Yoga Basics: Learning Sun Salutation

Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskar as it’s known in Sanskrit, is one of the most basic sequences in yoga. Just about every yoga style has their own variations, but they all are based around the same intention. As the name implies, the purpose of the sequence is to greet the sun, and convey reverence for it’s life giving energy while at the same time imbibing that energy into your person to fuel you through the day.

Christopher Chapple, a professor of Indic Theology notes that sun salutation “calls us to stretch our minds and spirits to the corners of the universe, allowing us to feel the vast expanse of the cosmos within the movement of our bodies.”

Sun salutation is used to begin your practice as an opening, or as a transition between different poses in Ashtanga or Vinyasa yoga.  For some, Sun Salutation becomes a daily practice in its own right, and individuals practice it in the morning as a personal ritual and wake up routine.

The classic sequence flows through 12 poses, beginning with standing at the top of your yoga mat and ending back at the same place, ready to begin again.  Mirroring the path of the sun, returning to the beginning, standing bright and alert each morning.  This cyclical nature allows it to be done repeatedly, and it’s often repeated two to a dozen times depending in a row, deepening and perfecting the poses as the repetitions progress.

Breath is important and forms the foundation for the flow in this sequence.  Each pose is initiated by a change in breath as you move with your own natural rhythm.

Standing Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Stand at the front of your yoga mat facing your focal point.  Feet are hip distance apart.  We often misjudge the width of our actual hip joints and stand wider than needed.  Bend down and place both your fists together between your feet.  This distance is a good guide for hip distance foot placement.  Bring your hands to prayer pose with your thumbs at your sternum, and take several deep cleansing breaths.  Exhale and then move to your next pose…

Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)

On an inhale, sweep your arms down toward your hips then out wide to the sides, bringing them with palms together over your head.  Engage your core so that you don’t place undue stress on your low back, but then shift your gaze upward to the sky while arching back and bringing your hands behind you to feel a gentle opening of the chest, neck and throat.  Without raising your heels off the ground, you should feel your chest lifting to the sky as you grow taller, following your gaze upward in this gentle back bend.

Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)

Exhale as you swan dive downward toward the floor.  Arms sweep out to the sides and flow back down but instead of coming to the chest, they flow all the way to the floor as you bend at the hips to come into a forward fold.  Hips remain forward over your heels and knees are straight without begin completely locked at the joint.  As you come down, keep the spine straight as long as possible with a proud open chest, before allowing the spine to gently round into a full forward bend.  Hands come flat to the floor outside of your feet, elbows gently bend, and the head comes to rest against the shins.  If flexibility does not allow hands to come to the floor, place a block or two at the outside edges of your feet to allow your hands to come to rest as you release into this pose.

Half Standing Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)

Inhale to bring your hands to your shins and lift your gaze to your original focal point in front of you.  Chest is open and back is straight, while the legs remain straight and strongly rooted into the floor.  The straight back posture should shift the stretch more strongly to the hamstrings and out of the lower back, as the low back engages to support your torso.  Bring your hands to the floor to prepare for the next pose…

Four Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

In one fluid motion and all on the same exhale, jump (or step) your feet back into plank.  As you land, elbows are already bending, but stay tight to your sides as you lower yourself towards the floor.  Upper arms should be parallel to the ground as you pause with your core engaged and arms challenged in a modified half push-up position.

Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

Inhale as you shift your weight forward, with your entire body hovering just above your mat as low as possible.  Imagine you are nudging a pea forward with your nose as you roll off your toes onto the tops of your feet and bring your head and chest up into upward facing dog pose.  Arms are straight, chest is open and shoulders are rolled back and down.  The tops of your feet and palms of your hands are the only parts of your body in contact with the ground as your thighs hover over the mat and chest opens toward your focal point.

Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Exhale, lifting at the hips and rolling your toes back over to land on the balls of your feet as you move into downward facing dog.  Hips find height and lift as your weight settles back into your heels, and evenly across the palms of your hands and fingers.  Relax your neck, bringing your head directly between your straight arms.  Hold this pose for 5 cycles of breath, preparing to move on your final exhale.

Standing Forward Bend Repeated (Uttanasana)

At this point, the first portion of the sequence is completed, and all the poses from here on out are repetitions to return your body back to the beginning at mountain pose.  From downward facing dog, exhale as you bend your knees toward the floor, engage your core, and leap your feet back to the top of your mat.  With practice and excellent core engagement, your feet should land together between your hands, leaving you standing in a forward bend.

Half Standing Forward Bend Repeated (Ardha Uttanasana)

Inhale to lift your chest back up to half standing forward bend, leaving legs rooted and bringing hands to the fronts of your shins.

Standing Forward Bend Repeated (Uttanasana)

Exhale and bring your hands back down to the floor into a full standing forward bend one more time.

Upward Salute Repeated (Urdhva Hastasana)

Inhale and reverse your swan dive to come back up to upward salute.  Arms spread wide to your sides and circle back above your head as you stand, bringing palms together.  Go into another gentle back bend with your eyes lifted toward the sky.

Mountain Pose Repeated (Tadasana)

Exhale one last time to bring your hands back around to center in prayer in front of your chest.