Sun Salutations: The Definitive Guide to Yoga’s Warm Up Sequence

By Jennifer Dixon MBA ERYT 500 and Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher

If you have spent anytime in a yoga studio that practices Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power or even Hatha type classes, you will have heard of the Sun Salutations.  In yoga, this series of poses is called Surya Namaskara. Technically, there are two both A and B, but this post is going to break down only Sun Salutation A.

This beautiful series of postures, all linked together with breath (as found in the Ashtanga yoga lineage) has its roots deep in yoga history and philosophy.   Traditionally, these postures were practiced first thing in the morning, greeting the sun and encouraging its energy into the practitioner’s body. Nowadays, folks practice their yoga any time it can be squeezed in and facing in the least cluttered direction.  –or that could just be me, but the point is–we aren’t as aware of our nautical directions or sun directions and we practice because it feels good (usually that’s why we start, that doesn’t mean that’s why we continue to practice.)

In fact, if you pay attention to the way the arms lift when starting the Sun Salutation, with the palms extended up, you can almost see the energy being called up to its zenith as the hands meet over head, palms touching.  Then, as the body moves down, the hands with their palms down, will the power of the sun into the body–like a beautiful symbolic dance performed daily and several times at that. You will find that even the most tight and unyielding body starts to experience the heat of the internal fire (or Agni in sanskrit) after a few rounds of this amazing series of poses.

Since i am a trained Power Yoga teacher under a Baptiste Yoga School and Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher by Manju Jois, I will be breaking down the Sun Salutations as found in typical, Ashtanga Yoga based sequences.  I know there are alternatives, especially when you start to talk about the “vinyasa” or portion where your hands are on the mat, but for simplicity and because of my background, I choose to break down the Surya Namaskara as traditionally found in these types of classes.

Sun Salutations

Moving through several rounds of Sun A can help you to get your body used to the idea of movement, it builds heat which naturally builds suppleness to your muscles.  Remember, this series of poses was originally created to help greet the sun and to encourage its warmth and energy into the original yogis bodies. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that you will build up internal heat while performing these postures.

The first round of Sun Salutations may make you feel like your hamstrings are gonna revolt, but by the 5th one they should say, oh ok, I GUESS we can do this, and by the 8-10th one, your hammies are gonna be like AHHHHH I’ve been n WAITING for your to let me open up this much!

To perform your Sun Salutations:

Start in Tadasana or Mountain Pose.

  • Your toes will be together and your heels slightly apart.
  • Knees are softened but straight.
  • Put your hips over your knees which are over your ankles.
  • Stack your shoulders on top of your hips and the top of your head is reaching for the sky.
  • Your chest is proud, lifting up and the area between your shoulder blades is squeezing together slightly.
  • Engage your stomach muscles
  • Your hands are resting gently down to the side, palms open.

These cues help you to stand up tall and straight, just like a mountain.

Before moving to the next posture, bring your hands up and overhead, palms up (this is generally done while you inhale).  The palms will touch overhead as you work your arms to being straight. This brings tremendous mobility to the entire shoulder region.  Then, on the exhale, you’ll bring your outstretched arms down and out in front, with the palms facing down. The hands continue all the way to the ground as you fold forward at the waist.

Now, some debate exists in the yoga world about flat back / vs rounded back.  Manju teaches that you soften the knees and round the back slightly, by letting a natural curve appear.  I have practiced both with a rounded back and a flat back, and given my personal back injuries and proclivities, I prefer folding forward with a rounded back and softened knees.

Uttanasana  or Forward fold

  • Bend at the waist with your knees slightly bent
  • Palms come back down towards the body, willing the energy and warmth from the sun into your own body.
  • Roll your spine down, especially if you have low back pain (see above for explanation)
  • Reach your forehead towards your shin (it may not get there right away, but over time trust me, it will!)
  • Try to work your legs towards being straight, reaching your hands down to the mat, fingertips in line with your toes.  This may not happen right away, but with several rounds and lots of practice it should.
  • Your inner thighs are rotating in
  • Your head is relaxed, shoulders are engaged and pulling away from the head.

Urdvha Uttanasana (Half-Way Lift)

  • Pressing the hands into the mat, lift your head and chest
  • Squeeze the space between your shoulders
  • Look forward, not up-that can hurt your neck
  • Your knees are soften-not locked
  • If you can’t keep your hands on the mat, that is ok bring your hands to your shins or all the way up to your quads where your hands land depends on the openess of your hamstrings and low back and genetic makeup
  • If you can keep your hands on the mat, work the fingertips to being in line with the toes.

Chaturanga (or Low Plank)

  • Walk, Step or Jump Your feet back to High Plank
  • Push your weight forward
  • Elbows held close to your body, lower down half way on the exhale
  • If you can’t hold your body straight, come down to your knees
  • Shoulders stay in line with your elbows, which are stacked on top of the wrists
  • Gaze is slightly forward, careful not to look up too much (it can hurt your neck)
  • Remember to press down evenly throughout your entire hand–not just collapsing your weight to the outer edges.  This will save your wrists for millions of chaturangas down the road.

Urdvha Muka Svanasana  (Upward Facing Dog)

  • Press the heels forward even more
  • Roll over to the tops of the feet (or flip them over one at a time.)
  • Be sure to hold those ankles in line with the legs (don’t let them flop out like fins)
  • Send shoulders forward and then up on your inhale
  • Engaging the core to press the chest up and forward
  • Smile
  • Top of head is reaching for the sky
  • Chest is pressing open
  • Shoulders squeezing together behind you

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Ahdo Muka Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

  • On your exhale, press into the tops of the feet
  • squeeze the belly button in
  • Lift your bottom up into the air
  • Once lifted, roll over to the bottom of your feet, pressing your heels into the mat
  • Press your chest towards your thighs
  • Remember to keep your thumb and pointer finger pressing firmly into the mat
  • Soften your elbows-especially if you tend to lock them out

Stay in Down dog several breaths then reverse all those steps to get back to Mountain pose.  That is your Sun Salutation A. DO this 3-5 times and your hamstrings will slowly start to open up.  Sometimes, if time is short, I just do several Sun Salutations and then call it a day because life is like that sometimes.  By moving through several rounds of Sun Salutations, you’ll be warming up your body and getting it ready for movement. This super simple series of poses also helps to keep you focused on your breath, aligning it with each movement of your body.

You also build tremendous upper body strength as you learn to trust the arms to help lower you towards the ground in Chaturanga.  Chaturanga is a super difficult pose and I have several tutorials on performing it correctly.  (with another one coming soon!)  Don’t be discouraged if you find this part of the Sun Salutations difficult, it is hard for everyone!  The point of yoga is not ever to master a particular pose, it is to master your mind and then your body.  Don’t let your mind tell you that you can’t do anything, just continue to practice and the body will prove your mind wrong over and over again.

Also, the transition from the bottoms of the feet to the top and then back (as done from Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog)–this can be a difficult transition, especially at first as you build strength in the upper body and abdomen.  Practice picking the feet up and placing them down (tops of the feet side down) one at a time. As you build body awareness and musculature, you’ll be able to push through those heels so much the toes have no choice but to roll over.  Often, it just takes a few tries with a knowledgeable teacher nearby and you can get the transition, assuming you have the chaturanga position mastered. If you would like to schedule an online one on one, you can do that here.  I would be happy to help!

Remember, even if you’re working on opening up your hamstrings for forward folds or down dogs, or if you’re not quite able to do the chaturanga, that’s ok.  Completely mastering every pose–that’s not the point. The point is that you are practicing! The point is that you make an effort to spend time with yourself, to move, to breath, to just be—to connect with your deeper self.  With time and practice, that goal may be something that you just think, “eh, maybe today” but you won’t stress if it happens, you’ll just practice, smile, and practice some more. I have had practices where my legs were completely straight on the first forward fold–when I feel open and ready to take on the world, and then I”ve had practices where I am rounded up and forward like a snake coiled on the ground in the sun warming itself.  Every day is different. The beauty of a yoga practice is that it’s a practice, it’s not perfect. Come back every day and try again

How’d it go?  This is a great series of poses to help you really connect with your breath and your body.  It took me MANY MANY years to get used to the idea of doing every day. I love to practice the Sun Salutations now, but it hasn’t always been that way!  So take your time, enjoy the process, enjoy the practice, laugh –a LOT—and just keep practicing!

If you loved this tutorial, I invite you to check out the Thrive Online  community.  It’s an online Yoga community combining your favorite practice (yoga) with traditional strength training and conditioning and community, accountability, and more.  You will have access to traditional yoga classes as well as the ability to experience a super effective, low impact, high intensity training session each time you step on your mat and you will get to share your experiences each time you join us inside the community!  Plus, and unique to this online community, you’ll get regular access to me with included online group meet ups where we practice, discuss where we are stuck and so much more!

If you’re located inside the city of Chattanooga, definitely swing by Thrive Yoga and Wellness.  We offer over 40 classes each week (and growing) of a variety of yoga styles sure to meet your health and wellness goals. Whether you’re brand new, having been practicing for years—whether you’re 18 or 78!  Yoga is for Every BODY, at EVERY AGE and we can help you find YOUR practice. I can’t wait to see you on the mat soon!

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