Want to learn more about Surya Namaskar, aka Sun Salutation? In this post, I share the benefits of Surya Namaskar, a complete pose breakdown, myths, contraindications, modifications and more.
Surya Namaskar is often considered the classic Sun Salutation. While that may be true, it wasn’t a sequence I was exposed to until several years into my yoga journey. Most of my teachers came out of the Ashtanga and Iyengar systems and focused on Surya A & Surya B rather than the OG Surya.
I can understand that — who wants a standing back bend to be their first pose of their warm-up? Not me! I can see this sequence making more sense much later in class when your body is already warmed up.
One of my most memorable experiences with Surya Namaskar happened several years ago, in Sri Lanka. Jane and I were there so I could teach for two weeks at the incredible Ulpotha Yoga & Ayurveda Retreat. We arrived a few days early and the yoga teacher I was replacing held a 108 Sun Salutations class to wrap up her two week retreat. I thought that sounded like fun.
Little did I know we’d be doing this classic version of Surya Namaskar, and that the teacher was going to turn 108 repetitions into 216 because she treated it as a two sided sequence! Unexpected, but a really good, if intense, experience.
If you want to know more about the benefits of Surya Namaskar and see how it differs from Surya A and B, with which you may be more familiar, read on.
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Surya Namaskar Quick Facts
|English||Sun Salutation or Sun Salute|
|Meaning||Surya is the sun, or the Sun God. |
Namah means to bow or offer prayers.
Namaskar is a hand mudra (aka Anjali Mudra or prayer position).
Surya Namaskar means an offering to the sun, which we generally refer to as Sun Salutation.
Surya Namaskar Benefits
Note: I only include the scientifically supported benefits of Surya Namaskar here. Plenty of claims about other supposed benefits (from the plausible to the magical to the ridiculous) have been made. To me, pseudo-scientific claims only serve to harm the yoga community, so I choose not to give them airtime here.
The main physical benefits of Surya Namaskar include:
- Stretches, tones and strengthens your muscles, ligaments, joints.
- Helps improve overall flexibility in your spine, hamstrings, shoulders, and more.
- Strengthens the muscles that support your spine.
- Each pose helps to engage different parts of your body, which is why it is most often used as a warm up.
- Prepares you for more complicated asanas.
- The repetition of these fairly simple poses helps to calm your mind.
- Helps stretch and strengthen almost all of your body, including arms, abs, thighs, butt, spine, neck, shoulder, hands, wrists, and back.
- Helps improve your posture.
- If practiced repetitively and quickly it will raise your heart rate. The cardiovascular activity strengthens your heart and can help prevent heart disease.
- It is often said that 10 minutes of Surya Namaskar burns 139 calories. I couldn’t find a reliable source for this “fact”. However, it does undoubtably help to burn calories, which can lead to weight loss.
- Many studies have concluded that practice of the sequence regularly can reduce your resting heart rate.
- Other studies have shown different speeds of practice of Surya Namaskar can lower or increase blood pressure.
There have been studies done, primarily in India, on the effects of Surya Namaskar practice, and they have found that a regular Surya practice “balances, harmonizes, and brings integration between physical and mental health.”
And then there’s this study that boldly proclaims, “sun salutation can be an ideal exercise to keep oneself in optimum level of fitness.” Sounds like a pretty broad conclusion, but their results after testing 79 people over 24 weeks do seem add some validity to this claim.
Precautions & Contraindications
Remember that while yoga is for everyone, not all poses are for all people! If your body requires some extra support in this sequence, see the Modifications section below.
- If you have any heart problems, you should consult a doctor about adding Surya Namaskar to your fitness program.
- It is recommended that people with high blood pressure avoid bringing their arms overhead.
- If you have low blood pressure, avoid bringing your head below your heart.
- If you have a back injury, be very careful practicing this sequence.
- People with a hernia will likely want to avoid Uttanasana (at least) when practicing Sun Salutation.
Misconceptions & Myths About Sun Salutation
Myths & Misconceptions
There are lots of claims about the mystical aspects of practicing Surya Namaskar, about which I am naturally skeptical.
For example, practicing Surya Namaskar is said to enhance the size of your solar plexus (which is said to be the location of the heart chakra). Thus, Surya Namaskar is supposed to increase your creativity, intuitive ability, decision making, leadership skills, and confidence.
I have also read that:
- Sun Salutation applies pressure on your kidneys which makes them clean your blood better. (Um, what?!?)
- The pressure it puts on your back and abdominal region will harm a pregnant woman and her foetus.
- Women must also avoid performing Surya Namaskar while on their periods. If yoga myths are to be believed on the subject of women and their periods, all ladies should just crawl into a box and hide for a week each month (which, horrifically, is actually a thing in India).
It is also claimed that the constant inhaling and exhaling while practicing Surya Namaskar will “enhance” blood circulation, which removes toxins from the body and helps your hormones reach your organs. You know, as opposed to the rest of the time when you aren’t inhaling and exhaling constantly and therefore your blood isn’t flowing and your hormones are stuck somewhere.
A very common claim is that practicing Sun Salutations will give you beautiful hair and skin. Really. No really. So if your hair is dull and your skin is lacklustre, it’s probably because you’re not practicing enough Surya Namaskar.
And finally, always be careful if you are new to the sequence and you go to a yoga class during the day. One source I read said that beginners must never practice Sun Salutations during the morning (which would seem to be the logical time to greet the sun).
Why? They claim that this is to avoid “severe consequences” from practicing the sequence when your body and joints are tight. If you are a beginner, you can prevent these severe consequences by warming up before getting too deep into this version of Surya — but as far as I am concerned, you can do that in the morning if you want!
The History of Surya Namaskar
It isn’t really known where this sequence of poses came from. The following is as close as we have to a history of Surya Namaskar — and it’s more a history of its rise in popularity.
Popularization of the regular practice of Surya Namaskar is credited to Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi, who was born in 1868. Pant was the Raja of Aundh, a state in western India that is now an affluent suburb of Pune.
He performed Surya Namaskar regularly, after his colleague and friend, the old Raja of Miraj, introduced him to the sequence. Pant had his children practice the Surya sequence and also had it taught to all the children in schools in Aundh.
In 1923, he wrote a book about Surya Namaskar and techniques for practice. He had the book translated to English in 1927 and, as a way of promoting it, wrote to the Times of India and explained that:
The importance of this exercise of Namaskars [is that they can be practiced] at all times, in all seasons, at all stages of life, and by all men and women.
Pant then made a 16mm film of the sequence and travelled around Europe sharing the practice with audiences across the continent.
When he went to England, he met Louise Morgan, a journalist who published a series of articles about Pant and the sequence. This series became a book called The Ten Point Way to Health, which was published in 1928. Through all these efforts, the notoriety of the sequence spread.
Interestingly, the word yoga is rarely mentioned in relation to Surya Namaskar in this period.
At that time there was still a separation between the physical practice and yogic practices like pranayama, the kriyas (cleaning rituals), and the asanas described in the Sritattvanidhi.
In Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton writes that at the Mysore practice they also differentiated between yoga practice and Surya Namaskar:
Thirty-two boys attended the Yogasana classes and a large number of boys attended the Suryanamaskar Classes.”
Over time, the poses of the Surya Namaskar were classified as asanas and the sequence eventually came to be seen as a warm-up to be practiced before other asanas.
And that’s generally how Surya Namaskars are used to this day.
The sequence has been adapted and expanded so that we now have Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B as well, while lots of schools of yoga have other set sequences that they teach.
Surya Namaskar Pose Breakdown
How to do Surya Namaskar / Sun Salutation
There is a set of mantras that are traditionally repeated with each pose of the Surya Namaskar sequence. This isn’t something you’ll be taught in most yoga studios and I have never practiced them, so I am not including the mantras in these step-by-step instructions. If you’re interested in learning them, this is a good resource.
Also note that there are many variations of the sequence.
- Some teachers include Ardha Uttanasana, or replace Ashwa Sanchalanasana with Anjaneyasana.
- Some substitute Chaturanga Dandasana for Ashtanga Namaskara, some skip the Standing Back Bend and replace it with Anjali Mudra.
- Some will include Urdhva Mukha Svanasana instead of Bhujangasana.
The sequence as I instruct it here is based primarily on the original 1928 publication of The Ten Point Way To Health, with the only differences being the inclusion of Phalakasana (Plank Pose) after Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) instead of Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) and I am instructing the more common Ashtanga Namaskara instead of “flat on the floor”, as the book suggests.
For my detailed instructions on how to do each pose in the sequence (including a video breakdown), follow the linked pose names.
- Stand in Tadasana with your feet and legs together.
- Inhale, stretch your arms up overhead into Hasta Uttanasana (Standing Back Bend).
- Exhale, fold forward into Uttanasana.
- Inhale, step your right leg back into Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Low Lunge Pose).
- Exhale, step back to Phalakasana and lower into Ashtanga Namaskara.
- Inhale and lift up into Bhujangasana.
- Exhale into Adho Mukha Svanasana.
- Inhale and step your right leg forward into Ashwa Sanchalanasana (Low Lunge Pose).
- Exhale, step forward into Uttanasana.
- Inhale and stand up and back bend into Hasta Uttanasana.
- Exhale and return to Tadasana.
Depending on your training and lineage, this either completes one round of Surya Namaskar, or it completes one half-round of Surya Namaskar.
In some traditions, because these instructions have you step your right leg back for Low Lunge, and then step your right leg forward for the second Low Lunge, you must complete the sequence on “the other side”. To complete one full cycle of Surya Namaskar in these traditions you must repeat the instructions but on the “second side” you step your left leg back for Low Lunge, and then left leg forward for Low Lunge.
Of course, repetition is the name of the game when you’re doing Sun Salutations, so rinse and repeat as necessary!
Modifications & Variations
Even though this is a fairly simple sequence, it does demand a lot. If you’re newer to yoga, have limited mobility, or you just feel like it, you can easily modify these poses to fit your requirements.
Below are a few quick modifications that will make each pose in the sequence a little more accessible. These modifications are great to do while you’re warming up or if you want a slightly gentler practice:
Also, I have written detailed modifications for each of the poses that make up Surya Namaskar on the individual pose breakdown pages. Click the pose name in the instructions above see those modifications.
- Hasta Uttanasana (Standing Back Bend) — Instead of doing the back bend, reach your arms straight up overhead into Urdhva Hastasana or bring your hands to your heart in Anjali Mudra (prayer position).
- Uttanasana — Bend your knees and touch the ground to reduce pressure on your lower back.
- Ashwa Sanchalanasana — If you cannot touch the ground while getting an expansion in your chest, place yoga blocks under your hands to help you find the lift.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana — Bend your knees and work to find the length through your spine and the sides of your rib cage while lifting through the bottom of your pelvis.
- Ashtanga Namaskara — There’s a lot of pressure on the shoulders and arms in this pose, so to lessen this, first go down flat on your belly (keep your toes tucked) and then lift your hips up and back for the shape of Ashtanga Namaskara.
- Bhujangasana — If you struggle with lower back pain, keep your Cobra low (sometimes called Baby Cobra), and focus on expanding your chest.
If you have limited mobility, discomfort standing, or balance / stability challenges, you can do a variation of the Sun Salutation sequence seated in a chair. Check out this video guide to Chair Surya from the Siddhi Yoga school in India.
For a terrific guide to modifying Surya for plus-sized bodies, see this video from Body Positive Yoga.
Yoga Poses Related to Sun Salute
The Surya sequences prepare your whole body for whatever you want to do next. So do the follow-up poses of your choice. Here are some suggestions:
Poses To Take Your Practice Further
Related Posts & Videos
- Post: The Benefits and History of Yoga
- Post: Best Props for Your Home Yoga Practice
- Video: How to Do Surya Namaskar Sequence Breakdown
Gear & Resources for This Pose
- BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga
- Darren Rhodes Yoga Resource Practice Manual
- Sustainable Cork Yoga Mat by Corq
- Cork Yoga Blocks
A Final Note About Sun Salutation
The Sun Salutation sequence is a perfectly compact and efficient yoga practice.
You can use this sequence whenever you need to wake up your mind and muscles or if you need a quick stretch. Just kick out a few Suryas and you’ll feel refreshed, awake and ready to go.
Remember, don’t just take my word for it — there’s even a study to back this up. It says:
Sun salutation can be an ideal exercise to keep oneself in optimum level of fitness.”
Namaste OMies, Stephen
I hope this post has been helpful in expanding your possibilities with Surya Namaskar. I want these posts to inspire you to explore your yoga practice. The more deeply you explore the more you will be able to make the practice your practice while also enabling you to cultivate the strength and clarity needed to live your life adventure to the fullest!