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Sun salutations: the purpose and benefits

July 14, 2021 5 min read
Sun salutations: the purpose and benefits Sun salutations: the purpose and benefits

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    Most people who’ve heard of yoga will also be familiar with one or more of the terms ‘sun salutation’, ‘salute to the sun’ or ‘greet the sun’.  All these names refer to the sequence of postures in yoga named Surya Namaskar in the traditional language of Sanskrit and refer to a traditional sequence of postures that continuously flow from one to the other.  There are a variety of versions of sun salutation, but all have one thing in common – for every pose there is a counterpose.  This means as well as working the body through a variety of postures, each movement is balanced with a counter movement so as a physical practise it is highly effective.

    Of course yoga is a spiritual practise as well as a physical one, and the origins of Surya Namaskar, as you’d expect come from honouring the sun and the life force it brings to the planet and the yoga practitioner.  No one knows exactly when or where yoga really began, but people have been greeting the sun in this fashion since ancient times.  As you’d expect sun salutations are traditionally practised first thing in the morning and also on an empty stomach however for some people this is not a practical or sensible option  - particularly newcomers to Yoga who need guidance on how to assume the postures safely and follow the sequence accurately. 

    But once you gain enough confidence and competence it is a great way to start the day if you create the space and devote the time to it. A few rounds every morning will wake you up and work you out from top to toe.

    What are the benefits of sun salutations?

    There are many benefits of sun salutations.  The moves combine to improve posture, build all over body strength and improve overall flexibility.  Each movement is also traditionally co-ordinated with the breath helping to improve the flow of prana (energy) around the body because it really gets the blood flowing and the oxygen distributed.  Additionally for a newcomer to yoga sun salutations are a great introduction to some of yoga’s most popular and powerful postures.

    How to perform a sun salutation

    A traditional sun salutation is a round of 12 postures as follows:

    • Mountain pose
      • Keep your feet hip width apart, back straight and arms by your side. Spread and lift your toes to find grounding and balance
      • Tense your quads, lengthen your tailbone, and keep your legs straight without locking your knees. Pinch shoulder blades and align with your hips
      • Lengthen your body by extending the crown of your head towards the ceiling, but avoid pushing your lower ribs forward.
    • Extended mountain pose
      • Whilst in mountain pose bring your arms up towards the sky, with palms together
      • With head tipped back slightly, gaze towards your thumbs
    • Forward fold
      • Now fold forward at the crease of the hip, whilst bringing your arms down to the floor
      • Ensure your neck is relaxed and crown of you head is facing the floor
      • Keep your spine straight, feet rooted, chest and thighs are connected with you eyes to the floor
    • Crescent lunge (right)
      • Root your right leg into the ground with your knee above your foot, with your left leg behind with no bend in the knee, toes extended
      • Keep the spine long and extended and bring your arms directly up towards the sky
      • Your eyesight should remain forward
    • Downward facing dog
      • Position your body into an inverted V, with hands rooted into the floor and sit bones towards the sky
      • Keep your ribcage lifted, neck relaxed and crown of head towards the earth
    • High plank
      • Your arms are now fully extended and your body parallel to the earth
      • Bring your abdomen towards your spine and keep your pelvis tucked in
      • Keep your elbows close to your body, arms joints in a straight line and the gaze following the spine, focused downwards
    • Cobra
      • Lie face down with your legs extended before you, keeping them a hip width apart
      • Spread you fingers wide, hands under your body, elbows close to your body
      • Keeping your lower ribs on the floor, draw your shoulders back and begin straightening your arms, lifting your chest off the floor
      • For more of a challenge, move into high cobra by further straightening your arms and moving chest back
    • Upward facing dog
      • The body is in a prone position, parallel to the floor with the weight supported by the extended arms and tops of the feet
      • The shoulders are rotated back and down, whilst the ribcage is lifted and pulled to the front in a thoracic backbend 
      • The neck stays in natural extension with the spine, with palms flat, elbows close to the body and eyes forward
    • Downward facing dog
      • Repeat above
    • Crescent lunge (left)
      • Repeat above, however lead with left leg
    • Forward fold
      • Repeat above
    • Extended Mountain pose
      • Repeat above

    Sun salutation variations and progression

    However there are more versions like those practise in ashtanga yoga which are more powerful, complex and feature a greater variety of postures and transitions - a number of which are highly advanced.
    The great thing about sun salutations is that there is a version for everyone from the 12 postures list above to the more physically demanding versions, which means whatever your level of fitness there is a sun salutation to suit you.  

    The aerobic benefits of sun salutations

    Practised on a ‘one breath, one move’ principle, sun salutations really deliver an aerobic workout and after a couple of rounds even a relatively fit person will have an elevated heart rate and healthy glow.  The postures can be adapted for beginners by landing the knees in lunges and planks, landing the belly in an upward facing dog and restraining the movement in a forward fold. The sequence can also be slowed to build strength in the body in each and every posture including standing strong in mountain pose, strengthening the core in plank, stabilising the shoulders in down dog and toning the thighs in lunges.  Additionally it can be used to keep a flow in a class which incorporates other postures outside of the sequence itself.

    So, even though it is a repeated sequence the applications and benefits of sun salutations are manifold.  Little wonder it remains a popular component of so many classes today. If you would like to try sun salutation routines, check out our series on YouTube and follow our Yoga and Wellness group for more live workouts, tips and tricks.

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