Breaking down the Sun Salutation; step by step.

“Practice implies a certain methodology, involving effort. It has to be followed uninterruptedly for a long time, with firm resolve, application, attention and devotion, to create a stable foundation for the training the mind, intelligence, ego and consciousness.”

B.K.S. Iyengar

This is a basic version of the Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskar A.
It is worth bearing in mind that the breath is linked to some of the movements in the sequence.
In general, inhalations combine with extension movements and exhalations combine with flexion movements.

Once you understand the path of the entire sequence and where you are going from posture to posture, try to focus entirely on the quality of your breathing and combining it with your body’s movements. This takes a degree of coordinative awareness but can be achieved quickly with regular practice.
If you notice your mind drifting away on to irrelevant topics of thought, do your best to return your focus on your breathing. The Sun Salutation trains the mind as much as it will your body.

Note that the pragmatism of this sequence outweighs who invented it.
It’s a simple place to start.
In time, any sequences can be created or modified to provide the specifics of what your body needs. These movements feautred in the Sun Salutation will put most of your major joints through a range of motion that they need to keep revisiting, in order to keep working. But this sequence will not cover all of the bases.

The sequence shown below is one that I personally perform but only once I have warmed up with some basic regressions on some of the poses. To begin with, I swap out the Upward Dog posture for Cobra because it takes me a little longer to warm up my wrists and spine. You may find you need to look for basic regressions in some of the poses if you comprimise their form. This is where a teacher can be useful.

To initially raise heat within the body, it is recommended to only spend one breath per posture, and 5 breaths in Downward dog. This keeps a steady level of motion going through the sequence. Once 5-10 rounds of the salutation have been peformed, spending longer time in each posture or inserting other postures is possible.

If a more meditative approach is desired, simply perform the sequence combining one breath with one movement to create a rhythm of motion that concentrates the mind into a more meditative state. This is a fantastic place to start for beginners who are interested in learning the intricacies of meditation but are not sure where to begin.

Understand that this is a basic guide – modifications can be made at any stage and with any of the postures and the duration of which they are held. Suggestions on ways to program this sequence are featured at the end of this article.

Mountain Pose – Tadasana

Mountain pose – Tadasana
There is a slight level of body tension with this pose. It is not a complete relaxation but more of a gentle stand to attention. Placing the feet near the top of the mat, work from your toes up, to ensure you are activating the entire body. It serves as a decent body scan in and of itself.

Stand tall, lifting the crown of the head.
Actively spread the toes on the mat.
Create a slight level of tension in the legs by gently pushing the feet down into the mat.
Pull the kneecaps up by gently tensing the quadraceps.
Pull the navel towards the spine to firm the belly and gently pull the ribcage down.
To support the sacrum, gently tense the glutes.
Pull the shoulder blades down and back then try to relax the trapezius muscles and neck.
Fingers point down at the floor, gently reach them down to activate the arms.
Chin is dipped slightly.
Spend a minimum of one inhale and one exhale, here.



Transition from Mountain pose to Upward salute

Begin the transition from Mountain pose to the Upward salute by inhaling slowly and circling the arms upwards. During this transition, nothing changes from the above criteria apart from now the arms are moving, leading with the knuckle of the thumbs.



Upward salute – Urdhva Hastasana

Upward salute – Urdhva Hastasana
This is a great posture if you have a lot of restriction around your thoracic spine. You will have to actively try and create thoracic extension.
Nothing should have changed from below the rib cage – the cues from Mountain pose still apply. From the toes to the ribs there is still a level of gentle, active tension in the muscles.
The pelvis will want to shift into an anterior tilt, so it’s important to be mindful of maintaining a posterior tilt, achieved by maintaining gentle tension in the glutes and keeping the navel drawn in.
As the palms meet, gently press them together to activate tension in the shoulder girdle.
The arms still actively reach up.
The chin now lifts and extension in the thoracic spine is created.
The end of your full inhale should now have been reached. Hold the breath gently before beginning the next transition.



Transition from Upward salute to Standing forward fold

Begin the transition from Upward salute to the Standing forward fold with a slow exhale. The knees have a slight bend in them to begin with. The hips will naturally shift back slightly as the stomach, then chest, then head fold towards the shins.



Standing forward fold – Uttanasana

Standing forward fold – Uttanasana
The end of your exhale is combined with your forward fold.
The spine is curved into flexion, the neck is relaxed, the fingertips can lightly touch the mat, shins, ankles or hold the feet, depending on your given range for that repetition.
Weight remains even in each foot. Navel is still drawn in towards the spine.



Halfway lift – Ardha Uttanasana

Halfway lift – Ardha Uttanasana
Begin your Halfway lift with an inhale.
The goal is to extend the spine so it is straight. This will dictate where your hands are placed.
The above photo shows a straight spine happens when the hands are on the shins.
For some the spine may be straight with the hands touching the floor. For others, hands on the knees. Let the spine dictate where your hands are placed.
The neck is extended.
The navel is pulled in and away from the belt line.
Arms are straight and active.
Glutes and quads maintain a level of tension to support the hips and kneecaps, respectively.
Weight is still even in both feet.



Step back transition from Halfway lift to Plank

Begin the transition from Halfway lift to Plank with an exhale.
The spine is flexed to allow the hands to reach the mat.
As the front knee bends, the other leg steps back, in this photo, right and left, respectively.



Plank – Chaturanga Dandasana (top)

Plank – Chaturanga Dandasana
On the same exhale, the left leg steps back into Plank.
The palms push into the floor with even weight in each.
The upper back slightly rounds, achieved by pressing straight arms into the floor creating pressure with both hands.
Navel remains pulled in towards the spine.
The pelvis is placed into a slight posterior tilt and maintained via tension in the glutes.
The legs are straight, quadracep tension lifts the kneecaps.
Weight is even in each foot and each hand. Fingertips actively grip the mat.



Plank – Chaturanga Dandasana (middle)

Keeping the body in a straight line, it is lowered slowly towards the mat, still on the same exhalation.
Tension throughout the body must be maintained.
Hands and feet still push down into the mat.
Early on in the practice, there is an option to lower the knees to the mat first, before lowering the rest of the body down. This is a regression and arguably less intense than lowering the body with the knees lifted.



Plank – Chaturanga Dandasana (bottom)

The end of the exhalation is reached when the body is lowered all the way, hovering an inch off of the mat.
The neck remains in a straight line with the spine.
Early on in your session, lowering the body so it makes contact with the mat is also an option. After a few rounds, try to maintain your hover an inch away from the mat.



Upward facing dog – Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

Upward facing dog – Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Begin the transition from Plank to Upward facing dog with an inhale.
The chest starts to shift forwards towards the hands, initiated by both toes pushing into the mat and gradually rolling over both feet so the laces make contact with the mat also.
The arms straighten to suspend the body off of the mat.
The shoulders are pressed down and away from the ears.
The only four points of contact are the two hands and the laces of the two feet.
The spine is extended, chest is lifted.
At the end of the movement, the neck is placed into extension as the head lifts and the eyes look skyward.
If the previous posture, Plank, ended with the body being lowered and coming into contact with the mat, a transition to Cobra is advisable. Again, this is less intense than Upward facing dog and serves as a good warm up preparation for the spine.



Downward facing dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana

Downward facing dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana
Start to get into this pose with an exhale.
Push your hands into the floor, keeping the tension in both straightened arms.
Shift your hips in the air and move your weight back, as you transition from Upward facing dog to Downward facing dog.
Again, the straightening of the spine will dictate the pose.
Create a straight line from the crown of your head to your tailbone, relaxing the back of the neck to let the head hang.
The eyes focus behind on the upper thighs and the knees can bend as much as is needed to create a straight spine.
Heels actively reach to the mat, they may or may not make contact with the floor.
Weight is even in both hands and both feet.

This is the halfway pose of the basic Sun Salutation sequence. Stay here for one to five breaths.



Preparation to step forward

Begin the transition from Downward dog to the Halfway lift with a long inhale, lifting the left leg behind you.



Step forward transition from Downward dog to Halfway lift

Continue the inhale and step the left foot forward, lifting the chest and head to create extension in the spine. Hands or finger tips maintain contact with the mat.



Halfway Lift – Ardha Uttanasana

Finishing the same inhale, push off the right foot and step the right leg forward to meet the left.
The legs begin to straighten as the chest and head lift, straightening the spine into a Halfway lift. The above photo shows a straight spine when the hands are on the shins.
For some the spine may be straight with the hands touching the floor. For others, hands on the knees. Let the spine dictate where your hands are placed.
The neck is extended.
The navel is pulled in and away from the belt line.
Arms are straight and active.
Glutes and quads maintain a level of tension to support the hips and kneecaps, respectively.
Weight is still even in both feet.



Standing forward fold – Uttanasana

Standing forward fold – Uttanasana
A long exhale is combined with your forward fold.
The spine is curved into flexion, the neck is relaxed, the fingertips can lightly touch the mat, shins, ankles or hold the feet, depending on your given range for that repetition.
Weight remains even in each foot. Navel is still drawn in towards the spine.



Transition from Standing forward fold to Upward salute

Begin the transition to the Upward salute from the Standing forward fold with a slow inhale. The knees have a slight bend in them to begin to begin the motion.
The hips stay supported with a contraction in the glutes and feet pushing into the floor.
Arms straighten and circle up towards the sky to begin peeling the stomach off of the thighs.
The chest and head unfold as the straight spine lifts the torso up towards the sky.



Upward salute – Urdhva Hastasana

Upward salute – Urdhva Hastasana
On the same inhale, the palms meet and gently press together to activate tension in the shoulder girdle.
The arms still actively reach up.
The chin now lifts and extension in the thoracic spine is created.
The end of your full inhale should now have been reached. Hold the breath gently before beginning the next transition back to Mountain pose.



Mountain Pose – Tadasana

Mountain pose – Tadasana
As you exhale, lower the arms back to Mountain pose.
Keep the slight level of body tension as you did at the beginning of the sequence.
The feet should be near the top of the mat.
Stand tall, lifting the crown of the head.
Actively spread the toes on the mat.
Create a slight level of tension in the legs by gently pushing the feet down into the mat.
Pull the kneecaps up by gently tensing the quadraceps.
Pull the navel towards the spine to firm the belly and gently pull the ribcage down.
To support the sacrum, gently tense the glutes.
Pull the shoulder blades down and back then try to relax the trapezius muscles and neck.
Fingers point down at the floor, gently reach them down to activate the arms.
Chin is dipped slightly.

The Sun Salutation sequence is complete. This would be 1 complete round.
A minimum of 5 rounds is recommended, 10 rounds and you will notice an increase in body temperature.
Use Mountain pose as a body scan after each complete round.



Programming Ideas

Always starting your Asana experiments and first-time sequences with a body that has been warmed up will ensure you’re prepared before you explore new territory.

The basic gentle sequence I use to warm up includes using the Cobra pose instead of Upward Dog, and regressing the Plank position by lowering the body to the knees and then to floor. I perform this basic sequence for 3-5 rounds.

Now I am ready to perform the normal Sun Salutation for 10 rounds.

This is the minimum effective dose. From here, the options are pretty much endless.



Body Scan, then Test and Retest.

Once you have completed 10 rounds of the Sun Salutation, you can scan the body from head to toe whilst stood in Mountain pose, feeling for any tightness or restriction.

Repeat the Sun Salutation for another round, focusing on the pose that best addresses the tightness or limitation for that area. Hold the appropriate pose for longer; instead of 1 full breath, try 2-6 full breaths to start with.

For example; in Mountain pose, the middle back and hamstrings feel tight and a little restricted. Everytime Halfway lift is reached in the sequence, it is held for 2-6 breaths instead of just the normal 0.5-1 breath.
Back in Mountain pose, scan the middle back and hamstrings again. Repeat for as many rounds as needed until a little improvement is made.



This video above shows the sequence taking a half breath each movement – each motion is linked to an inhale or an exhale.

Add in specific poses and hold for long duration

Once warmed up, there are a variety of points in the sequence you can add in specific poses.
An easy way to do this but still maintain some motion is inserting a pose when transitioning out of Downward dog.

For example, if your obliques are tight or weak, hamstrings too, then inserting the suitable variation of the Triangle pose, through a transition from Downward dog, is very simple. Triangle can then be held for 6-12 breaths per round, to really focus in on the obliques and hamstrings.

You can also enter poses that are seated, prone or supine on the floor.



Add inversions to the standing > floor, and floor > standing transitions

This is a really convenient way to maintain a handbalancing practice through the sequence.
From the Forward fold to Plank transition, an inversion can be inserted.
For example, a tuck handstand, held anywhere from 1-6 breaths, before lowering the hips and legs and kicking the body back to Plank.
And then again, launching the body forward from Downward dog, into an inversion held for as long as you want, before lowering hips and legs into a Forward fold.



Add in poses to challenge balance

Balance challenges can be added in everywhere, you can get creative.
Hold a balance for at least 6 breaths, focus your vision on to a fixed point, and your mind onto your breathing. Changing your visual focal point is an simple mental progression to experiment with. Balances can be done standing, inverted, twisted or hinged.
For example, a variation of Warrior 3 is easy to insert between the transition from Plank to Forward fold. This single leg hip hinge is a useful movement to master and its balance component can be played with in a variety of creative ways.



Class Programming

I can’t suggest programming ideas without talking briefly about classes. Everyone should take at least one yoga class in their lives. The trouble is how inconsistent the quality of teaching can be from teacher to teacher, and just how clueless some of the teachers are.

In my experience, there is very little quality control in the yoga (asana) of the western world. I know for a fact that one of the main associations that qualifies a teacher demands 200 hours but there is no standardisation of what must be included in those 200 hours. They can teach whatever they want, as long as there’s 200 hours of it. So beware. Not all classes and teachers are created equal.

Here’s some things to look out for;

  • Spine first
    If they’re a good teacher, they will start the class by gently moving the spine. If they’re really good, they will also get you into your hip and shoulder joints with simple gentle movements before starting any sequence.
  • Progressions / Regressions
    Often the teacher will be of a higher standard than the students, but not always. They should suggest progressions and regressions of each an every move in the entire class so that everyone can access the benefits. If you don’t know the regression or progression, ask. If the teacher doesn’t know then take note.
  • Cues
    The anatomical knowledge that yoga teachers have varies, immensely. If they are well trained, they will offer cues throughout the class that are clear and useful. Sometimes a class can be polluted with pseudo-spiritual monologues from the teachers. Other times you will exit learning what thoracic extension is and why you need to work on it. A good teacher will have said a cue to the class that enabled you to get more understanding; either of a position, sequence or theory.

A decent asana class aimed at beginners and intermediates will follow sequencing something like this;

  • Spine, hip and shoulder joint rotation: 2-5 mins
  • Basic Sun Salutation sequencing or successive movements linked with the breath : 5-15 mins
  • Balance poses: 2-5 mins
  • Inversions: 2-5 mins
  • Seated poses or Deep Stretches; 5-15 mins
  • Breathwork or basic Pranayama; 5-10 mins
  • Relaxation: 5-10 mins

There’s a good chance you will come across some absolutely awful, so-called teachers.
Hopefully you find some really great ones and even decide to study with one for a while.
Enjoy the journey.

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