Sun Salutations Explained—and Why You Should Master Them

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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 sound like a precursor to the good stuff, it’s actually one of the most beneficial elements of yoga practice and comes with plenty of awesome benefits. Whether you’re just setting out on your yoga journey or 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 you need to know (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 owner of Sensory Yoga Wellness.

What's 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. 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, and over time, they’ve evolved to become a key part of warming up the body and calming the mind, helping yogis disconnect from the distractions of 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 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 with 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 for 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] micro bend 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 is lifted to honor the Sun.
  • Exhale to Forward Fold (Uttanasana), hinging from the hips, leading with the heart center towards the floor, knees very slightly bent, allowing the upper body to rest against the legs.
  • Inhale to Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana). “Step one foot back, 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 towards the mat, chest facing your thighs, tailbone lifted, straight spine, 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). Knees down or lifted, elbows hugging the ribcage, chest leads us to the ground, gaze is down towards our mat
  • 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 with Sun Salutation A, with both feet at the top of your mat, focusing on your breath. Here’s how the poses differ:

  1. Standing Mountain pose
  2. Chair pose
  3. Forward Fold
  4. Four-Limbed Staff pose
  5. Upward-Facing Dog pose
  6. Downward-Facing Dog pose
  7. Warrior I, right foot
  8. Four-Limbed Staff pose
  9. Upward-Facing Dog pose
  10. Downward-Facing Dog pose
  11. Warrior I, left foot
  12. Four-Limbed Staff pose
  13. Upward-Facing Dog pose
  14. Downward-Facing Dog pose
  15. Forward Fold
  16. Chair pose
  17. Mountain pose

When Should You Do Surya Namaskar?

Given that the word “Sun” is literally in the name, it can be easy to assume that Sun Salutations can only be practiced in the daytime—not so. While yogis recommend that Surya Namaskar is best practiced 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 Salutation’s evening counterpart, Chandra Namaskar.

Chandra Namaskar, or a Moon Salutation, is 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 versions of Chandra Namaskara, but here’s how a typical moon salutation goes:

  1. Standing Mountain pose
  2. Upward Salute Side Bend/Half Moon
  3. Goddess squat
  4. Star pose
  5. Extended Triangle pose
  6. Pyramid pose
  7. Low Crescent Lunge
  8. Low Side Lunge
  9. Garland pose
  10. Low Side Lunge
  11. Low Crescent Lunge
  12. Pyramid pose
  13. Extended Triangle pose
  14. Star pose
  15. Goddess Squat
  16. Upward Salute Side Bend/Half Moon
  17. 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 a sacred number in both Hindu and Buddhist tradition, 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 keep going and you’ll have yogi points for days.

Ready to roll out a mat and get started? 

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Singh P, Tiwari T, Singh IL, Singh T. A longitudinal study: effect of surya namaskar on attentional network task performance. Sustainable Humanosphere. 2020;16(1): 1374–1380.

  2. Godse AS, Shejwal BR, Godse AA. Effects of suryanamaskar on relaxation among college students with high stress in Pune, IndiaInt J Yoga. 2015;8(1):15–21. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.146049

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