice.
Ayem, an instructor who has been teaching yoga for the last 35 years, says that life cannot exist without the sun and sun salutations give us energy. He adds that surya chants were earlier recited to cure people of any illness. He believes that seeing the sun is important, however timing is crucial. “You need to enjoy the sun to enjoy the benefits. When you see it at the right time, you will be able to connect with it and feel the energy,” he says.