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Q&A: What’s the Purpose of Practicing Sun Salutations?

Sarah Powers explains the basics of Sun Salutations and why you should practice them regularly.

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upward salute

What is the purpose of performing Sun Salutations? Can you recommend a series of salutations to begin a daily yoga practice?

—Laurie Diaz, Tampa, FL

Sarah Powers’ reply:

Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskar, can be a complete practice in and of itself. These 12 or so poses linked in a series can lengthen and strengthen, flex and extend many of the main muscles of the body while distributing the prana flow throughout the system. There are many sun salutation variations, but I prefer the lunge salute the most because it lengthens and contracts the psoas muscle, our major hip flexor. The psoas connects in the groin at the lesser trochanter to all the lumbar vertebrae and up to T12, giving important flexion and length to the lower back. The lunge also stretches the musculature of the upper and inner thighs while also stimulating the stomach, spleen, and liver meridians.

Start With a Lunge Salute

The cycle goes as follows: stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), find the center of your breath, alignment, and balance. Inhale and reach up (metaphorically kissing the sun, representing our source of sustenance as well as the light within that burns continuously for awakening). Exhale and fold down to Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), bowing to the earth, while stretching the hamstrings, calf muscles, and lower back. Inhale, keeping the hands down, and lift the chest. Exhale and step the right foot back and lower the back knee and foot down into a low lunge.

In the lunge, inhale and lift the arms up; keep the left buttocks strong while slightly hugging in the inner groins toward each other. Keep the neck in neutral as you look forward. Stay for five breaths, then exhale and lower the arms. Inhale and step the left foot back into Plank Pose (both hands under the shoulders, arms and legs straight), and then exhale and lower to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) with legs straight or knees on the ground to strengthen the arms and trapezius, drawing the belly back as you lower. Lower the pelvis, tuck the toes, and inhale as you lift the chest and legs in Salabhasana (Locust Pose), strengthening the lower back. Alternate between having the legs together and bringing them apart each round. Stay in Salabhasana for five breaths. Exhale and lower the feet and head. Inhale up to Plank, and exhale to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), lengthening the hamstrings, calves, and torso, while strengthening the upper body.

After five breaths inhale and step the right foot forward into a lunge on the other side. Exhale there. Then inhale and lift the arms for five breaths. On the fifth exhalation, lower the arms, and on the inhalation, step the back foot forward to meet the front one. Lift the chest and exhale; fold into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend).

On the next inhalation, lift the arms, leading from the sternum, and come up to standing (bend the knees if the lower back is weak). Exhale, standing tall with the hands in Namaste. Feel the effects. Notice the flow of energy (prana) moving within as you stand vibrantly steady; the body enlivened, the mind steadied.

See what it’s like to repeat this for five rounds or 15 to 30 minutes. This can be the beginning of your practice or a full practice in and of itself. Incorporating Sun Salutations regularly can allow your practice to become a slow dance of conscious movement dedicated to energized presence.

Also see Wake Up + Revive: 3 Sun Salutation Practices

Sarah Powers blends the insights of yoga and Buddhism in her practice and teaching. She incorporates both a Yin style of holding poses and a Vinyasa style of moving with the breath, blending essential aspects of the Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga traditions.