Surya Namaskar Made Simple: The Proper Way to Do Sun Salutations

Proper Way to Do Sun Salutations
Sun salutation is one of the easiest and yet most effective yoga exercises. This post by FitnessVigil will tell you more...
FitnessVigil Staff
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
Sun salutation, or Surya Namaskara, is an ancient Indian exercise comprising a specified set of yoga asanas (positions) performed in a particular sequence. In yoga practice, sun salutations hold a very important role. Beginner-level yoga students are often taught how to do sun salutations, since they are quite easy to perform, and provide long-lasting benefits.
As the name suggests, sun salutations are done in honor of the Sun god. Like all yoga, the spiritual aspect of it is accepted by choice, and if you don't believe in praying to the Sun god, you can simply look at it as an excellent exercise that strains, stretches, and betters the whole body.

6 standard asanas are incorporated in this wholesome exercise, along with a resting pose. The positions follow a general pattern of alternately stretching and bending the spine, along with variations in hand and leg positions. Along with the cycle of physical positions, there is a cyclical breathing pattern to be followed with the asanas. As a general rule, a stretching pose is accompanied by inhaling, and a compressing pose is accompanied by exhaling. All poses in this exercise are held for a few seconds before changing.

As with all yoga, the emphasis while performing sun salutations should be on natural movements, and a smooth transition between the various poses. Jerky changes can result in serious joint and muscle injuries. If correctly done, this sequence of asanas doesn't hurt at all, and is in fact beneficial in remedying minor back or joint aches. But if you have a serious preexisting spinal or musculoskeletal condition, consult your physician before starting a sun salutation routine. If you experience any pain while doing surya namaskara, take a break, or reduce the intensity of the exercise. If the pain persists, discontinue the exercise and contact your physician.

NOTE: The instructions for the poses pick up where the last pose left off, i.e. it is assumed that you are holding the previous position when starting the next one, and not doing specific poses from scratch.
Sun Salutation Sequence
1. Pranamasana (Salutation/Greeting)
Pose One Twelve
Type: Resting Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale
Stand erect, keeping the whole body in a straight line, from head to toes. Join your heels, and spread out your toes in an angle of not more than 45°. Join your palms at chest level, keeping the forearms parallel to your body. Gently press both palms against each other, but relax if it is uncomfortable. Since this is the first pose in the asana cycle, focus your mind and concentrate on your body, and the particular regions of your body that you stress during each position.
2. Hasta Uttanasana (Raised Hands)
Pose two eleven
Type: Stretching Pose
Breathing Pattern: Inhale
Keeping the palms together, raise them above and behind your head, stretching your spine backwards to accommodate the motion. If you are a complete beginner, gauge how much you can stretch your back before going gung-ho on these motions. If you can't bend your back, stretch your hands straight above your head (no need to keep the palms together in this case), and try to lift your heels and stand on the balls of your toes.
3. Hastapadasana / Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Pose Three Ten
Type: Bending Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale
Smoothly revert to a standing position, and stretch in the opposite direction until your hands touch your feet (don't keep the palms together). If you can't reach your feet, stretch as much as you can. Do NOT stretch beyond your capability, or 'bounce' to reach lower. If you can only reach your knees or calves, hold that position. On the other hand, if you can reach your feet easily, hold your ankles and align your forearms with your calves, or try resting your palms on the floor beside the respective foot.
4. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Lunge)
Pose Four Nine
Type: Stretching Pose
Breathing Pattern: Inhale
Stretch one leg back (or take a lunge forward) to assume a lunge position. Balance yourself on the heel of the front foot, and the knee and toes of the back foot. Unlike a lunge or a squat, it is okay to extend the knee of your front foot beyond the toes. Bend your upper body back, in a manner similar to the second pose. Preferably, keep your palms together. If you can't balance yourself in this position, rest your palms on the ground, keep the front foot between them, and stretch your back.
5. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog)
Pose Four Eight
Type: Bending/Holding Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale
Take up a plank position. Raise your hips, balancing yourself as you would while doing a plank - on your palms and toes. If you can't or don't want to raise your hip, hold a plank.
6. Ashtanga Namaskara (Eight-point Hold)
Pose Six
Type: Holding Pose
Breathing Pattern: Hold
Lower your body, and balance yourself on eight points of the body (asht means 'eight', and anga means 'body' or body parts): the chin (1), chest (1), palms (2), knees (2), and toes (2). Raise your hips in the air, so that the abdomen, groin, and thighs don't touch the floor. Like the previous position, if you can't or don't want to raise your hips, do a full pushup, and balance your body on the chin, chest, palms, and toes. Engage your core muscles to hold your hips in the air.
7. Bhujangasan (Rising Cobra)
Pose Seven
Type: Stretching Pose
Breathing Pattern: Inhale
Lower your thighs. Balancing your body on your palms, lower abdomen, and legs, raise the upper body and stretch backwards as much as you can. Keep your core engaged to support the rise. Don't try to 'maximize' the stretch by craning your neck backwards excessively. If you can't stretch your back, put your arms a bit farther in front, and hold your upper body in a straight line.

The positions after this are repetitions of previous positions, performed to complete the efficient, cyclical nature of the exercise.
8. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog)
Pose five eight
Type: Bending/Holding Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale

Slowly lower your upper body. Then raise your hips, and balance yourself on your palms and toes like in step 5.

If you have lower back issues, be very careful with the transition from the 6th position to the 7th, and from the 7th to the 8th, since it can worsen the pain if performed incorrectly.
9. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Lunge)
Pose Four Nine
Type: Stretching Pose
Breathing Pattern: Inhale

Bring one leg forward, keeping the other one stretched behind. Repeat position 4.
10. Hastapadasana / Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Pose Three Ten
Type: Bending Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale

Bring both legs together. Stand up, and repeat position 3. Don't cut a corner by keeping your palms on the floor and standing up, since this puts undue pressure on the hips and hamstrings.
11. Hasta Uttanasana (Raised Hands)
Pose Two Eleven
Type: Stretching Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale

Slowly raise your hands from your feet, and stretch them above and behind your head.
12. Pranamasana (Salutation/Greeting)
Pose one twelve
Type: Resting Pose
Breathing Pattern: Exhale

Return to the first position. This completes one cycle (one rep) of sun salutations. Ideally, the 12th position is supposed to be the 1st position of the second cycle, with minimal breaks. However, if you are new at this exercise, take a break of not more than 10 seconds before starting the second cycle.
Sun salutations are traditionally performed in a set of 12 reps, while facing the rising or setting Sun. Since they were traditionally performed outdoors, they could not be performed during the afternoon, with the Sun at its harshest. Also, humans on a normal circadian rhythm are primed to be more active in the mornings and evenings. The 12-rep structure enhances the cyclic nature of this exercise, with the number of positions in a single rep being the same as the number of reps performed. Beginners can start at 3 or 6 reps, and gradually progress to 12, and keep progressing to 24 and 36.

The breathing in this exercise is supposed to be done while changing positions, and not while holding a position. The breathing cycle is often difficult to implement if you are just starting out. If that is the case, you can inhale and exhale while holding the position, but keep it at the minimum required level, and practice smooth, diaphragmatic breathing. Sharp intakes of breath or forceful exhaling during a pose puts undue pressure on the core muscles. As you progress, start practicing the ideal breathing cycle.

As said before, concentrate on perfecting each pose, rather than cranking out more reps. If the described pose feels weird, make minor adjustments to the guidelines to suit your body. Make sure that you are properly warmed up before doing surya namaskara, since this is primarily a stretching exercise, and can catch muscles unawares if they are not warmed up. These exercises help maintain a great posture, an optimum build, and excellent general health.

IMP: As with any exercise, consult your physician before performing sun salutation routines. This is especially true if you have major spinal, cardiac, or respiratory issues.