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Sun Salutation – Benefits and How to Do It

Sun Salutation – Benefits and How to Do It

Reading Time: 5 minutes

BY: ISSA

DATE: 2024-04-01


If you have ever been to a yoga class, you have probably done a sun salutation. It is often used as a warm-up to more advanced sequences and poses. There are variations of sun salutation, but a standard sequence known as sun salutation A is a good starting point and is most commonly used in classes. 

About Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)

Sun salutations likely have their roots in the ancient practice of yoga as a spiritual prayer to the sun. Today, in modern, exercise-based yoga, a sun salutation is a series of poses, or asanas, which can be purely physical or include a spiritual element. 

A sun salutation is a series of 12 or so poses typically beginning in a standing position, which moves to a prone position on the mat and back to standing. Between start and finish, a sun salutation may include a variety of poses, but a standard sequence is familiar to most practitioners. 

Sun salutation focuses on smooth movement through each yoga pose but also on the breath. When doing the sequence, each movement coordinates with an inhalation or exhalation. 

Benefits of Sun Salutation

Any yoga practice benefits mental and physical health. Sun salutation is an accessible vinyasa (flowing sequences of poses) that can provide many of these benefits. 

Improve Cardiovascular Fitness

Studies have looked specifically at sun salutations and how these sequences affect physical health, including cardiovascular fitness. One study found that just ten minutes of a high-intensity sun salutation vinyasa effectively raises the heart rate. (1)

Another study showed that sun salutations raise the heart rate into endurance zones. These results indicate that you can get an excellent cardio workout from doing sun salutations. (2)

Regular yoga practice can also support efforts to lower blood pressure. Here’s how. 

Build Strength and Endurance While Improving Body Composition

A sun salutation raises your heart rate, but it is also a bodyweight strength exercise. It requires you to hold up your own body in several challenging poses. By holding those poses for a breath or two, you build strength and muscle endurance. Studies have proven that this sequence improves upper body strength, reduces body fat, and improves BMI (body mass index). (3)

Improve Mobility and Flexibility

Like other yoga sequences, practicing sun salutations will improve your flexibility and mobility over time. Completing the sequence requires flexibility in the joints and overall body mobility. If it is difficult initially, you’ll find that with practice it gets easier as you get more flexible. 

Manage Mental Health 

Yoga is both a physical and mental exercise. During sun salutation, your mind focuses on the movements, body positions, and breath. This practice and focus can help reduce mental health symptoms. Just one session, according to research, significantly reduces stress and anxiety

Yoga is great for rest and relaxation. Try these top restorative yoga poses

How to Do Sun Salutation A

Sun salutations can vary a little by practitioner. In general, yoga practitioners recognize three series known as sun salutation: A, B, and C. Sun salutation A is the yoga sequence you are most likely to see in yoga classes. It’s a good starting point. From here, you can try other variations on sun salutation. 

1. Mountain Pose

Start in mountain pose, standing with your feet together, toes wide across the mat. Draw your shoulder blades back and down, opening the chest. Your arms should be at your sides, palms facing forward. Hold this posture while gazing straight ahead. 

2. Forward Fold

Inhale as you lift your arms out to each side and up over your head. They should line up with your ears. Bring your palms together and gaze up at your hands as you extend the spine. 

Exhale and release your arms as you bend forward. Hinge at the hips while keeping your back flat and strong. Place your hands or fingers on the mat in front of you. If necessary, rest your hands on blocks or bend a little at the knees. 

3. Plank Pose

From the standing forward fold, inhale, and lift your torso halfway. Exhale as you step or jump your feet back to go into a straight arm plank. In plank, keep your body in a straight line from head to toe. Don’t let the hips rise up or sag downward. 

4. Cobra or Upward Dog

From plank, exhale and lower your body down, bending at the elbows and tucking placing the tops of your feet flat on the mat. Inhale as you push up through your hands, lifting your chest into cobra or upward dog. 

For beginners, cobra is a gentler back bend and chest stretch. Lift the chest up only until your elbows are at a 45 degree angle. Keep your legs pressed into the mat.

For a greater challenge, let your arms straighten as you lift the chest up, going into upward dog pose. In this pose, your legs are raised above the mat. Only the palms of your hands and the tops of your feet are on the mat. 

5. Downward Facing Dog

From cobra or upward dog, exhale as you push your hips up and back into downward dog. Your palms should remain flat on the mat and legs and arms are straight. Press your heels toward the mat and bring your chest toward your legs to feel a stretch throughout your calves, hamstrings, and lower back. 

6. Forward Fold

Exhale and either jump or step your feet toward your hands. Inhale as you settle into a forward bend with a strong, flat back. 

7. Mountain Pose

Inhale as you lift your upper body back to standing. Raise your arms to the side as you lift them over your head. Exhale to lower the arms back down to mountain pose position. 

Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

Sun salutation is deceptively simple. Each position and transition matters and has room for error. Take time to master each component to get the most benefits out of a regular sun salutation routine.

  • Don’t Collapse into Cobra. It takes some upper body strength to control your body as it lowers from plank to transition into cobra or upward dog. Keep the line of the body straight and lower slowly and in control. 

  • Control Your Neck. It’s also easy to let the head and neck get lazy during this sequence. For instance, don’t let it fall completely backward during cobra or upward dog. Control the neck as it follows the curve of the spine. 

  • Hold a Strong Back. Keeping your back straight in mountain, forward bend, and plank poses is harder than it looks. Focus on drawing in and activating your core to help support a straight back. 

  • Follow Your Own Pace. Sun salutation can be a fairly quick sequence with just one or two breaths per pose. You can also stop in each pose and hold it for several breaths. Do what feels right for you. 

  • Modify as Needed. If you are totally new to yoga poses, modify as needed to complete the sun salutation. For instance, you can lower onto your knees if you can’t hold a straight plank. Use blocks to support your hands if you have tight hamstrings. 

As you master sun salutation A, you can modify it to make it more challenging or move into the Sun Salutation B or Sun Salutation C sequence for more variety. These add warrior 1 and low lunges to add additional stretches and strength movements. 

Sun salutation is a foundational vinyasa sequence. It’s also a good place to start for beginners and for home practice if you’re not sure how to sequence poses. Master it to get the benefits and to prepare for more challenging vinyasas. 

The ISSA’s Yoga Alliance-approved 200-hour teacher training program is now available online. Get the certification you need to begin a career as a professional yoga instructor. 

References:

  1. Lee, K., Ju, H., & Yang, W. (2021). Metabolic energy contributions during High-Intensity Hatha Yoga and physiological comparisons between active and passive (Savasana) recovery. Frontiers in Physiology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2021.743859

  2. Choi, M. D., Marks, C., Landis-Piwowar, K. R., & Payter, C. (2017). The Effects of Vinyasa Yoga on Cardiovascular and Physical Fitness as well as Psychological Profiles of Well‐being. The FASEB Journal, 31(S1). https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.lb742

  3. Bhutkar, M., Bhutkar, P. M., Taware, G. B., & Surdi, A. D. (2011). How effective is sun salutation in improving muscle strength, general body endurance and body composition? Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.5812/asjsm.34742

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