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How to Safely Move Through a Sun Salutation in Vinyasa Yoga

Learn about the meaning of sun salutations and how to practice them safely in a vinyasa yoga class.



There are many terms used in yoga classes that can be overwhelming if you are new to yoga (as if keeping track of the right side and left side of the body isn’t hard enough). Two common references are sun salutations (surya namaskars) and vinyasa flows.


Sun salutations are both a spiritual and physical practice. They are used to greet the day through dynamic poses (asanas) originating from your heart. During the change of seasons, it is a tradition to practice 108 sun salutations, a number present in sacred text, numerology, ayurveda, astronomy and meditation. That number makes me sweat just thinking about it, so let’s just start with the basics.


Physically, sun salutations help with mind-body connection because each pose follows the rhythm of your breath. The sequence of poses also builds strength in your core, shoulders, arms and legs. They are often used as an energizing warm up in yoga to prepare your body for more challenging poses. Vinyasa yoga classes also use the term “ vinyasa flow” to describe a series of four poses from the sun salutation sequence (plank, low plank, upward facing dog and downward facing dog) throughout the practice to maintain heat in your body.


There are many variations of sun salutations and they can be adapted for injuries. Sun salutations should be modified or skipped if you are currently experiencing:

  • Wrist injuries: Plank, upward facing dog and downward facing dog require weight bearing on the wrists. You can modify by taking forearm plank instead of plank, sphinx instead of upward facing dog and dolphin instead of downward facing dog. You can also make fists with your hands in plank

  • Shoulder injuries: Reaching your arms up and over head or weight bearing on your hands can be strenuous for your shoulders and may prevent injuries from healing

  • Back pain or injuries: extension and flexion in back bending and folding forward can cause pressure on the spine

  • Additional contraindications include, but are not limited to: high blood pressure, heart issues, glaucoma and third trimester pregnancy

  • Always make sure you are cleared by a doctor before exercising

Ready to try sun salutations? I put together a few variations you can do at home.



Below is a step-by-step guide for each of the sun salutation variations in the video and how to align your body in each pose.


Half Sun Salutation (Ardha Surya Namaskar):

A short standing sequence to warm up.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana)

  • Inhale and reach your arms up and over your head. Hug your ribs in. Slide your shoulders down your back

  • Exhale and fold forward, hinging from your hips (uttanasana). You can bend your knees any amount to reduce the hamstring stretch and avoid locking your knees

  • Inhale and lift up halfway. You can tent your fingertips on the ground or slide your palms up your shins below your knees. Maintain a flat spine and make sure your neck is a natural extension of your spine (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale, press your feet into the floor and stand up (tadasana). Reach your arms up over head

  • Exhale and bring your hands to your heart

  • Repeat


Modified Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar):

This variation includes a less strenuous way to lower to the ground and a more gentle backbend.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana)

  • Inhale and reach your arms up and over head

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale, plant your palms on the mat and step back into plank pose (phalakasana). Align your shoulders over your wrists. Squeeze your glutes. Hug your belly button in and up

  • Exhale and lower your knees down to the ground. Bend your elbows and squeeze them in toward your ribs to engage your shoulder muscles. Lower your chest to the ground. Then, lower your chin to the ground. Your hands should be next to your chest. Keep squeezing your elbows in

  • Inhale and slide your body forward. Press the tops of your feet into the ground. Press your palms into the ground. Lift your chest off the mat for baby cobra pose (ardha bhujangasana)

  • Exhale and tuck your toes. Lift your hips and lengthen your spine for downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale, bend your knees and look forward

  • Exhale and walk to the top of your mat

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and stand up (tadasana). Reach your arms up over head

  • Exhale and bring your hands to your heart


Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar A):

A more traditional sun salutation.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana)

  • Inhale and reach your arms up and over head

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale, plant your palms on the mat and step back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and shift forward slightly. Engage your glutes. Bend your elbows and squeeze them in. Lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana). Make sure your neck is a natural extension of your spine

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, rooting the tops of your feet on the ground, hip distance apart. Lift your thighs off the mat and engage your glutes. Lift your torso and chest up. Drop your shoulders away from your ears. This is upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale, bend your knees and look forward

  • Exhale and walk or gently float to the top of your mat

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and stand up (tadasana). Reach your arms up over head

  • Exhale and bring your hands to your heart


Sun Salutation Low Lunge Variation (Surya Namaskar Anjaneyasana Variation):

Sun salutation with a low lunge.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana)

  • Inhale and reach your arms up and over head

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana).

  • Inhale, plant your palms on the mat and step back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale and lift your right leg up and back behind for three legged dog

  • Exhale and bend your right knee as you shift forward so your shoulders are aligned with your wrists. Plant your right foot in between your right hands. Lower your back knee down to the mat. You can fold over the side of your mat or use a towel underneath your knee for extra padding

  • Inhale and lift your torso up. Reach your arms up over your head. Slide your shoulders down your back. Hug your ribs in. This is low lunge (anjaneyasana)

  • Exhale and plant your palms on the mat underneath your shoulders. Step your right foot back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Repeat each pose the left side, ending in low lunge on the left side (anjaneyasana)

  • Exhale and plant your palms on the mat underneath your shoulders

  • Inhale and step your left foot back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale, bend your knees and look forward

  • Exhale and walk or gently float to the top of your mat

  • Inhale and lift up halfway (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and stand up (tadasana). Reach your arms up over head

  • Exhale and bring your hands to your heart


Sun Salutation B (Surya Namaskar B):

A more challenging sun salutation that includes chair pose and warrior I.

  • Begin in mountain pose (tadasana)

  • Inhale and reach your arms up and over head

  • Exhale and bend your knees. Sit your hips back for chair pose (utkatasana). Keep your knees and feet facing forward. Lift up from your chest and hug your ribs in

  • Inhale and fold forward (uttanasana). Plant your palms and step back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale and lift your right leg up and back behind for three legged dog

  • Exhale and bend your right knee as you shift forward so your shoulders are aligned with your wrists. Plant your right foot in between your right hands. Rotate your back heel down to the mat and face your toes to a 45-degree angle

  • Inhale and lift your torso up. Square your hips forward. Reach your arms up over your head. Slide your shoulders down your back. Hug your ribs in. This is warrior I (virabhadrasana A)

  • Exhale and plant your palms on the mat underneath your shoulders.

  • Inhale and step your right foot back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Repeat each pose the left side, ending in warrior I on the left side (virabhadrasana A)

  • Exhale and plant your palms on the mat underneath your shoulders

  • Inhale and step your left foot back into plank pose (phalakasana)

  • Exhale and lower half way down (chaturanga dandasana)

  • Inhale and untuck your toes, root your feet, lift your thighs and lift your chest for upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

  • Exhale and roll over your toes or tuck them one at a time. Come into downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

  • Inhale and gently float or walk to the top of your mat. Lift half way up (ardha uttanasana)

  • Exhale and fold forward (uttanasana)

  • Inhale and bend your knees. Sit your hips back and reach your arms up for chair pose (utkatasana)

  • Exhale and hold chair pose (utkatasana)

  • Inhale and stand up (tadasana)

  • Exhale and bring your hands to your heart


After this practice, you should feel warm (and possibly sweaty)! You can rest in a child's pose (balasana) anytime you need a break. Let me know which variation was your favorite or which variation you found most challenging by leaving me a comment below.


With gratitude,

Shannon

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