Ever wondered why yogis practice a yoga sun salutation? Maybe you love to watch the sunrise or sunset over the hills but don't connect it to yoga. Wherever in the world, you are today the sun is the one constant every day. Giving thanks and appreciation to the sun and all it provides can strengthen our connection to the world around us. Let's find out more about the meaning of and the beautiful benefits of yoga sun salutations.
What do the yoga sun salutations signify?
Sun salutation or Surya Namaskar (translated to bow to the beautiful light) is a sequence of yoga postures designed to show gratitude and respect to the sun. For centuries many civilisations have created symbolism, meanings and rituals connected to the sun. The yearly cycle of the sun was believed to symbolise the life of all beings. The birth date of the sun being 3 days after the winter solstice, as the sun starts to grow and the days get longer again. This symbol of life is also observed in traditions that believe the sun is immortality and is reborn every morning to restore life again. Whether you like to attach symbolism or simple science to the rising sun you can be sure that its appearance signifies the start of a new day and is the one constant we can rely on in times of uncertainty and change.
What are the benefits of yoga sun salutations?
The physical postures of a yoga sun salutation are combined with synchronised breathing to maximise the benefits of the sequence. Traditionally the practice is combined with mantras for each position, syllables or phrases that evoke sounds and vibrations. Although not always included in the more modern sequence, the names of the sun they call are beautiful; friend, shining, beautiful light, brilliant, who moves in the sky, the giver of strength, golden centred, lord of the dawn, beneficient, energy and leading to enlightenment.
Surya Namaskar yoga sun salutation is traditionally practiced in the morning and facing the sun but can be performed at any time of the day. Synchronised breath and movement can create a sense of meditation when performed at a slow pace. A high paced yoga sun salutation has been shown to meet the criteria for moderate to vigorous-intensity activity (1). The benefit of regularly practicing yoga sun salutations over a period of months can even result in the conditioning of the cardiorespiratory system (2). The continuous repetitive movement creates warmth and energy in the body and makes the practice ideal on its own or as part of a longer yoga sequence.
What are the components of a yoga sun salutation?
Two distinct types and many variants of sun salutation exist; Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B. Variants allow you to change the practice to suit your level as a student. Each round of a Surya Namaskar A includes 12 yoga postures repeated on both sides with a balance of backbends and forward bends synchronised with each inhalation and exhalation. The 12 postures completed with the right foot leading is a half-round and the second half-round with the left foot leading.
1. Mountain pose - tadasana with anjali mudra
Stand grounded on your mat with your feet hip-width distance apart. Place your hands together in a prayer position (anjali mudra) in front of your heart space. Close your eyes, focus on your breath and take a moment to connect to yourself and the sun.
2. Upward salute - urdhva hastasana
Inhale and take your arms out to the side and overhead in a wide arch to reach the sky. Keep your gaze ahead or if comfortable look upwards and allow your head to drop back gently.
3. Standing forward fold - uttanasana
Exhale and release your arms to fold forward at the hips. Keep a soft bend in your knees to release pressure from your back. Touch your fingertips to the floor or rest on your shins.
4. High lunge -alanasana
Inhale and step your right foot back into a high lunge. Keep your front knee directly over your ankle and press into both feet to stabilise the pose. With your fingertips on the floor gently gaze straight ahead.
5. Downward facing dog - adho mukha svanasana
Keep your hands in the same position, exhale and step your left foot back to meet your right foot. Ground evenly through your palms and feet as you reach your hips and pelvis up to the sky. Keep a soft bend in your knees if you have tight hamstrings.
6. Plank - phalakasana
Inhale and bring your torso forward to float your shoulders directly over your wrists. Keep your spine straight and in line with your neck. Spread your shoulder blades apart as you maintain stability in your core.
7. Transition to upward facing dog (chaturanga dandasana) or table top (barmanasana)
Traditionally the transition from plank to upward facing dog includes chaturanga. Chaturanga is a fairly advanced pose so if you feel comfortable you can include it in your sequence. An alternative as your build strength is to exhale and come into a tabletop pose, placing the knees on the floor and then lower the chest to the mat to prepare for an upward facing dog.
8. Upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) or cobra (bhujangasana)
Inhale, keep your palms on the floor straighten your arms and raise your chest. A cobra pose allows your pelvis to rest on the floor while your legs are actively engaged into the mat. The full upward facing dog retains the same gentle backbend with only the feet and palms on the floor.
To complete the half-round of the yoga sun salutation: Exhale back to a downward-facing dog then inhale to step the left foot forward into a high lunge, exhale to bring the back foot to the front for the standing forward fold. Inhale and take the hands out to the side and above the head into a standing upward salute and finish back in the starting position of mountain pose - ready to start the next half-round on the left side.
How to prepare for a yoga sun salutation practice
If you are unfamiliar with the postures take time to master the sequence posture by posture. Work up to the stage when you can link the movements together and synchronise the movement with your breath. Once you feel you can complete the sequence, add more rounds. Take it steady as you may find the practice quite tiring, to begin with. If the energy you create and the sense of gratitude motivate you, set a challenge to perform a certain number each day.
The yoga sun salutation practice is a great way to connect to yourself and the world around you. Take a moment at the end of your practice to think about the sun, say thank you for the energy and light it constantly gives. Be thankful for taking time to practice knowing you can always come back to say hello again to the glowing friend in the sky whenever you need to.
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Larson-Meyer 2016 A systematic review of the energy cost and metabolic intensity of yoga Med Sci Sports Exerc 2016 Aug; 48(8): 1558-69 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27433961/
Sinha B and Sinha TD 2014 Effect of 11 months of yoga training on cardiorespiratory responses during the actual practice of Surya Namaskar Int J Yoga Jan-Jun 2014 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4097920/