Though yoga can bring tremendous physical benefits and powerful mental clarity and calm, there can be a lot to wrap your head around, even when it comes to mastering the basics. So we’ve decided to help you out by breaking down one of the key fundamentals—Surya Namaskar, also known as a sun salutation. You may not be familiar with the name, but you’ll have almost certainly been put through the paces if you’ve attended any sort of instructor-led yoga class. Hint: It’s normally the warmup.
But while sun salutations may just sound like a precursor to the good stuff, they’re actually one of the most beneficial elements of practicing yoga and come with plenty of awesome benefits. Whether you’re just setting out on your yoga journey or you’re a Vinyasa regular looking to take things up a notch, it’s worth spending time perfecting your sun salutations. So, with the help of a yoga instructor, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about sun salutations, from their purpose and benefits to the poses and how to do them properly.
Keep scrolling for your complete guide to sun salutations, and watch yourself become a Surya Namaskar master.
Meet the Expert
Catherine Howe is a certified yoga instructor and the owner of Sensory Yoga Wellness.
What Is a Sun Salutation?
Surya Namaskar, aka the official Sanskrit name for sun salutations, is a sequence of yoga poses (or asanas, we should say) that are typically performed at the start of a Hatha or Vinyasa flow class. There are many variations on this sequence, but sun salutations A and B are the most common, both of which we’ll come to in a moment.
Translated from Sanskrit, Surya means “sun,” and Namaskar means “to bow down to” or “show gratitude.” In ancient tradition, sun salutations were used by Hindus during morning prayer and worship rituals. Over time, they’ve evolved to become a key part of conditioning the body, and calming the mind, helping yogis disconnect from the distractions of daily life and enter a meditative state ahead of their practice.
The poses involved in a sun salutation depend on which variation you’re performing—sun salutation A contains fewer poses and is often the go-to for beginners, while sun salutation B contains a longer sequence of slightly more challenging poses, such as chair pose and warrior I. Both sequences are designed to engage, stretch, and invigorate the whole body while keeping the focus on meditative breathing. So whichever you opt for, you’ll reap a bounty of benefits.
Why Practice Sun Salutations?
Aside from being a great way to ease yourself into a yoga practice, the range of asanas involved in a sun salutation sequence is designed to open up all areas of the body and leave you feeling more balanced by the time you reach the final stretch. From forward folds to upward-facing dog, the combination of poses is also more than enough to give you a challenging cardio workout if you perform them at pace and repeat several rounds—just think of the sweat you can work up in a Vinyasa class, and you’ll get the idea.
You also can’t get much more naturally energizing than a sequence of poses that honors the sun—the provider of all energy on Earth. “A sun salutation can be done as one movement, one breath, really ramping up the energy,” says Howe. “However, it can also be performed in as many breaths as you need, with the same results.” She says to listen to your body, and on any given day, your pace and needs may vary.
The real beauty of sun salutations lies in their mental benefits. A 2015 study found that after practicing Surya Namaskar for 20 minutes every morning for two weeks, college students suffering from stress symptoms were found to display far higher “physical relaxation and mental quiet” compared to those who didn’t take part in the daily practice. Researchers also found that the students described themselves as feeling more “at ease/peace, rested, and refreshed.” Increased feelings of joy and strength were also reported, as were fewer negative feelings and better sleeping patterns. That all sounds pretty good to us!
How to Do Surya Namaskar A
This is the best place to start if you’re a beginner, although perfecting good form and alignment throughout the sequence will make it challenging even for the more seasoned yogi. While some instructors may offer modifications for certain poses (to cater to different abilities in a class, for example), Howe walked us through the typical sun salutation A sequence:
- Begin in mountain pose (Tadasana) by standing at the top of your mat with your feet hip-distance apart. “Feel the four corners of the feet connected—big toe, baby toe, outside edge of the foot, and the heel,” explains Howe. “[You should have a] microbend in the knees, long spine, arms by your side, and palms facing forward (this will automatically release your shoulders back and down).” Inhale and exhale here to begin your sun salutation.
- Inhale to upward salute (Urdhva Hastasana). Howe says your arms should be reaching over your head, and your heart should be lifted to honor the sun.
- Exhale to forward fold (Uttanasana), hinging from the hips, leading with the heart center toward the floor, knees very slightly bent, allowing the upper body to rest against the legs.
- Inhale to low lunge (Anjaneyasana). “Step one foot back, [front] knee over ankle where possible, lift heart center, hips forward, arms can vary—[either] fully extended to the sky, halfway, or at heart center,” Howe says.
- Exhale to downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Your knees should be fairly straight, heels pressing toward the mat, chest facing your thighs, tailbone lifted, spine straight, and head relaxed in line with the biceps.
- Inhale to plank pose (Phalakasana). Howe says to place your wrists under your shoulders, straighten your knees, and lift and engage your core to support your spine. “Your upper back should be open, pressing the floor away,” she notes.
- Exhale to four-limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana). Your knees should be down or lifted, elbows hugging your ribcage, chest close to the mat, and gaze pointing downward.
- Inhale to upward-facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana). “Lift the heart center, shoulders over the wrists, thighs lifted off the mat, tops of the feet pressing into the floor, long spine, crown of the head reaches (avoid lifting the chin),” explains Howe.
- Exhale to downward-facing dog.
- Inhale to low lunge.
- Exhale to forward fold.
- Inhale to upward salute.
- Exhale to finish in mountain pose.
How to Do Surya Namaskar B
If you’re ready to level up, sun salutation B offers a slightly more challenging take on things. Begin in the same way as you did with sun salutation A, with both feet at the top of your mat, focusing on your breath. Here’s how the sequence of poses differs:
- Begin in the standing mountain pose.
- Inhale to chair pose by bending your knees in a shallow squat position and lifting your arms up.
- Exhale to a forward fold, hinging at the hips and letting your chest rest on your legs. Next, inhale and come to a half-forward bend, lifting the head up and coming up slightly, keeping the fingertips on the floor (if able) and the back straight.
- Exhale and flow into the plank position, with your weight resting on your hands and your legs straight behind you, keeping your body in a straight line. Bend your elbows slightly, keeping them close to your sides, until they are parallel to the floor, to assume the four-limbed staff pose.
- Inhale and flow into upward-facing dog, straightening your arms and lifting your chest up to the ceiling. Your thighs will be lifted off the mat with your feet pressing into the floor.
- Exhale into downward-facing dog. Your knees should be straight, heels pressing toward the mat, chest facing your thighs, tailbone lifted, spine straight, and head relaxed in line with the biceps.
- Inhale and flow into warrior I pose by stepping your right foot forward. Bend your right knee in a lunge position as you lift your chest up and move your arms straight overhead, allowing your palms to touch. Keep your left foot back.
- Exhale and flow back into the four-limbed staff pose.
- Inhale and flow into upward-facing dog.
- Exhale and flow into downward-facing dog.
- Inhale and move into warrior I again, only this time, move your left foot in front and keep your right foot behind.
- Exhale and flow into the four-limbed staff pose.
- Inhale and flow back into upward-facing dog.
- Exhale and flow into downward-facing dog.
- Inhale and flow into a forward fold.
- Exhale and flow into the chair pose.
- Finish with the mountain pose.
How to Do Chandra Namaskar
Given that the word “sun” is literally in the name, it can be easy to assume that sun salutations should only be practiced in the daytime—not so. While yogis recommend practicing Surya Namaskar in the mornings at sunrise, or simply at the start of your day if you’re not exactly an early riser, it really can be done at any time of day. If you’re one for doing things by the book, however, you might consider trying sun salutations’ evening counterpart, Chandra Namaskar, or moon salutations.
Moon salutations are a sequence of poses designed to cool the body and quiet the mind, as opposed to the more energizing Surya Namaskar. Perfect for adding into your bedtime routine, the asanas in a moon salutation sequence pay particular attention to balancing the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems, helping your body to detox, rest, and repair. There are many variations, with some versions leaving out poses like the goddess squat and star pose and adding in downward-facing dog—but here’s how a typical moon salutation goes:
- Inhale and start in standing mountain pose.
- Exhale and flow into upward salute by lifting your arms straight overhead and lifting your chest to the ceiling. Or you can move into a side bend by moving outstretched arms to one side.
- Inhale and flow into the goddess squat, stepping out into a wide squat with your toes pointed out and your arms bent out at your sides with palms up.
- Exhale and flow into the star pose by straightening legs to a standing position with toes pointed out. Extend your arms straight out to both sides, palms facing forward.
- Inhale and flow into the extended triangle pose. Bend at the hip to the right side, moving your left foot’s toes straight ahead and keeping your right foot turned out slightly. Keep bending to the right until you can rest your right hand on your ankle, shin, or the floor behind your foot. Look up at your left arm, which should be straight overhead.
- Exhale and flow into the pyramid pose, moving your left arm down toward the right side with your gaze at the floor. Your legs should remain in the same position as detailed above.
- Inhale into a low crescent lunge by lifting your chest up and stepping forward with your left foot in a lunge position. Kneel down on your right knee, and then extend that leg straight behind you. Keep your right foot pressed into the floor as you push your hips forward, lifting your arms up and lifting your chest up. Your weight will be on your left bent leg.
- Exhale into a low side lunge by turning your hips to the front and squatting down on that left leg, with your right leg straight out beside you with its toes pointed up. Press your hands together in front of you.
- Inhale and flow into the garland pose, pulling your right leg in and coming to a low squat, resting on your bent knees with your bottom a few inches from the floor. Bring your hands together in a prayer position with your elbows resting between your knees.
- Exhale and flow back into a low side lunge, this time moving your left leg straight out to the side and keeping your weight resting on your right leg.
- Inhale and flow into a low crescent lunge, stepping forward with your right foot and keeping your left foot back in a lunge position. Lift your arms up, and lift your chest up.
- Exhale back into the pyramid pose, straightening your legs and bending at the hips to the left side this time.
- Inhale and flow into the extended triangle pose. Lift your right arm up to the ceiling and allow your gaze to look up at your fingers.
- Exhale and flow back into the star pose.
- Inhale and flow back into the goddess squat.
- Exhale and flow into the upward salute or side bend.
- Finish with the standing mountain pose.
What’s the Deal With 108 Sun Salutations?
First things first: You don’t need to commit to 108 rounds every time you want to dive into a little Surya Namaskar. Generally, performing 12 rounds is thought to be plenty, though starting small and working your way up is the best approach—if three or four is what works for you, stick with that until you’re ready to progress.
Around the changing seasons—especially when the spring equinox falls—it’s common for some yogis to practice the ritual of 108 consecutive sun salutations to cleanse the mind and body while welcoming in the new. Thought to be sacred in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the number 108 has long carried both religious and cultural meaning—for example, there are 108 beads in a mala, which is used to count prayers, breaths, or mantras, while in Ayurveda, there are 108 sacred points on the body.
Though you can set your own pace for the 108 challenge (it’s normally done with Surya Namaskar A), do keep in mind that this is designed to challenge you both physically and mentally—you might want to give up around the 65 mark, but if you’re able to keep going, you’ll have yogi points for days.
Ready to roll out a mat and get started?
Bhutkar MV, Bhutkar PM, Taware GB, Surdi AD. How effective is sun salutation in improving muscle strength, general body endurance and body composition? Asian J Sports Med. 2011;2(4):259-266. doi:10.5812/asjsm.34742
Godse AS, Shejwal BR, Godse AA. Effects of suryanamaskar on relaxation among college students with high stress in Pune, India. Int J Yoga. 2015;8(1):15–21. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.146049