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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Exploring Sun Salutations

Jul 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Patty Schmidt
As the summer solstice comes and goes each year—falling on June 21 in the northern hemisphere—practicing sun salutations can be a meaningful and engaging way to mark the longest day of the year. Social media and pop culture get vocal about encouraging others to do repeated sun salutations throughout the day to honor the solstice. “How many can you do?” they ask. “Do it with a partner or relay team!” they suggest. And while they might be fodder for popular culture, they can also serve as a cornerstone of one’s practice. 

Last month’s yoga article looked at ways to cool down the body during the hot summer months, including trying alternatives to the traditional sun salutations. This month’s article explores several forms and effects of sun salutations so beginners can better navigate the variety of salutation practices and parse some of its components. Deeper insights are provided for experienced practitioners as well.

The Roots of Sun Salutations

Sun salutations, or surya namaskara in Sanskrit, are often presented as an ancient yogic practice, but their historical origins are less clear. While there are references to rituals devoted to Surya, the sun deity, dating back thousands of years, these practices varied widely across South Asia and appeared in the religious practices of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and even in non-religious rituals.

Thanks to dedicated historians and yoga scholars, we know that an increasingly physical devotional practice—one that begins to look like modern-day sun salutations—developed as recently as the early 20th century. They were initially linked with exercise and austerity routines for young men.

Here in the West, dynamic sun salutations became a fundamental part of studio practice as yoga was popularized in the mid-20th century. After that, the diversity of their shapes and forms, as well as the devotional nature of the practice, started to wane as they became more fixed and influenced by popular exercise culture and influential teachers.

Today, sun salutations are a fundamental part of the physical, postural yoga practice known as asana, and many introductions to yoga begin with sun salutations. In fact, skill with a salutation practice and exhibiting proficiency with the breath and movement associated with them are widely considered to be a mark of growing mastery of yoga.

The Three Elements of a Salutation Practice

There can be an overwhelming number of terms and instructions “out there” defining what sun salutations are—many of them even conflict with each other. Thus, it’s helpful to take a look at the core set of components that define a sun salutation. Doing so can help the beginner navigate the plethora of choices and options before them and can help the well-practiced yoga student deepen their understanding and practice. 

Yet, even as the range of types of sun salutations is quite wide, most of them have three basic elements in common: aligned breath and movement, moving the spine in many directions and increased activation. Let’s look at these more closely.

1. Aligned breath and movement
One element that is common among sun salutations is that they serve to align breath and movement. For example, as arms are raised upward, the student is taught to inhale. As the body folds forward in prostration, the student learns to exhale. With explicit instruction, the student is guided to align each movement with a phase of the breath. In some traditions, the bottom or “pause” at the base of the exhalation is also included.

2. Moving the spine in many directions
A second element shared by most sun salutations is that the spine moves in many directions. This action signals to the body the intention to awaken and greet the day. It often serves to acknowledge one’s stiff “morning body” and helps to shake off the night’s sleep and the previous day’s work. It also helps to stir the energy centers, the chakras, of the body. In some traditions, each station of the flow is associated with one of these energy centers, and practitioners will try to focus their awareness on a color, quality or energetic sense associated with that chakra.

3. Increased activation, inspiration and respiration
Thirdly, most salutations are designed to increase energy levels in the body. Certainly, the up and down and back and forth along the mat increase one’s circulation rate and respiration rate. Sun salutations can be tiring and are considered vigorous. Also, if the student brings a devotional quality to their practice, their engagement with feelings of gratitude and supplication can also increase energy. Additionally, in some traditions, short mantras or phrases—often a recitation of blessings to all things—are added to each “station” of the salutation, and they can warm, illuminate and energize. 

Sun Salutation Forms

Sun Salutation A

The linked breaths and movements that characterize the first common element of sun salutations are typically considered the basic kind of sun salutation, and they are sometimes referred to as Sun Salutation A, which can be practiced as follows:

  1. While standing at the top of your mat, exhale.
  2. While moving your arms overhead, inhale.
  3. Exhale as you fold forward.
  4. Inhale and raise your torso halfway into a flat-back position.
  5. As you step back to a plank position, exhale.
  6. As you do a belly-down backbend of your choice, inhale.
  7. Push back into downward-facing dog while exhaling.
  8. Step to the top of the mat and return to the flat-back position, inhaling.
  9. Exhale, folding forward toward the earth again.
  10. Inhale to standing up with arms stretched upward.
  11. With arms at rest, standing upright, close the salutation cycle with an exhale.

Sun Salutations B and C

Two other sun salutations are commonplace enough that students learn them as relatively fixed-form. Sun Salutation B builds upon Sun Salutation A, adding a squatting pose that looks like sitting in a chair, called utkatasana in Sanskrit, and the Warrior 1 standing pose. There are also more movements from the top to the back of the practice space and back again. Ashtanga yoga has codified both Sun Salutations A and B within its primary series; students begin their practice with five repetitions of Sun Salutation A, followed by five repetitions of Sun Salutation B as a way to warm the body for the rest of their postural work. 

In Sun Salutation C, the student adds a lunge shape with the back knee down—the low lunge— similar to Warrior 1. This pose has many Sanskrit names, giving us a glimpse into the variations and diversity that used to be more commonplace in Western yoga practice. One of the names for this pose is Anjaneyasana, which is named for a mother figure associated with devotion but also refers to the elements of water and wind. Practicing Sun Salutation C might indicate a desire for a greater devotional feel to a given practice.

Designing Your Own Sun Salutation

Sun salutations practices are designed to move one’s energy and to elevate it in preparation for the day to come. Now that you are aware of the three core aspects of sun salutations, you might choose to evolve a version of your own that addresses your unique needs. For example, you might want to include a chant or short devotional with each phase of the breath. Or, you might choose a twist or alternate posture to help make your spine feel more prepared for your day’s upcoming activities. Consider what else might inspire you and leave you lighter as you leave your mat.

May your yoga nourish you. ❧
Patricia Schmidt, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, YACEP, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in pelvic health, accessible yoga and yoga for cancer support. She is a Franklin Method trainer and somatic movement specialist. Reach Patricia on IG @PLSYoga. To learn more, visit
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