I started a morning yoga sun salutation sequence challenge at the start of June.
It just seemed like a perfect idea, given the arrival of summer and the natural surge of energy I’d been feeling since the sun had gotten stronger and the temperature had warmed up.
Every morning, after coffee and before getting ready for the day, I’ve been sticking to my commitment of completing a minimum of 30 basic sun salutation yoga postures. (Step-by-step instructions are provided below if you want to try it yourself.)
It only takes me about 10 minutes, making it a perfectly short and sweet workout that’s easy enough to fit into my morning routine.
It’s already the middle of August and even though I’ve only stuck to my 10-minute commitment of sun salutations every morning for about five days a week on average, I can certainly feel the benefits.
I’ve noticed the following improvements the most:
• Cardiovascular strength (I don’t get as winded as I did when I first started the challenge)
• Arm strength (specifically triceps and shoulders)
• Upper back strength
• Core strength
• Hamstring strength and flexibility
• Hip strength and flexibility
Now, I’ve been practicing yoga for a few years, so I’m relatively experienced with sun salutations.
But beginner yogis (and even non-yogis) can benefit hugely from a yoga sun salutation sequence challenge like this—particularly because there are lots of ways to modify each pose in the sequence.
I’m now challenging you to start a daily 10-minute yoga sun salutation sequence of your own.
You just have to be willing to try, learn, and listen to your body along the way.
A Little Background Info on the Traditional Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar)
Surya Namaskar translates to “sun salutation” or “salute of the sun” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. It’s arguably the most well known sequence in the vinyasa flow style of yoga.
As its name suggests, the sequence is traditionally to be performed first thing in the morning—ideally at sunrise, facing toward the sun in the east. (Today, it’s typically performed as a warm-up or transitional sequence in any vinyasa flow, no matter what time of day or what direction you’re facing.)
The sun is our primary source of energy, and this ritual of honouring the sun through a series of asanas is thought to help us harness its light to energize the mind and body.
There are lots of different variations of the basic sun salutation, depending on the style of yoga in which it’s being performed and any modifications made to the asanas. The most basic version, however, encompasses a series of 12 postures that are to be performed in coordination with the breath.
Each asana comes with its own mantra to chant as it’s performed, which are connected to the sun’s 12 houses (dasas). When performed in modern yoga, the focus is typically on the movement and the breath—with the mantras left out.
The Science-Backed Health Benefits of the Yoga Sun Salutation Sequence
The nice thing about sun salutations is that you can make then as easy, slow, and relaxing as you want—or as hard, fast, and intense as you want.
Easy, slow, and relaxing will obviously have a soothing effect on the mind and body. Making it hard, fast, and intense, however, can be comparable to a good workout.
Sun salutations are known to:
- Increase blood flow and improve circulation (both to the brain and throughout the body)
- Relieve mental stress and anxiety by facilitating mindfulness and creating a meditative effect
- Get the heart rate up, similar to cardiovascular exercise
- Strengthen muscles throughout the upper, core, and lower body
- Improve flexibility specifically in the back and legs
These aren’t just random claims. Several scientific studies have been carried out on the effects of yoga, many of which led to spectacular results on physical and mental health.
In one particular study, two groups of students were divided into two groups where they were to perform sun salutations (either slow or fast) over a course of six months. Results showed improvements in pulmonary function, respiratory pressures, hand-grip strength plus endurance, and resting cardiovascular strength.
The group that performed sun salutations at a fast pace showed health improvements that were comparable to aerobic exercise while the group that performed them at a slow pose showed improvements that were comparable to yoga training.
In another similar study, a group of adults were instructed to perform 24 cycles of sun salutations six days a week for a period of 24 weeks. By the end of the study period, muscular strength had increased significantly in both male and female participants—comparable to the results one might get from doing traditional exercises like bench presses, shoulder presses, push-ups, and sit-ups.
Body Mass Index decreased significantly for both sexes over the 24-week period, but interestingly enough, only the women showed significant decreases in body fat percentage.
I have one more study to mention that looked at the psychological effects of sun salutations.
Out of 419 college students, 124 were determined to be experiencing high stress levels according ABC relaxation theory. These 124 high-stress students were split into two groups—one that practiced sun salutations and another that served as a control group.
The group that practiced sun salutations showed improvements in physical relaxation, mental quietness, restfulness, refreshment, strength, awareness, and joy compared to the control group. They also experienced decreased fatigue, stress, and negative emotions.
I could go on and link to more studies on the wonders of a sun salutation practice, but I think this is probably enough.
It’s time to dive into the 12 basic asanas (and their benefits) that make up the sun salutation sequence.
How to Flow Through the 12 Basic Sun Salutation Postures (Step by Step Images and Instructions)
Note: I’m experienced in my own yoga practice but I’m not a yoga teacher. Although I’ve researched proper alignment and modifications for these poses in an effort to describe them as best as I can to you, please practice at your own discretion to avoid pain or injury.
Step 1: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Mountain pose looks like you’re simply just standing, but when practiced correctly, this pose activates practically every muscle in your body. It sets the foundation not only for your practice, but also for the alignment of every standing pose and inversion you do.
If you want to seriously improve your posture, mountain pose can help you do it. As a grounding pose, it starts with firmly planted feet and works its way up to strengthen the arches of the feet, ankles, knees, thighs, glutes, and core.
How to Do Mountain Pose
Bring your feet together so that your big toes touch slightly. Your heels can be slightly apart.
Ground the balls of your feet and your heels, spreading the toes and lifting up through the arches of your feet. It’s okay to sway just a little from side to side, using your ankles for stability, to find your balance.
Now activate your quads and hamstrings. Bring them upward and backward, so that your knee caps lift slightly.
Make sure your tailbone is lengthened and slightly tucked without curving your spine. Use your hamstrings to lift your upper body without clenching your glutes too much.
Take an inhale as you bring awareness to your upper body. Relax the neck and shoulders as you look straight in front of you. You can keep your arms at your side or alternatively bring the palms together at your chest in prayer.
Exhale as you bring your shoulder blades slightly back and downward, broadening the collarbone and opening the chest slightly. You should feel yourself getting longer and lifting up slightly as you exhale.
Step 2: Upward Salute Pose (Urdvha Hastasana)
From mountain pose, we move to upward salute pose, which most noticeably involves raising the arms straight up above the head (all the while maintaining the alignment of mountain pose). It looks like a nice stretch, and it is.
Upward salute stretches the back, side body, belly, shoulders, and arms (including the armpits). It’s said that this pose is good for digestion and some forms of congestion since it helps create space in the chest.
How to Do Upward Salute Pose
From mountain pose with your arms by your side, turn your arms slightly outward with your palms facing away from you. Remember to maintain the alignment of mountain pose.
As you inhale, sweep your arms straight up from each side and turn your palms in so they’re facing each other with your fingertips reaching toward the ceiling. Activate the shoulders and arm muscles to straighten them, but avoid locking your elbows.
If you feel tightness in your shoulders, you can stay here. Otherwise, bring your palms together to touch while keeping your arms straight, but without letting your shoulders creep up.
It can feel really tempting to bring your head up and back as far as possible while exaggerating the stretch by arching the back, but the alignment for this particular pose advises to keep the ribs closed and the tailbone long. Instead, slightly tilt your gaze upward just a bit so you can see your fingers, lifting your ribcage up through the inhale.
Exhale as you sweep your arms back down to your sides.
Step 3: Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
Standing forward bend is actually one of the easiest inversion poses that’s safe for beginner yogis to practice since it’s also a standing pose that involves keeping your feet flat on the ground. One of the most noticeable effects is its ability to stretch the hamstrings (the back of the legs).
It addition to improving hamstring, calf, and hip flexibility, standing forward bend has a soothing effect on the mind. It forces you to fold yourself inward and positions your head below your heart. The extra blood flow to your brain can help relieve stress, anxiety, fatigue, and mild headaches.
How to Do Standing Forward Bend
From upward salute pose, bend your knees slightly as you exhale and bend at the hips, sweeping your arms down in front of you as your torso bends forward. Keep your torso lengthened, bending from the hip joints like a hinge and keeping your sit bones up.
Keep pressing your feet firmly into the ground and activate the quads, lifting them up to help keep the ankles straight in line over the hips. Your neck should be relaxed, your spine should be long, and your ribcage should be lifted.
Your hamstring, calf, and hip flexibility will determine how far down you can go and how much you need to bend your knees. If you’re particularly tight, you’ll need to bend your knees quite a bit. You might be able to touch your chest to your thighs (but remember not to curl your spine).
You can let your arms dangle in front of you, or if you’re very flexible, experiment with place facing your fingertips on the floor, entire palms on the floor, or hands back behind your calves.
Step 4: Half Standing Forward Bend (Arch Uttanasana)
Half standing forward bend is a variation of standing forward bend, with of course, less of a bend at the hips. Even though you’re not bending as deeply, it still has a beneficial effect on the spine and the legs.
Lengthening the spine will help strengthen the back. The abdominals are also activated in this pose, which will help stimulate the digestive organs. Your hamstrings and calves will also get a nice stretch, even with slightly bent knees.
How to Do Half Standing Forward Bend
From standing forward bend, take an inhale as you straighten your arms (if they were bent), lift your quads and use your hip joints to raise your torso away from your thighs, making sure to keep your spine long and your sit bones lifted. Keep your neck relaxed and your gaze just slightly forward.
You may keep your legs bent if they were already, or straighten them if you can. Straightening them may arch the back a little, which is fine.
If you’re very flexible, you might still be touching the floor with your palms or your fingertips. If you’re less flexible, you can gently rest your hands on your shins.
Step 5: Step/Lunge (Or Jump/Float Both Feet) Back
Now we’re at a bit of a transition where the goal is to get from half standing forward bend to the next one in step six (four-limbed staff pose).
If you’re a beginner yogi or want to lighten up the intensity in your sun salutation sequence, you’re probably going to want to step or lunge back to Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana).
How to Step/Lunge Back to Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana)
Bend both knees so you can plant both hands on your mat in front of you with arms shoulder width apart and shoulders over the wrists. Press your hands into the floor so that you can use them to support your upper body as you lift one left leg and straighten it behind you, stepping back with the the ball of the foot.
You can optionally lunge forward here by sinking down slightly into the hips, grounding your hands and foot at the front plus ball of the foot at the back as firmly as possible. This will arch the back and may encourage you to turn your gaze up a little.
Maintaining stability with your hands and back foot, engage your core and lift the front foot to bring it behind you. Place the ball of the foot beside the other one so that your feet are a little less than hip’s width apart.
Make sure you’re not allowing your torso to droop down or your butt to stick up in the air. Engage the triceps, shoulders, and quads to help create a straight line in your body from head to toe.
If you’re a seasoned yoga practitioner, you might be strong enough and aware enough of how to shift your body weight in order to successfully jump both feet or float them back. Both involve shifting more of your body weight into your hands.
Jumping back is a good way to engage the core even more than stepping back, but you better be prepared to activate all the muscles you need to hold plank immediately.
Floating back is almost like doing a half handstand first, where you shift all of your body weight into your hands and hop up so that your torso is nearly vertical, with legs only going so far as to be perpendicular to the floor. The torso then appears to fall like a waterfall as the feet softly land on the floor.
Floating back takes a lot of experience in knowing how to shift your body weight around to stay balanced, but it looks downright impressive when done right. I’m still working on it myself!
Step 6: Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
From plank pose, you’re simply going to maintain everything while bending your elbows to bring your body closer to the floor but not all the way. It offers all the benefits of plank pose and more for the arms, wrists, and abdomen—since it challenges your muscles to support your entire body without touching the floor.
Four-limbed staff pose actually a pretty hard pose to master, which is why it can be helpful to modify it until you arms, shoulders, upper back, core and even your legs are strong enough. The modification involves lowering the knees to the floor, similar to how you would for a modified plank pose.
How to Do Four-Limbed Staff Pose
From plank pose, spread your fingers evenly and press your palms into the floor as you firm up your shoulders. Now without losing engagement of the core and while maintaining that straight line throughout your whole body, shift your body slightly forward fro that your shoulders are just a little bit past your wrists.
Four-limbed staff pose is basically a tricep pushup. If you don’t have enough upper back, shoulder, or tricep strength, you’re going to find that lowering down and coming back up is very difficult. This is where you have to make a decision to lower your knees for the modification.
Keeping your elbows by your sides (without letting them flare out), exhale as you lower your body down to the floor only as far as you can go that you can push back up without losing engagement of the core and legs. Advanced practitioners can go pretty low, until their elbows are bent at about a 90-degree angle, but beginners might only be able to bend their elbows by a quarter of an inch or so.
Don’t worry about how much you can bend your elbows or how low to the ground you can get. Remember that you always have the modified option to work with by lowering your knees to the floor, which can help you build up to the full pose.
Step 7: Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) or Upward-Facing Dog (Urdvha Much Svanasana)
Now you have two different options to transition from four-limbed staff pose. Cobra pose is the easier one and allows you to drop down to the floor. Upward-facing dog is more advanced, and requires using your hands and tops of the feet to push up from the floor without ever dropping yourself down.
Both cobra and upward-facing dog are backbend poses, so this is one you might need to be careful with practicing if you experience back pain or tightness. If you do, or if you’re a beginner yoga practitioner, definitely stick with cobra pose for now.
Cobra and upward-facing dog have more benefits than you might realize, especially since they force you to bend your body opposite to how you typically spent most of the day with your arms in front of you and back perhaps rounded forward.
How to Do Cobra Pose
From four-limbed staff pose, gently lower your body until it rests on the floor. Avoid dropping yourself right down, aiming to lower yourself with control.
Your legs should be stretched back with the tops of the feet facing the floor and your hands should be in the same position on the floor, beneath your shoulders. Keep the elbows in and back, without letting them flare out to the sides.
Take an inhale as you press the legs and tops of the feet into the floor while using your arms to to press the floor up from your hands, lifting your chest from the floor. Go slowly so that you can gouge how far up your back and abdomen flexibility will allow.
Continue opening the chest, drawing the shoulders back and down, and using the hands and arms to pull back on the floor.
How to Do Upward-Facing Dog
Upward-facing dog is basically cobra pose on your hands and tops of the feet. It involves pressing straight up through all fours to lift the body off of the floor.
Upward-facing dog requires greater flexibility in the back, so if you’re not sure you’re there yet, stick to cobra pose for now.
Follow the exact instructions for cobra pose above. Once you’re in cobra, continue to inhale as you straighten your arms fully to lift your torso off the floor and press the tops of the feet firmly into the floor while firming the legs to bring the thighs off the floor.
Arms should be firm and turned slightly out so your inner elbows face outward while the thighs should be firm and turned slightly in.
Step 8: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Much Svanasana)
Downward-facing dog is one of the most widely recognized (if not the most widely recognized) yoga pose. It’s both restful as an inversion that requires placing the head beneath the heart, as well as energizing given that it activates muscles throughout the whole body.
You’ll love down-dog for its stress and anxiety-busting benefits. At the same time, you’ll get a good stretch in the shoulders, arms, hands, back, hamstrings, calves and arches of the feet.
How to Do Downward-Facing Dog
It’s easier to transition from cobra to downward-facing dog than it is from up upward-facing dog because your knees are already on the floor. When transitioning from up-dog to down-dog, your knees actually never touch the floor.
So let’s start from cobra. Bend your knees and push yourself up from your hands to come onto all fours (hands about shoulder width apart and knee about hip width apart). Spread your fingers and tuck your toes under to prepare to lift off the floor.
Start to exhale as you press your hands into the floor and toes into the floor to lift the knees. Lengthen your tailbone as you raise the hips up and push your torso back, with knees still bent.
Only straighten your legs as far as your lower back, hips, hamstrings, and calves will allow. Even if you can straighten them all the way, avoid locking the legs.
If you’re transitioning from up-dog, you’re going to need to press the tops of the feet into the floor to lift yourself up and push back, eventually rolling over the toes to bring the toes under. It’s not easy as a beginner, but with enough practice, you can do it!
Step 9: Step/Lunge, Jump or Float to Half Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
This is another another transition to get back into standing forward bend. Your goal is to make your way from downward-facing dog back to the top of your mat, with feet together and torso folded in half standing forward bend.
The easiest way to do this is by simply stepping one foot at a time to the top. A slightly harder way is to firm the palms of your hands and fingers into the ground to support your upper both as you hop both feet forward.
The hardest way to transition from downward dog to half standing forward bend is to use your hands firmly planted on the ground and move all of your body weight into them as you lift both feet and essentially “float” to the top of the mat.
Once at the top of the mat, inhale as you firm your feet into the ground, lengthen the legs, and lift and lengthen the torso into half standing forward bend.
Step 10: Standing Forward Bend (Arch Uttanasana)
From half standing forward bend, exhale as you bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hip joints into standing forward bend. Remember to keep your spine long and sit bones up.
Step 11: Upward Salute (Urdvha Hastasana)
While you’re still bent over (with your spine long) in half standing forward bend, ground down through your feet and legs as you inhale and hinge up from the hip joints, using your hamstrings to lift your upper body as you continue on your inhalation. Raise your arms along the way as you stand up straight back into upward salute pose.
Step 12: Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Exhale as you bring your arms back down in mountain pose again as the final pose with your arms resting firmly by your sides or at your chest in prayer. It can help to imagine every part of your body in one straight line, from head to toes.
Remember to firm down into the ground with the balls and heels of your feet, look straight ahead in front of you, and elongate the spine while drawing the shoulder down and back as you exhale.
Rest here if you like, taking several breaths, before starting another cycle.
Summary of Yoga Sun Salutation Sequence (With Step by Step Postures)
I know that that was a lot of information, so I’ve broken down each step into the basic poses and their breath queues.
Here they are:
1. Inhale and exhale in Mountain Pose (taking as many breath cycles as you want to help ground and centre yourself).
2. Inhale into Upward Salute Pose.
3. Exhale into Standing Forward Bend.
4. Inhale into Half Standing Forward Bend.
5. Start exhaling as you step back into Plank Pose or jump back to the next pose (Four-Limed Staff Pose).
6. Continue to exhale in Four-Limed Staff Pose.
7. Inhale into Cobra Pose or Upward-Facing Dog Pose.
8. Exhale into Downward-Facing Dog Pose.
9. Step/lunge one foot at a time, jump both feet, or float both feet to the top of your mat before inhaling to Half Standing Forward Bend.
10. Exhale into Standing Forward Bend.
11. Inhale into Upward Salute Pose.
12. Exhale as you bring your hands down into Mountain Pose (taking as many breath cycles as you want).
How I Practice My Own Yoga Sun Salutation Sequence Challenge
It takes me almost exactly 10 minutes and 30 seconds to flow through 30 sun salutations each morning, meaning that one sequence takes me about 21 seconds.
I always jump back in step five, I do upward-facing dog pose (instead of cobra pose), and I always jump both feet up to the top of my mat in step nine. These more advanced movements help me build more heat and give me an extra challenge for my upper body muscles.
Your own yoga sun salutation sequence challenge will be unique to you. Don’t worry about matching my pace and sequence number.
I even recommend going pretty slow at first and doing the modifications so you can practice proper alignment and really become very aware of how your body responds to each pose.
Even when going relatively slow, 10 minutes of sun salutations can be a workout in itself. If you do it every day for several weeks or months, I can almost guarantee you’ll start to notice a difference in your cardiovascular strength, muscular strength, and flexibility.
And really, who doesn’t have an extra 10 minutes every morning? It’s hard to make excuses when it only takes 10 minutes.
Who knows… you might just fall in love with this kind of movement! I know I have.