Sun Salutations Made Simple – Benefits, History and How-to

Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.Maori Proverb

Worship of the Sun has been central to civilizations since the very first communities formed all those millennia ago, and it remains a central tenet to Indian spirituality – the birthplace of yoga philosophy and practice.

So it’s not surprising that Sun Salutations are one of the most iconic and popular sequences in various yoga traditions – also being one of the first flows that new yogis will be introduced to in their practice, as in traditional Mysore yoga, for example.

But what are the Sun Salutations, how do we do them and what are their benefits?

That’s what we’re here to help you with! In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What are Sun Salutations?
  • The history and intentions of Sun Salutations
  • Benefits of Sun Salutations
  • How to: Sun Salutations type A and B
  • Other Sun Salutations variations

Ready? Let’s flow.

A Guide To Sun Salutations

The Meaning and History of Sun Salutations

Also known as Salute to the Sun, the term ‘Sun Salutations’ describes various yoga sequences wherein the yogi gracefully flows through a sequence of around 12-18 poses, to practice gratitude for the sun and harness the life energy it brings.

Despite being one the most practiced sequences, the precise roots of Sun Salutations are unclear. Recordings of their use go back to around the 17th century in Indian tradition, however it is believed that their origins go much further back in history.

What is a little clearer about the tradition of Sun Salutations, however, is their intentions.

Coming from the Sanskrit Surya Namaskar, with Surya meaning “Sun” and Namaskāra, “Greeting” or “Salutation”, Surya is also the name of the Hindu god of the sun, with Hindu texts identifying the Sun as the source of all life on earth.

Traditionally practiced at dawn, Sun Salutations are thus thought to pay gratitude to the sun, and to absorb and harness its life-giving energy by opening and awakening all body parts – every nerve, tissue, organ, chakra, muscle group, and so on.

A Guide To Sun Salutations 11

According to Hindu tradition, each morning just before the sun rises, prana shakti – or ‘vital energy’ – fills the atmosphere. Sun Salutations are designed to combine movement, breath, and traditional mantras in order to draw this vital energy into mind, body, and soul.

Related: Earthing Or Grounding: How We Can Reconnect With Nature

Benefits of Sun Salutations

While research is limited regarding the benefits of sun salutations, that which does exist strongly testifies for the various physical and mental benefits of practicing these dynamic sequences.

Yoga of all kinds is already documented to be effective in building strength, flexibility, balance, improving mental health, and relieving stress – and Sun Salutations are no exception.

Studies have shown these sequences to reduce stress levels, improve joint health and develop physical strength, with results so impressive that one study concluded Sun Salutations to be the “ideal exercise to keep oneself in the optimum level of fitness.”

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Sun Salutations Variations

As mentioned above, almost every style of yoga includes some form of Sun Salutations sequence. From Hatha to Iyengar to Ashtanga, each has its own take on the flow – some being longer than others, featuring different poses, breathing techniques or mantras.

In Hatha, the basic sun salutations sequence consists of Pranamasana, Hastauttanasana, Hasta Padasana, Ashwa Sanchalanasana, Dandasana, Ashtanga Namaskara, Bhujangasana, Parvatasana, Ashwa Sanchalanasana, Hasta Padasana, Hastauttanasana and then back to Pranama asana.

In Iyengar, the basic sun salutations sequence is Tadasana, Urdhva Hastasana, Uttanasana, Uttanasana with head up, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, and then reversing the sequence to return back to Tadasana.

While these form the basic sequence, they may be modified by adding, replacing, or removing poses into/from the sequence to adjust for strength level, injuries, goals and so on.

A Guide To Sun Salutations 3

The how-to below focuses on Ashtanga yoga – one of the most popular yoga styles in which there are two traditional Sun Salutations sequences – Surya Namaskar Type A and a longer Surya Namaskar Type B.

Sun salutations: A Step-by-step guide

Now you know the history, the meaning, and the benefits of Sun Salutations, it’s time to get practicing them!

Note: Linking of movement of breath is very important for Sun Salutation sequences – so make sure you take note of the breath prompts in the directions below.

Surya Namaskar Type A

#1: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Tadasana mountain pose 2

Begin in Tadasana, standing straight, shoulders back and down with spine long and tail bone tucked under as if you’re bringing your pelvis to your navel. Both arms should be relaxed and resting alongside your torso with palms facing forward.

Take a few deep breaths here to find your center and focus your mind.

#2: Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)

upward salute Urdhva Hastasana 2

From Tadasana, take a deep breath in as you sweep both arms up and over your head, to come into Urdhva Hastasana, or ‘Upward Salute’ pose.

Stretch your fingertips up to the sky, allow your gaze to fall back and between your open palms as you feel the stretch along the sides of the torso.

#3: Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

standing forward bend Uttanasana 2

From Urdhva Hastasana, exhale as you lower your arms and fold forward, hinging from the hips to come into Uttanasana – or Standing Forward Fold.

Remember, it’s more important to maintain a straight back than to touch your fingers to the floor. If you struggle with this, use a block to bring the earth up to you and rest your hands on or introduce a slight bend in the knee.

#4: Half Standing Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

standing half forward bend Ardha Uttanasana. 2

From here, take a deep breath in as you lengthen the spine and draw your chest up to come into the Half Standing Forward Bend. Rest your hands on your shins or on the floor in front of you if you can. Bend your knees slightly to help you get there.

#5: Plank Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

Four Limbed Staff Pose Chaturanga Dandasana 1

Next, exhale, place both palms on the mat, step the legs back and then lower yourself down to the floor to form Plank pose, otherwise known as Four-Limbed Staff pose or Chaturanga Dandasana.

#6: Upward-facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

From here, take a deep breath in, roll your shoulders back and down as you and raise your chest upwards to come into Upward Facing Dog (or if this is a little tricky, keep the elbows bent for Cobra pose instead).

#7: Downward-facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

A Guide To Sun Salutations 1

Breath out, draw the navel up and in towards the spine, press hips up to the sky to come into Downward Dog. Stay here for a few, deep breaths.

Next, breathe in as you step the right foot forward to come into a high lunge, ready to transition to the next pose.

#10: Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

standing forward bend Uttanasana 2

As you exhale, step the left foot forward to join the right, and return to the Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana).

#11: Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)

upward salute Urdhva Hastasana 2

Next, inhale as you bend the knees slightly, sweep the arms out and up to the sky, keeping your spine long and straight to return to Urdhva Hastasana.

#12: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Finally, exhale, and return to Tadasana. Stay here for a few breaths, then repeat the sequence on the other side. 

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Surya Namaskar Type B

Next up is Ashtanga yoga’s second, slightly longer sun salutation sequence – Surya Namaskar Type B.

#1: Mountain Pose

Tadasana mountain pose 2

Begin in Tadasana at the top of your mat, standing straight, shoulders back and down with spine long and tail bone tucked under as if you’re bringing your pelvis to your navel. Both arms should be relaxed and resting alongside your torso with palms facing forward.

Take a few deep breaths here to find your center and focus your mind.

#2: Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

chair 3

On your next inhale, raise both arms above your head and bend your knees as you lean back and down as if you are seated in a chair. Your knees should be stacked directly above, but not over your toes.

#3: Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

standing forward bend Uttanasana 2

Exhale, sweep both arms out and up to the sky, and down again as you straighten the legs and come into your Standing Forward Bend.

#4: Half Standing Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

standing half forward bend Ardha Uttanasana. 2

Inhale as you lift your torso halfway up, keeping the spine straight and shoulders back. This is Ardha Uttanasana or Half Standing Forward Fold.

#5: Four Limbed Staff Pose(Chaturanga Dandasana)

Four Limbed Staff Pose Chaturanga Dandasana 1

From Ardha Uttanasana, exhale, place both palms on the mat, step the legs back and then lower yourself down to the floor to form Plank pose, otherwise known as Four-Limbed Staff pose or Chaturanga Dandasana.

#6: Upward-facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

Take a deep breath in, roll your shoulders back and down as you and raise your chest upwards to come into Upward Facing Dog (or if this is a little tricky, keep the elbows bent for Cobra pose instead).

#7: Downward-facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

A Guide To Sun Salutations 1

Breath out, draw the navel up and in towards the spine, press hips up to the sky to come into Downward Dog. Stay here for a few, deep breaths.

#8: Warrior One Pose (Virabhadrasana A)

The Yoga Warrior Pose Explained The 5 Warrior Poses

From Doward Dog, step your right foot between your palms, then lift your torso up to come into Warrior One.

Here, your back heel should be out to 45-degrees, your hips squared to the front of the room and your front leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Both hands are above the head in prayer.

#9: Four Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

Four Limbed Staff Pose Chaturanga Dandasana 1

Inhale and return to Plank pose by moving your right foot back to meet the left. Palms should be stacked directly under the shoulders, to support you.

#10: Upward-facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

Take a deep breath in, roll your shoulders back and down as you and raise your chest upwards to come into Upward Facing Dog (or if this is a little tricky, keep the elbows bent for Cobra pose instead).

#11: Downward-facing Dog Pose Flow (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

A Guide To Sun Salutations 1

From Downward Dog pose, repeat steps 8-10. Here, the left foot moves forward to come into Warrior One (pose 8/12). Then, lower down into Plank pose as described above (pose 9/13), then to Upward Facing Dog (pose 10/14) then back to Downward Dog (pose 11/15).

#16: Half Standing Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana)

standing half forward bend Ardha Uttanasana. 2

To return to Ardha Uttanasana, inhale as you walk your hands back towards your legs, then lift halfway up keeping your back straight and shoulders strong.

#17: Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

chair 2

Then move to Chair pose by taking a deep breath in as you sweep both arms above your head. Bend your knees so that they are stacked directly above (but not over) your toes, then lean back and down into Chair pose.

#18: Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)

upward salute Urdhva Hastasana 2

Straighten the knees to stand tall in Upward Salute pose.

#19: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Return to finish in Tadasana. Stay here for a few deep breaths, then repeat the sequence – aiming for 3-5 rounds.

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Did you know that your nose can ease anxiety?

Well, you’re not alone. Studies have found that smells are amongst the strongest stimulants of the limbic brain system – the part that manages our feeling, memories, and emotions.

Aromatherapy harnesses this power and can help us ease symptoms of anxiety, worry, or stress. Interested? Read this: The 9 Best Essential Oils for Anxiety

Photo of author
Tish Qvortrup is a Brighton-born Yogi, with a passion for living intentionally. A Yoga Alliance registered 300hr teacher, she found her calling in Yin and Yang yoga. In her spare time, she loves exploring the outdoors and cooking plant-based goodies.

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