Yoga Talk: Sun Salutations Explained—and Why You Should Master Them

Updated 02/12/18
How to do sun salutations in yoga
@catmeffan

Given that yoga can bring such physical calm and powerful mental clarity, there sure is a lot to wrap your head around 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 sun salutation. You may not be familiar with the name, but you’ll have almost certainly been put through your 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 seriously key benefits. Whether you’re just setting out on your yogi journey or a vinyasa regular looking to take things up a notch, it’s worth spending time on getting your sun salutations right. So here’s 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.

What's a Sun Salutation?

Surya namaskar, aka the official 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, although 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 sun salutation depend on which variation you’re performing—sun salutation A is often the go-to for beginners, while sun salutation B comprising slightly more challenging poses such as chair pose and warrior one. Both sequences are designed to engage and stretch the whole body, however, while keeping the focus on meditative breathing. So whichever you opt for, you'll reap the benefits.

Why Practice Sun Salutations?

Aside from being a great way to ease yourself into a 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.

The real beauty of sun salutations, however, 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 a challenge 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), this is generally how sun salutation A goes:

  1. Standing mountain pose
  2. Upward salute
  3. Standing forward fold
  4. Half-standing forward fold
  5. Four-limbed staff pose
  6. Upward-facing dog pose
  7. Downward-facing dog pose
  8. Half-standing forward fold
  9. Standing forward fold
  10. Upward salute
  11. 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 surya namaskar 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. Standing forward fold
  4. Half-standing forward fold
  5. Four-limbed staff pose
  6. Upward-facing dog pose
  7. Downward-facing dog pose
  8. Warrior I, right foot
  9. Four-limbed staff pose
  10. Upward-facing dog pose
  11. Downward-facing dog pose
  12. Warrior I, left foot
  13. Four-limbed staff pose
  14. Upward-facing dog pose
  15. Downward-facing dog pose
  16. Half-standing forward fold
  17. Standing forward fold
  18. Chair pose
  19. Mountain pose

Need a demo? Keep scrolling for a step-by-step video tutorial from yoga guru Cat Meffan, where she’ll walk you through surya namaskar A and B. Who better to learn from, right?

The Demo: Sun Salutation A and B

Ready to learn from a pro? Here’s yoga teacher Cat Meffan with tips on good alignment, how to transition from one pose to the next and why it’s a great idea to master these surya namaskara basics now.

When Should We Do Surya Namaskar?

Given that the word “sun” is literally in the name, it can be easy to assume that sun salutation can only be practised in the daytime—not so. While yogis recommend that surya namaskar is best practised in the mornings at sunrise, or simply at the start of your day if you’re not exactly the early riser, it really can be done at any time of day. If you’re one for doing things by the book, however, let us introduce you to the moon salutation, aka chandra namaskar. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about moon salutations.

What Is a Moon Salutation?

Based around the same concept, chandra namaskar is a sequence of asanas designed to cool the body and quiet the mind, as opposed to the more energising 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 practice 108 salutations 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, 108 has long carried both religious and cultural meaning—there are 108 beads in a mala bead, for example, 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? 

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