What Is a Sun Salutation in Yoga?

Sun Salutation, or Surya Namskara, is one of the most common set sequences in yoga. Although “Sun Salutation” is more of an umbrella term for several sequences, they all have certain features in common that make them qualify as Sun Salutations.

Sun Salutations are designed to be performed repeatedly, which is reflected in their cyclical nature. Whatever the variation, Sun Salutations start and end with the same pose, Samasthiti or Mountain Pose (Tadasana). This mirrors how the sun completes its cycle and infinitely rises again the next day.

Another thing that sets Sun Salutations apart from other set sequences in yoga is the distribution of breaths. Each pose and transition is accompanied by a breath that allows you to enhance the pose. The inhales are reserved for lengthening or upward movements, such as Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana) or Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana). Meanwhile, downwards or “closed” movements are performed on an exhale, for example, Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) or Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).

Origins of Sun Salutations

Sun salutation origins

Sun Salutation is a direct translation from Sanskrit. Surya refers both to the Sun and the solar deity in Hinduism. Namaskara means “greeting” or “bowing”. It shares the etymological roots with another well-known yogic term, namaste. The latter refers to bowing to someone to greet them and express respect or gratitude. Surya Namaskara is greeting or “saluting” the Sun.

The concept of Sun Salutations is credited to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. The practice occurs early in the morning, sometimes literally as the sun rises above the horizon. With the yogi facing East, they can greet the Sun and pay their respects to Surya. Sun Salutation sequence is at the start of the Ashtanga primary series, designed to prepare the body for practice and face the day ahead.

Types of Sun Salutations

Sun salutation types

Traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa practice includes two Sun Salutation sequences performed one after the other, Surya Namaskara A and Surya Namaskara B. With the development of other styles of yoga, Sun Salutations evolved to have more variations.

  • Sun Salutation A A sequence that includes 11 poses. In Ashtanga, Surya Namaskara A is performed five times before moving on to Sun Salutation B.
  • Sun Salutation B – A more complex sequence containing 19 poses from start to finish. This longer set of poses includes several repetitions of the Vinyasa and Warrior I Pose.
  • Sun Salutation CSome may argue that this is a more gentle, beginner-friendly Sun Salutation variation. Instead of Chaturanga Dandasana and Upward-Facing Dog, Surya Namaskara C features Ashtangasana and Cobra Pose.
  • Assisted Sun Salutations – Those with limited mobility can still practice Sun Salutations with modifications. For example, practitioners can rely on a chair or wall to help them achieve the desired effect.
  • Other – As long as the “formula” of a classic Sun Salutation is maintained, there can be many ways to incorporate more poses into the sequence, each creating a new variation of Surya Namaskara.

Top 5 Benefits of Sun Salutations

Sun salutation benefits

Warm-up the body

The Sun Salutation sequence is designed to activate the entire body and get it ready for practice. It engages almost every major muscle group in the body: stretching, strengthening, and making the blood pump. Even outside of structured yoga practice, Sun Salutations are a great way to warm up at the start of your day.

Consistency equals progress

By repeating the same sequence of poses multiple times, you can refine your movements and strengthen the relevant body parts. Often, it’s possible to feel improvement even when performing the sequence a few times in a row. When you multiply that by time, you can really track your progress, both in terms of asanas and transitions between them.

Adaptability

Sun Salutations have a great potential for modification. Every pose can be either adapted or substituted to cater to beginners, pregnant mothers, people with chronic conditions, limited mobility, or physical injury.

Improves Flexibility

The asanas featured in Surya Namaskara were carefully selected to stretch and strengthen the muscles. For example, Upward Salute encourages shoulder mobility, Cobra and Upward Dog build a more flexible spine, and Downward Facing Dog is notorious for stretching hamstrings and calves. Practicing Sun Salutations regularly can improve the practitioner’s flexibility.

Connection

The rhythmic movement synchronized with the breath requires a ton of coordination. Performing poses in sync with the breath builds the overall connection between the mind, body, and prana.

Safety Precautions

  • If you have any injuries, old or recent, you must exercise caution at every step. It’s best to consult your yoga teacher, as they will likely suggest modifications to make the practice safer.
  • If you have a chronic condition that is likely to affect your practice, speaking to a teacher is a great first step. However, it is important to learn to modify your practice to navigate your illness. The truth is, no one knows your body and its limitations better than you do. Therefore, work on establishing physical boundaries and remember that there is no shame in skipping the pose that doesn’t serve you.
  • The repetitive nature of Surya Namaskara can be a cause of an injury. If you grow complacent, you may let go of the proper alignment, which would lead to the weakening of a muscle or joint. It’s important to stay present and focused throughout the entire practice.
  • If you are pregnant, make sure your physician clears you for the practice. As the baby grows, it may affect your balance, flexibility levels, coordination, endurance, etc. Furthermore, in the later stages of pregnancy, you may need to modify the sequence to exclude prone poses such as Chaturanga, Cobra, or Upward-Facing Dog.

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