Not all exercises are suitable for everyone and this or any other exercise program may result in injury. PLEASE ALWAYS consult your DOCTOR before beginning this or any other exercise program, especially if you have any chronic or recurring condition, and/or if you are pregnant, nursing, or elderly.
A Sun Salutation is a specific series of yoga poses that are performed together. The series can be used as a stand-alone practice (often as a morning practice) or as a warm-up for further yoga poses. I love to start my day with a few sun salutations before my day gets underway. It's a brilliant way to stretch the body after lying in bed all night.
There are several different versions of a sun salutation. The version I do is based on a classic sun salutation and that is what we will be talking about here. This post is written with the beginner yogi in mind, but I find that even people that have been doing yoga for years can use a refresher on these poses. The beginner's mind helps us look at things from a new perspective and identify where we may have developed some bad habits. If you are a seasoned yogi, I invite you to begin anew, use the gentle versions of the poses and slowly redevelop your practice.
Why Do Sun Salutations?
As I said above, sun salutations make a great morning practice to wake the body up, warm it, and stretch it after being idle for 8-ish hours. We breathe deeply and slowly during this practice, so it is a great way to oxygenate your body and tune into your breath.
My favorite reason for recommending people do sun salutations is that each pose within a sun salutation, and yoga in general, can be modified to make it more gentle or more intense, depending on your strength and flexibility. We are all unique individuals, and therefore, we need to be able to customize our exercises.
What Are The Main Poses of a Sun Salutation?
Cobra or Upward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog
We will dive deeper into these poses below.
Watch the Video
At the beginning of this video, I do 4 sun salutations, alternating between leading with the right and the left foot. In the first pair of salutations, I show a gentle version of the poses and transitions and then amp it up just a little bit in the 2nd set. This session is shown sped up, so you can simply get an idea of what the sequence looks like.
In the middle of the video, I show you the main poses so you can become familiar with them.
The video ends with the 4 sun salutations played at normal speed, so you can practice along with me.
(while you're watching, please subscribe to my YouTube Channel)
Let's Talk About the Flow
The most important thing to understand is that we move with the breath, so we will make one movement with the inhale, the next movement with the exhale, etc. Keeping your breath deep and slow allows more time to complete the movement. Therefore, the slower and deeper you breathe, the better. Make your transitions slow and gentle and pay attention to your alignment. It is better to modify a pose and do it well than to reach for a pose your body can't do yet and do it incorrectly.
The Poses / Sequence
Mountain Pose - this is a simple standing pose. Here, your focus is on alignment, heart space, and breath. Keep your head centered over your shoulders, your shoulders directly over your hips. Visualize a straight line from each hip, down through your knees, and then your ankles. Bring your hands to prayer pose at your heart. While this is a simple pose, it's not lazy. Activate your legs by attempting to lift your kneecaps up. Engage your abs in all directions. Gently press your hands together to activate your arms. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself, calm your mind and prepare to begin the practice.
Transition - (inhale) as you reach your arms up overhead and then you gently fold or swan dive with slightly bent knees into a forward fold.
Forward Fold - (exhale) the main 'fold' comes from the pelvis. Try to keep your spine straight as you fold forward from your hips. You want to rest your belly on your thighs, so unless you are really flexible, this will require you to bend the knees. Bend your knees as much as you need to. Let your head hang, and allow your hands to rest on the floor or your feet.
Halfway Lift - (inhale) bring your fingertips to your shins, and lift your torso just enough to straighten your spine.
Transition - (exhale) move from halfway lift to low lunge by planting your hands on each side of your feet and stepping the right leg back.
Low Lunge - the right leg is long and straight behind you (like you are halfway to plank pose). The left knee is directly about the left ankle so your leg is bent at 90 degrees. Press the right heel back. Feel a gentle stretch in your hips. Press your shoulder blades together to open your chest.
Plank - (inhale) step your left foot back to meet your right as you come into a plank. Immediately drop your knees if a full plank is too much. If you do a full plank, keep your hips lifted so you don't create a bow shape.
Transition - (exhale) lower down. For at least the first set, drop your knees first. Turn the inside of your elbows to the front so that you can lower your torso while keeping your arms against your sides. Lower yourself down to the floor, keeping your spine straight. In the more advanced version of this, you stay on your toes, keep your elbows by your sides and lower to a hover, elbows at 90 degrees.
Cobra or Upward Facing Dog - (inhale) use your glutes and back muscles to lift your chest off the ground and gaze a few feet in front of your mat. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to open your chest. In the more advanced version (up-dog), you transition from the hover to upward facing dog by straightening your arm, switching to the top of your feet and looking up. In up-dog, the only things touching the floor are the tops of your feet/toes and your hands.
Transition - (exhale) gently transition to downward facing dog by pressing up to all fours, curling your toes under lift your hip up. Bending your knees a little and pointing your tailbone toward the ceiling helps create length in your spine. Then gently straighten your knees as much as you can (never lock the knees). In the more advanced version, while in up-dog, you flip your feet, engage your abs and then simply press your hips up. Eventually, you learn to sort of roll over your toes. This transition can be rough on the low back, so use care.
Pause in Down Dog for an inhale and an exhale.
Transition - (inhale) move to another low lunge by stepping your right foot up between your hands. You may have to reach a hand back to help bring the right leg into position. This is now the reverse of our first low lunge, the right leg is now forward and bent at 90 degrees.
Forward Fold - (exhale) step the left foot forward next to the right, allow your body to fold at the pelvis and your head to hang.
Halfway Lift - (inhale) see above
Forward Fold - (exhale) see above
Transition - (inhale) as you bend the knees, sweep your arms up and out as you stand, reaching overhead
Mountain Pose -(exhale) as you bring your hands into prayer pose at your heart center
How To Begin a Sun Salutation Practice
Start slow. The first few times you try these poses, stay in each pose for longer than just one inhale or exhale. It is important you know how each pose feels in your body before you speed it up. Keep your transitions slow. You want your movements and poses to be stable. Don't rush. Eventually moving to the breath will feel natural, but it might be too fast in the beginning.
Start gently. Bend the knees, drop the knees, and slow your transitions to down dog. Don't let your ego push you to do more than your body is ready for.
Easy does it. Begin with just 2 sun salutations, 1st leading with the right, and the 2nd leading with the left. Once that feels good, add 2 more. You may stop there or add more. Personally, I find 4-8 are plenty to start the day or to warm up for additional exercise.
Starting your day with just a couple of sun salutations is the perfect morning routine. I hope you are inspired to give sun salutations a try.