Sun salutations are a classic feature of yoga practice and it’s no coincidence. It is a wholesome workout in itself with a meditative element. Its core is what we call vinyasa and it is also an excellent tool binding the whole practice together.
The beauty and strength of sun salutation is that it alternates forward and backward movements of the spine. By doing so it helps to increase the flexibility of the spine, and stretches large muscle groups on the front and back of your body. Sun salutations are also excellent for strengthening your core and the deep stabilizer muscles. And they build up heat, and stimulate your energy.
Sun salutation practice has these major benefits:
- Warms your body up – this is a simple yet crucial benefit. We perform sun salutations at the start of Yoga practice because they help to get the blood flowing. They warm up your muscles and lubricate the joints, preparing your body for more challenging positions. This is not only useful in Yoga – you can benefit from doing sun salutations before any kind of training. They help to prepare your body and mind for what’s coming.
- Builds up energy, strength and stamina – performing sun salutations has energizing effects and also helps to build strength and stamina as research shows. Both of these are essential for furthering your Yoga practice and athletic training.
- Teaches us to synchronize body, mind and breathing – whether you perform sun salutation as ‘one breath, one movement’ or you stay in each position for several breaths, it trains your attention to stay with the breath and movement, grounded in the present moment. That’s important for Yoga practice in general but also improves your mental wellbeing. And it has another benefit – breath control is crucial for sports using explosive movements, such as weightlifting, where the breath is used to generate additional force or maintain stability in a body area.
- Stimulates a meditative state of mind – many of us struggle to sit and still the mind. It’s natural for the mind to wander. By moving the body in a repetitive pattern, we can actually quieten the mind because as we move through the sequence, the mind follows the movement and breath, and doesn’t have time to fret. In sun salutations, we don’t need to think about what comes next because once you learn it, the movements become a natural progression so it promotes a meditative state of mind.
If all you did for a couple of months was 15 minutes of sun salutations daily, you’d improve your physical and mental health, strengthen the upper body, lower body, and core, increase your range of motion, and improve your stability. Pretty amazing! However, sun salutations lack twisting and side-bending action so it’s best to follow a more holistic Yoga program.
What is Sun Salutation?
Sun salutation, called surya namaskar in Sanskrit, has a long tradition. Sources vary on exactly how long that tradition is but we do know that it’s firmly rooted in Yoga philosophy.
The sun symbolizes consciousness, higher states, life energy and the Yoga sequence we know as sun salutation is a modified and upgraded form of prostration. It has many varieties but the basic form remains the same – as shown in our instructional video.
- Start in a standing position, inhale as you lift your arms up
- Exhale folding forward, touch the ground or your shins
- Inhale straightening your back, keep you hands on the floor or your shins
- Exhaling step back into plank and lower yourself down to chaturanga OR jump back straight into chaturanga
- Inhale and lift yourself up into upward-facing dog or cobra
- Exhale transitioning into downward-facing dog, and remain there for five breaths
- Inhaling look and step forward into a forward fold with a straight back
- Exhaling, fold deeper with rounded back
- Inhale and rise up with arms above the head
- Exhale lowering your hands in prayer position in front of your heart
In one variation, you include low lunge, in another you include a warrior position but there are many others too. There isn’t one absolutely correct way to perform sun salutation.
You can either move with the breath for a more vigorous practice, or remain in each position for a certain number of breaths for a slower, more relaxing practice.
This word is used very often in Yoga but it doesn’t always mean the same thing. The word itself means ‘to place in a special way’. It can refer to a style of Yoga, called Vinyasa Yoga, which binds different positions together in a flow-like sequence. However, in general Yoga practice, the term vinyasa usually means the core sequence from sun salutation – plank, chaturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog – performed once between different segments of the practice. It serves the purpose of keeping you warm, and re-setting your body between different positions – a bit like a palate cleanser.
If you hear the instruction ‘do a vinyasa’, it means this core sequence from sun salutation performed in the ‘one breath, one movement’ style. If you are starting in the standing position, then it usually means the whole sun salutation. Sometimes, the Yoga instruction can also be “perform a vinyasa and we’ll meet in downward-dog” – that means stop when you get to the downward-dog position. Makes sense?
108 sun salutations
There’s a special practice that involves performing 108 sun salutations in a row. Traditionally, people would do it to mark special occasions such as the new year, spring and fall equinox or winter and summer solstices, and big life events. However, it can be done at any time. The practice builds up a lot of heat which is meant to be cleansing, and burn up stuck and troubling emotions.
The number 108 is special for many reasons and it’s interwoven into many ancient cultures. The distance between the Earth and Sun is 108 times the diameter of the sun. It is said there are 108 energy channels connecting in your heart and 108 pressure points on your body. The list goes on and whether you consider the number special or not, the practice itself is very powerful. It may seem impossible to achieve but you are stronger than you think. If you want to try it, remember to work with yourself – breathe with the movement, stop to take a few breaths every nine rounds (you do 12 sets of 9), do low cobra instead of upward-dog when you start losing strength, and keep yourself motivated with ‘I can do this’ to dispel negative thinking.
Do sun salutations have to be a part of your practice?
Absolutely not – you can have a wholesome and strong Yoga practice without sun salutations. Some people avoid them when they suffer from wrist or shoulder injuries/pain. In that case, it makes sense to avoid practice that makes you suffer and prevents healing. There are plenty of other options for both Yoga and athletic training that give your wrists or shoulders a break.
If, on the other hand, you’re healthy and can perform sun salutations, you should! It can be challenging at the beginning so start with only a few – three is enough. And gradually build up, perhaps to ten as a warm-up practice. You’ll see how good it feels when you get a bit stronger!
Whether you do your sun salutations in the morning or at night, they are a truly rewarding practice.
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