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Sun Salutations in Yoga or Surya Namaskar

Updated: Jun 23

What are the Sun Salutations in yoga? Where do they come from, why do we practice them and what are the benefits? Finally, how do we incorporate them into a yoga class or even the basis of a home yoga practice?

woman on yoga mat placed outside on decking with her arms raised and knees bent in chair pose
Sun Salutations are a wonderful way to move your body with your breath

What are the Sun Salutations?

The Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskar, are a set of flowing yoga movements which include forward and backwards bending yoga asanas that typically move in a progression from standing to the floor and back again in synchronisation with the breath.

There are two major variations of sun salutations, both of which are in widespread practice: Hatha style and Ashtanga style. Hatha style includes crescent lunge pose (Anjaneyasana), whilst Ashtanga style includes Warrior I instead, has 2 forms (A and B) and is the basis of the "vinyasa" - and often the flow too- in most vinyasa flow yoga classes.

It's also possible to practice forms of Surya Namaskar in chair yoga, or simply as a flowing set of movements whilst standing, if getting up and down off the floor isn't the order of the day.

Where do Sun Salutations come from?

Surya Namaskar or Sūryanamaskāra in Sanskrit literally means 'salute to the sun'.

One of the founders of the modern yoga movement and creator of Ashtanga yoga, the late K Pattahbi Jois, thought the practice was described as far back as the Vedas, Indian Spiritual texts written down around 3000 years ago (but likely far predating that in oral tradition).

Renowned vinyasa yoga teacher Shiva Rea also places sun salutations within the Vedic tradition, where prostration rituals in honour of the sun and the fire element were recommended for practice at sunrise and sunset.

Rea describes practicing prostration rituals as 'movement meditations' in temples in India, which gave me pause for thought about how celebration of the sun was integrated into ancient European cultures too, particularly around the midwinter festival (where, in the far north, we particularly gave thanks for the sun actually returning 😅) and monumental structures like Newgrange in Ireland were constructed over 5,000 years ago to, as it seems, mark the midwinter solstice. But I digress!

Some also trace origins of Surya Namaskar to the Ramayana, another ancient Indian text which describes the story of Rama and Sita. When Sita is kidnapped by an evil entity and imprisoned in Lanka (modern Sri Lanka), Rama enlists the help of monkey king Hanuman who leaps across the sea to help her. The preparatory movements he makes are linked to the modern flowing form.

Pattahabi Jois' teacher, T Krishnamacharya, credited as the real progenitor of modern yoga, is thought to have drawn many influences from early twentieth century weightlifting, bodybuilding and gymnastics as from his extensive studies in esoteric practices with the yogis of the Himalayas. Although it's also worth mentioning that Tibetan Buddhists are some of the most famous Himalayan (and worldwide) prostrators in today's world.

Why do we practice Sun Salutations?

Vedic fire practices honoured the fire within and without. And the sun salutations can be used in a similar way today if it suits our practice.

Prosaically, many of us practice sun salutations as a warm up for other yoga postures (e.g. before the Ashtanga yoga sequence) and it's a great way to create heat in the body and 'stoke the inner fires' (as anyone who has made it through several rounds of Sun Salutation B will attest to).

The forward and backward bends in Surya Namaskar sequences work with the powerhouse energy of the Manipura or Solar Plexus Chakra, which has domain over the digestive system, encouraging the metabolism and the digestion with dynamic practice.

We often practice sun salutations when we are feeling more energetic and at times of the year when energy is more abundant (think midsummer vs midwinter), to feel and channel our fire energy, or conversely when we need to create more fire energy in our lives and really get things moving (one of the reasons I suggest actually trying sun salutations as a midwinter practice!). Taking sun salutations at dawn therefore could be a nice personal ritual but also a great way to invigorate yourself for the day ahead.

What are the other benefits of Sun Salutation practice?

Sun salutations, in most forms, are a full body movement which encourages flexion (forward bending) and extension (backwards bending) of the whole spine, helping to keep the whole body moving in a healthy way.

Standing forms also encourage strength and flexibility in the legs as well as arm extension and shoulder rotation which is the most wonderful antidote to sitting at a desk, driving a car or scrolling on a mobile phone or handheld device. They help to balance out the habitual shapes and movements of modern life!

Shiva Rea describes Surya Namaskar as a 'moving meditation' in which the benefits are not just in the physical body but also in the mind and the energy. As we mindfully work through repeated and familiar flowing movements, usually in synchronicity with the breath, we have the opportunity to experience 'flow state' or that wonderful feeling of just being totally present in and with ourselves. The state of yoga- union of all the parts of ourselves- may be described an ultimate extension of this experience. In the here and now, access to the 'flow state' often gives us a sense of calm, wellbeing and perspective on life, which is why sun salutations can be an excellent practice for building continued mental health and mental resilience.

Is there anyone who shouldn't practice Sun Salutations?

Sun Salutations are suitable for most people with normal mobility and who are in reasonable health. If you don't have a reasonable level of cardiovascular fitness (e.g. walking down the street without getting out of breath) then standing sun salutations may not be the best place to start, as they can be pretty demanding, especially in repetition. Chair versions might be good to get started with.

People with high blood pressure and others who need to avoid bending down and getting up quickly would not find sun salutations suitable; neither would pregnant people. However there are plenty of practices that can be tailored to individual needs in these cases too.

How do we practice Sun Salutations in yoga class?

Sun Salutations may be their own practice and we can have a whole class working with a particular form (e.g. chair sun salutations or Hatha salutations with Anjanyeyasana).

Sun salutations can be a warm up to other structured asana practices such as in a traditional Ashtanga yoga series or Rocket yoga class.

Finally, salutations can be a 'jumping off point' for a less rigid and more creative form of practice which is usually referred to as vinyasa flow.

In vinyasa flow, the flowing movement of the sun salutation is developed by including other poses along the way to create a long, uninterrupted sequence of mindful movement and breath. Surya Namaskar are a wonderful basis for a fun, expressive and physically strong yoga practice.

For this reason, taking sun salutations beyond yoga class and using them as the basis for beginning your own home yoga practice is an excellent option. You can easily learn the basics, get comfortable with repeating the sequence, bring in the breath synchronisation and then experiment with speed, holding parts of the sequence for several breaths, adding additional postures and even mudras or mantras as you go on.

Want to practice some sun salutations with me? Subscribe to the Liquid Yoga YouTube Channel where I'm sharing sequences you can try out, learn and develop.

Want something more tailored? Book a class in person or online so I can take you through live and at your own pace. We'll build our practice together.

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