Almost every style of yoga practices some version of a Sun Salutation as part of their warm-up. A Sun Salutation, Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit (meaning salute to the sun), is simply a version of 8-12 different postures that are done in a sequence to prepare the body for a deeper practice.
If you are new to yoga, or if you are looking to take your yoga practice to the next level, read on to learn how to improve your Sun Salutation
Perfecting Your Sun Salutation
It should be noted that you have a “yoga practice” or you “practice yoga”, but you never perfect yoga. Below are the typical postures (asanas) in a Sun Salutation, along with tips on common mistakes and opportunities for improvement.
As yoga instructors, this is the most common word we use in class. To improve the focus, heat, and intensity of your practice, you must focus on your breath. When you use the breath to move your body from one pose to another, your Sun Salutation takes you into a meditative state.
The breathwork in yoga also provides many other benefits, so breathe.
Often times we move through our practice quickly. It is a side effect of the fast-paced world in which we live, so it’s hard to leave that at the door and not bring it to our mat.
Take a couple of Sun Salutations during your practice and do them very slowly and deliberately. You want to move consciously from one pose to another.
Sun Salutations – The Postures
Here are the 8 basic postures in a Sun Salutation
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
In Tadasana, take a moment. This pose is much more than just standing. Start at your feet and ensure they are evenly planted on the ground. Work up your legs, keeping knees soft, core engaged, tailbone down, chest open, and chin parallel to the floor. Hands are at the side with palms facing forward.
Now stop and take 10 breaths, with your eyes closed, and feel the pose. Can you feel the weight on the corners of your feet? If not, shift slightly to increase your grounding.
Do you feel discomfort or tightness in this posture? If so, see if you can relax that area with just your breath.
Tightness in this posture also indicates the possibility of tightness in your posture throughout the day. Can you keep your upper body in Tadasana while you read this article?
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
To move into Urdhva Hastasana, inhale. Your arms reach up extending your body and chest to the heavens. Stop here and notice if you have released your core and your hips are now pushing forward. If they are, correct them.
If you want to add an arch back, do it from a lifted position. You should be lifting from your core and your chest, not your shoulders.
Caution: you should not feel pain or discomfort in your neck. If you do, do not go as deep into the backbend.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
You should exhale as you allow your body to bend forward.
Are your feet still evenly planted on the floor? Are your knees still soft? Are you still engaging your core? Is your head neutral, or are you pulling your head to your shoulders?
Play in this posture to feel the power you can generate when you are focusing. Shift your weight on your feet and your hands. How does your body feel as you elongate different areas?
If you have pain in your lower back or knees, soften your knees more.
Uttanasana with a Flat Back
Many Sun Salutations will include a transitional posture between Uttanasana and Anjaneyasana. In this variation you will flatten your back, keeping your head in line with your spine and increasing the stretch along the back.
Your hands will stay on the floor if they reach, or slide up your shins. Your core should be engaged and providing the support, instead of all your weight pushing into your shins or the floor.
You may want to add this variation: inhale as you lift into your flat back, exhale and fall forward again, then inhale into Anjaneyasana.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
As you inhale, step one leg back. Here is where some variations exist. Some will use Anjaneyasana with the knee on the ground, others will use a high runner’s lunge. Others step or jump both feet back at the same time, skipping this pose altogether.
Neither way is wrong, but focus on the specific movement into the pose. Use your core, engage it, to pull the leg back.
Plank is really a transition and less of a pose in the Sun Salutation. As you begin your exhale, step the front foot to meet the back. Create a straight line from the tip of your head to your heels.
As you continue your exhale, bring your elbows along the side of your body, and lower into the next pose.
NOTE: This is a difficult transition. If you are unable to do full Chaturanga Dandasana, drop your knees and then lower down your chest and chin.
You will move from Chaturanga Dandasana to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana; you will move from inchworm (knees, chest, chin) to Cobra.
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
As you exhale, you end up in Chaturanga Dandasana. This is a challenging pose. Push through your heels, elbows are bent and at your side, and you are hovering about 6 inches off the floor.
A common mistake is that your hips/glutes are higher than the rest of your body. Hold this pose to increase strength and power (10 Breaths).
As you inhale, push through into Urdhva Muka Svanasana.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
In Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, your shoulders are away from your ears, your legs are engaged, and tops of the feet are on the ground but knees and thighs are not.
To prevent discomfort in your lower back, lift forward before you curl back. In a faster class or flow, this transition is often rushed. This can cause either shoulder or back pain if you practice regularly, so be mindful.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
On your exhale, roll over your toes and push your hips up, into Adho Mukha Svanasana. Ironically, as you practice, this pose becomes a resting pose — but not in the beginning. Those newer to yoga may struggle in this pose as it requires some upper body strength and stability.
Child’s pose is always an option at this (or any) point in your practice. To enter into child’s pose, drop to your knees and push your hips back to your heels.
You have many arm variations in this pose. Hands can stay where they are at, arms engaged, fingers tented. (Tenting of the fingers increases strength in your hands and wrists. Begin by pushing up on to the pads of your fingers, raising your wrists off the ground.)
You can flip your palms up, providing a little more stretch in the shoulders and allowing the universe to fill you with divine energy.
Or you can press your palms together in prayer pose and bring your hands to rest on your upper back. This is a great pose to open up tight shoulders and is a great way to create the openness needed for headstand.
You can also bring your hands back towards your heels. The goal is to rest the center of your forehead on the ground, you can make fists with your hands if your head is not quite there yet.
You have options here, depending on your practice. You can step/jump both legs forward and repeat on the other side. Or you can take the other leg forward and repeat starting at Anjaneyasana.
To improve, move through each posture thinking about your body’s placement. As you become more comfortable, begin focusing on moving with your inhale and exhales.
For example, from Tadasana inhale your arms up, exhale as they lower, inhale as your right foot steps back, and so on. Linking your breath to your movement.
For some styles of yoga there is a second longer version of the Sun Salutation that is often practiced after a series of the previously mentioned version. Surya Namaskar B includes chair pose and warrior one. Focus on mastering Surya Namaskar A/Sun Salutation A first.
Yoga is a practice and it is common to feel different from one practice to the next. Slow down, breath, and listen to your body; you will feel the difference in your Sun Salutations if you do.
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