What is "Sun Salutation" Anyway?

If you've entered into any "Vinyasa" style yoga class recently, you probably have had some introduction to the sequence commonly referred to as "Sun Salutation". This is one of the most foundational sequences in the practice we, in the yoga world, refer to as Vinyasa. So what is Vinyasa? It refers to the flow of yoga poses from one to another in a linking or consecutive order, typically performed on one side and repeated on the other. Focus on one's breath is imperative as it is the metronome by which we set the pace of the flow. The Sun Salutation, or "Surya Namaskar", is one of the very first sequences ever introduced to the world of yoga. And it is with good reason. This sequence of poses, when done correctly, can be a total body workout, targeting and toning legs, hips, core, shoulders, and arms.

Sound too good to be true? Read on to learn the benefits of each of these poses and how they can improve strength, flexibility, and focus when practiced over time.

1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

This standing pose is the beginning, the foundation from which we build upon. Although a simple standing posture may seem easy, this is not just about standing, as much as bringing a deepened state of awareness to every single part of the body while standing in a "simple" position. This pose will help improve posture and stability, strengthen thighs, knees, and ankles, tones the core, improves breathing, relieves sciatica, and increases focus and presence of mind. With a list of benefits like that, you might think this is the only pose you really need!

Stand with feet hip width apart and the outer edges of your feet parallel to each other. This may feel a little awkward or even pigeon toed if your hips are very tight or you are used to a more turned out posture. Root down through the soles of your feet as if you were growing roots into the ground. From that point, lift up on the muscles of your legs, hugging the muscles tightly around the bones. Lift through your waist creating more space from the top of your hips to the bottom of your ribs, naturally toning the core. Feel your breath move easily and effortlessly as you extend energy up through the crown of your head. Bring your hands to a prayer position at your heart and deepen your focus as you breathe consciously, in and out.

2. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

Our second posture in the sequence is a powerful stretch for people with tight hamstrings and low back. This pose stretches our the entire back body including the bottoms of the feet, calves, behind the knees, hamstrings, hips, low back, mid back, upper back, and neck. Forward fold is also a core strengthener as is tightens the abdominals and is also helpful for digestion by physically "massaging" the internal digestive organs. This is easily one of my favorite poses for relieving chronic back pain and can also reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Starting in the standing position, inhale a deep breath and stretch your arms over your head, reaching high towards the sky. As you exhale, fold your body forward relaxing tension in your arms, neck, and shoulders. If your hamstrings are very tight, you can bend your knees slightly or generously until you can fully release the weight of your upper body over your legs. Be sure your neck is relaxed by aiming your gaze between your legs and feel the weight of your head dropping down towards the floor.

3. Half Fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

Often times, this pose is referred to as "Half Lift" although the actual Sanskrit translation means "Standing Half Forward Fold". As the name suggests, the torso is lifted approximately half way up with the spine extended long. This is an important pose that can greatly improve poor posture and reduce chronic back pain. Along with strengthening the spine, this pose will also tone the core, improve digestion, lengthen hamstrings and calves, and ease sciatic pain.

We move into this pose on the next inhale. As your body expands with breath, the back muscles from the base of the spine all the way up to the neck engage and lift the spine halfway up. Hands can remain down on the floor or can move up towards the shins for additional support. Important note: make sure your spine is not rounding forward as you lift, but rather is extended fully as when you were standing. This will actually increase the sensation of stretch across the backs of the legs, in which case, you can soften and bend the knees as needed.

4. Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

Chaturanga may easily be the hardest pose in this sequence and even in all of yoga ever! This pose takes a long time to master, but has tremendous benefits for strengthening the upper body. Develop strength and stamina in the shoulders, triceps, biceps, forearms, hands, upper back and core center. This is also one of the foundational poses for eventually moving into arm balances and hand stands.

Moving from your forward fold, step your feet back until you are in a plank pose in "push up" position. Inhale your breath as you shift forward onto the tops of your toes and move your shoulders forward of your wrists. As you exhale, lower yourself towards the earth keeping your elbows tucked in towards your ribs and your shoulders rolled back (not rounded forward, which they will naturally want to do!) Chaturanga can be practiced with the knees down on the floor (recommended for most people) or with knees lifted as you develop strength and begin to advance the pose. The most important thing to remember in this posture is to keep your shoulder blades pinned onto the back so as not to place undue stress on the deltoids and rotator cuff.

5. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) or Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

There are two options for what comes next in this flow, but they both offer a belly down backbend helping to build more strength along the spine, stretch the chest and pecs, as well as strengthening the shoulders and arms. These backbends open up the lungs, improving respiratory function and are energizing to the body, helping to fight chronic fatigue and depression.

The primary difference between Cobra Pose and Upward Facing Dog is the depth of the back bend. I usually recommend Cobra Pose to most of my students until a tremendous amount of strength is developed to safely move into the deeper version, Upward Facing Dog.

If you are practicing Cobra Pose, lower yourself all the way to the floor from your Chaturanga. Keep your hands firmly planted on the floor alongside your chest with your elbows pointing towards the sky. Roll the tops of your shoulders up toward the ceiling and down your back until your chest starts to peel away from the floor and your collar bones broaden. You may not lift very high initially, but the primary focus should be on strengthening the back and lengthening the neck away from the shoulders.

Upward Facing Dog Variation: Move to this upward position directly from your Chaturanga by shifting forward until you roll to the tops of your feet. Keep your shins, thighs, and hips elevated off the floor as you straighten your arms, pushing the floor away. Strongly pull your chest forward through your extended arms as you continuously draw your shoulder blades down your back.

6. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

The culmination of the Sun Salutation comes in the form of Downward Facing Dog. This is the apex of the sequence as this posture tones every major muscle group in the body simultaneously. Some of the many benefits include stretching the calves and hamstrings, lengthens the spine helping to improve posture, tones the core and digestive organs, opens tight chest and shoulders, strengthens hands, wrists, and forearms, may relieve headaches, as well as asthma, sciatica, insomnia, and chronic fatigue. Pretty powerful pose, huh?!

This multi dimensional pose offers us an opportunity for full body engagement. Make sure the hands are firmly planted with your fingers spread wide and hands are shoulder width apart. Press down equally through all fingers and imagine lifting up across the palm of the hand. As you press your hands down, imagine growing roots through your hands and then grow your arms up to your shoulders from there. Extend your heart fully through your arms, giving you maximum stretch across the shoulders and chest. Feel your spine growing long as you stretch your hips upward towards the sky. Bit by bit stretch the backs of your legs until your knees eventually straighten and heels eventually reach the earth. I say "eventually" because this can be a long process for many people, especially if you are dealing with very tight hamstrings and/or low back.

7. Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

When you have warmed up with the Sun Salutation "A" sequence a few times, you may move through the Sun Salutation "B" sequence which is basically the same, but incorporates Chair Pose and Warrior 1 described here. Chair Pose strengthens the whole spine, building towards stronger, more supportive posture. It also builds strength and stamina in the legs, quads, knees, ankles, and feet. As you lift your heart and extend your arms upward, there is a tremendous amount of stretch through the shoulders, opening the chest, and freeing the breath.

To make the transition from Sun Sal A to Sun Sal B, you will stretch your arms over head on your inhale and as you exhale, sit your hips down as deep as you can, keeping your heels down. Make sure your feet are parallel and your knees are in line with your toes. Reach your hips back as you sit down low. Lift your chest and stretch your biceps along side your ears. Stretch all the way up through your finger tips, keeping your arms as straight as you can. Lift your abdominals up and in so your core is toned and lengthened. Take another inhale to reach as high as you can and fold forward to Uttanasana on your exhale.

8. Warrior I (Virabhadrasana 1)

If you are practicing Sun Salutation B, you will be getting the added benefits of the Warrior 1 Pose. This upright posture stretches your ankles and feet, opens the hip flexors, lengthens the belly, strengthens and stretches the arms and shoulders, and again, strengthens the back. This pose will also help to develop balance, mental focus, awareness, and coordination. As this is the first in a series of three Warrior positions, it helps to build strength, will power, confidence, and determination.

Moving from Downward Facing Dog, inhale as you lift one leg (usually starts on the Right) up towards the sky, and step your foot forward as you exhale. Plant the front foot so the toes point directly forward and position the back foot at a 45 degree angle so the heel can connect to the floor. Important to note that the feet are still hip width apart, as opposed to "standing on a tight rope". Once the feet are in position, bend deeply into the front knee as you fully extend and straighten the back knee. Rise up through your torso extending your arms up alongside your ears. Fully extend the elbows and reach all the way up through your fingertips. Continue to ground into the strength of your legs as you imagine rotating the back hip forward to balance with the front hip.

To transition to the second side, release your hands to the floor and step back to your Downward Facing Dog. If you are up for a challenge, you may move through a "Vinyasa" stepping back to a plank position and flowing through Chaturanga and Cobra/Upward Facing Dog before pressing back to your Downward Facing Dog.

If you only have a few minutes to spend on your mat, a few rounds of Sun Salutation A & B is the perfect answer for a total body workout, stretching and strengthening, building your practice and connecting to the moment. This truly is the perfect place to start if you're just beginning your practice and is the foundation for all the other poses that build off of these poses.

For a closer look at Warrior 1, check out this free video on my Jen Hilman Community page:

If you'd like to practice these two sequences, you can follow along with me in the video from YogaTX:

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