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The Ultimate Guide To Understanding Sun Salutations & Why Practice Them

Laura Finch on June 25, 2020
Laura is a yoga teacher who completed 200 hours of training.

Sun Salutations, along with Om and lotus symbols, are the most iconic representation of modern postural yoga. People participate in Sun Salutation-based challenges, make Sun Salutation tattoos, and hang Sun Salutation posters on their walls.

Here's everything you need to know about Sun Salutations: what are they, where they come from and what are the health benefits of doing Sun Salutations regularly.

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What Are Sun Salutations In Yoga

Sun Salutations are a series of yoga postures that flow smoothly from one into another. It is an essential part of vinyasa-style yoga as every pose in the sequence is linked to the breath.

Even if you don’t practice Vinyasa, you’ll most probably encounter this dynamic routine in different types of yoga. That’s because Sun Salutation has become a staple of most practices nowadays. It is an excellent full-body warm-up, strengthener and can help you work up a sweat to prepare your body for deeper postures.

Need to refresh your knowledge on the types of yoga? Check out this easy breakdown of the most common yoga styles.

Sun Salutation routine should become the best friend of yogis who never have enough time. Five rounds of Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B can substitute a full yoga practice. (If you wonder where the number five came from, I’m quoting Kino MacGregor and her The Power Of Ashtanga Yoga here).

For the record, Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B are the two most common types of the sequence. However, you may come across different variations specific to Sivananda Yoga, Ghosh Yoga, and a handful of other yoga traditions.

How Old Are Sun Salutations: History & Origin

The name Sun Salutation is the translation of the Sanskrit name Surya Namaskār. Surya means "sun"; Namas stands for "bow, obedience, salutation," and Kara translates as "to do," "to make."

There are theories that Sun Salutation came into modern practice as a part of the ancient Hindu tradition of paying homage to the Sun. Just to quote the widely-known yoga guru K. Pattabhi Jois:

The practice of the Surya Namaskara . . . has come down to us from the long distant past (from the book Yoga Mala, 1999).

Indeed, in the Vedic tradition, there is a strong culture of worshiping the Sun. Surya is one of the names for an ancient Hindu god of Sun - the creator of the universe and the source of all life.

To show their devotion to the god, the worshipers practiced daily rituals. These included mantra recitals, offerings of water, rice, and flowers, specific hand gestures – mudras, as well as physical postures such as bowing or standing with arms raised.

While this seems like a nice-sounding story, modern scholars on yoga tradition have found no connection between sun worshiping and modern Sun Salutations.

In fact, this dynamic sequence of asanas that became a classic for yoga practitioners nowadays is probably near a hundred years old.

Mark Singleton, in his book The Yoga Body, argues that Sun Salutations were created by an Indian bodybuilder Pratinidhi Pant. He combined modern asanas and Indian calisthenics to harmonize and strengthen the body physically and mentally and created a routine that stuck with us until the present time.

We now perform a simplified version of Sun Salutations, though. The original Pant's routine was accompanied by mantras that repeated the names of the lord of the Sun. The mantra could be chanted, heard, or mentally recited at the end of each movement when holding your breath. This way, when the mantra is uttered, there's no movement of the body or the breath, and the mind is fully perceptive to the intention.

Putting the version of sun-worshipping aside, it's not uncommon to come across other explanations of Sun Salutations. Some relate the name not to the external sun, but to the internal sun located in our abdomen. Others say the name pays homage for the inner light of our consciousness and spiritual realization.

These versions, though, remain unproven.

What Are The Benefits Of Sun Salutations

However old they are and whatever they come from, Sun Salutations stuck with us and became the bread and butter of almost every yoga class and home yoga practice. And rightly so.

It’s an all-around routine that can act as:

  • a warm-up for your muscles and joints before yoga practice;
  • a cool-down for your emotions before sleep;
  • a full-body strengthener when you’re short on time;
  • a moving meditation for the mind.

These are not just random facts. Science confirms that regular practice of Sun Salutations is good for you and benefits both physical and mental health.

Here are six reasons you should do Sun Salutations:

Build Muscle And Endurance

A 2011 research studied 79 participants who performed 24 cycles of sun salutation, 6 days a week for 24 weeks. After regular Sun Salutations during the testing period, the subjects displayed a significant increase in muscle strength in the upper and lower body as well as improved endurance.

The study concluded that Sun Salutations have excellent chances to become an easier, less time-consuming, and equipment-free alternative to resistance training needed to maintain overall body fitness.

Reduce Body Fat

This 2018 research studied the effects of yoga on body composition.

95 healthy volunteers were divided into two groups. The first one did yoga 60 min per day, 6 days per week for 12 weeks while the other received no yoga training during the period.

Yoga training included 12 minutes of Sun Salutations, the practice of individual yoga poses as well as breathing, chanting, and meditation.

The results after 12 weeks showed that participants doing yoga has a significantly lower percentage of body fat compared to the group who didn’t engage in yoga training.

Lower The Risk Of Chronic Conditions

Yoga, among other mind-body practices, has been repeatedly proved to reduce blood markers signaling inflammation as well as decrease oxidative stress both in the short and long term. Lower inflammation and oxidative stress mean a smaller chance of developing such conditions as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

Reduce Stress

Repetitive postures in Sun Salutations is an excellent way to cultivate mindfulness. When your body knows what to do, and your mind focuses on the way your body feels, this dynamic physical flow turns into a moving meditation.

And what is the better way to reduce stress and promote mental quietness than controlled breathing and meditation?

A 2015 study of college students in India found that those who practice San Salutations for 14 days are more relaxed, rested, and refreshed compared to the students who didn’t practice the sequence. The practicing group was also found to express less worry, negative emotions, and somatic stress.

Increase Flexibility

Yoga is undeniably number one exercise for gaining flexibility. If you’ve ever doubted whether you should take up yoga because of how inflexible you are, then Sun Salutations are for you! It’s an excellent way to start working on limbering your spine and main muscle groups even if you’ve got a tin man body.

Gear yourself up for the next yoga class. This ultimate introduction to yoga clothing and equipment will guide you through bare essentials and advanced props that will take your flexibility, balance, and strength to the next level.

Promote Heart Health (Probably)

This point is definitely tricky. There are a handful of studies trying to figure out whether yoga is good for heart health, but the results differ.

That's not surprising, given the fact that yoga is not a strictly defined activity. It can incorporate strength training, it can focus on cardio. It surely works on your mobility, though!.

Sun Salutations certainly lean more to the cardio side. I dare to say that it might be still a bit of a stretch whether 'saluting the sun' can benefit your cardiovascular health.

For example, this 2016 review of the metabolic intensity of yoga found that it didn't meet the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for moderate-intensity aerobic activity, suggesting that general Hatha yoga class may have a minimum (if any) cardiovascular benefit.

With one exception.

You might have already guessed it… Sun Salutations.

The research showed that the metabolic equivalent of task (MET) for Sun Salutations ranged from 2.9 METs (which is light-intensity) to 7.4 METs (vigorous-intensity).

Just to give you a rough idea of what these scores mean: a MET score of 1 is the energy your body spends while sitting. The score of 3 – the energy expenditure during slow dancing and average-paced walking. The score of 10 – running at 6 mph.

This research put San Salutations into the realms of aerobic activity that is pretty close to jogging.

A different study of obese females in India compared Surya Namaskar, circuit training, and treadmill walking in terms of energy expenditure. Saluting the sun showed to be as effective in the weight management program and improving cardio-respiratory fitness as the second two options.

Sure treadmill walking is not running, but it is considered to be an easier version of cardio.

Does it make yoga as beneficial as a cardio workout?

Hard to say.

There's conflicting evidence that the role of Sun Salutations in increasing heart health is exaggerated.

A recent study on the effects of high-intensity yoga on cardiovascular fitness showed that six weeks of high-intensity Hatha Yoga (that included 30-40 minutes of classical Surya Namaskar) did not significantly improve cardiovascular fitness in the yoga group compared to the controlled one. It might be the case that the total time was an issue – the participants engaged in only 65 minutes of yoga per week. Part of it was done at home, without the supervision of the instructor. Besides, all of the participants were new to yoga.

So either slacking off at home or the lack of experience of the participants could have proved the previously claimed yoga benefits wrong.

Considering the conflicting results from studies, I personally think that flowing through Surya Namaskar can equal a moderate-intensity aerobic activity... if you choose it to be.

Moving at a fast pace, adding jumps from Standing Forward Bend to Chaturanga and from Downward Dog to Standing Forward Bend and moving as long as possible will definitely make you break a sweat and increase your heart rate.

Which leads us to the next question.

Are Sun Salutations Effective For Weight Loss

Solid science (Study 1, Study 2, Study 3) says that Sun Salutations can help you lose weight in the long term.

Besides, they help increase strength, build muscle mass, and improve flexibility.

Sounds like a dream? It is, but there are three things to remember if you want to gain results.

First, the only and the most important rule of weight loss is a calorie deficit. You need to consume fewer calories than your body burns. If you began practicing Sun Salutations daily but started eating more because of the fitness activity, you're not likely to shed the excess pounds.

Second (which is pretty repetitive to the first point), mind your diet! It's easier to cut on extra and often unnecessary snacks, decrease sugar intake, and replace processed food with healthier options than burning 500 calories during yoga.

Third, you have to move longer and more often. I'm not talking only about your yoga class here. The thing is that you're probably not burning as many calories with your fitness activity as you think you are.

Did you know that to shed 1 pound of fat, you need to burn approximately 3500 kcal? That is a lot!

According to Harvard Medical School, a 155-pound person burns only 300 kcal during a 30-minute run and only 150 kcal during half an hour of Hatha Yoga. By the way, that's less than cleaning windows.

Let's assume that you're gonna be doing intense Sun Salutations at a mind-blowing pace for 30 minutes. Even in this case, you probably won't match high-intensity cardio workouts such as running for energy expenditure.

What I'm trying to say is that don't rely on the daily dose of Surya Namaskar only. While they will definitely help you burn fat and build lean mass (especially if you lead a sedentary life), try to stay active during the day. Clean windows, go shopping, move some boxes around – you'll be surprised at the result!

Can Everyone Do Sun Salutations: Precautions

You can view Sun Salutations as a way to pay respects to the Sun, or to the light in you. Yet, they are, first and foremost, physical movements that can wreck your body instead of healing it.

People with lower back pain, wrist issues, high blood pressure, heart problems and the like should consult your physician before engaging in any exercise regimen, especially if you're planning to do so without the guidance of the professional.

Even if you're healthy, but plan to practice individually at home, make sure to study each individual pose and its contradictions. You don't want to risk any injury.

My main advice would be to warm up your body before jumping right into vigorous movement.

What? But Sun Salutations are supposed to be a warm-up! - you might scoff.

Yes, they are. If you move slowly and gently through a few rounds first.

Don't just jump on the mat after sitting all hunched up all day and try to burn that 300-calorie donut you have eaten for lunch in 20 minutes.

We often like to say in yoga – honor your body. Prepare your wrist joints for multiple Planks and Chaturangas, prepare your spine for expanding and contracting – honor and love that physical body that allows you to move, breathe and live (and enjoy these Sun Salutations you're about to do).

Healthy pregnant yogis shouldn't refrain from Sun Salutations. In fact, it is an excellent routine to maintain fitness and get some peace of mind. However, depending on how far along you're in the pregnancy, you might want to modify some poses. As your belly grows, avoid belly-down postures and be careful with deep backbends and forward folds.

How Many Rounds Of Sun Salutations Should I Do

There are no rules as to how long or how many times you should practice Sun Salutations. Your body is your chief advisor.

We have a different mood every day, so why do you expect your body to feel the same every time you step on the mat?

Maybe today you’re strong enough to do 20 rounds of Sun Salutations. Tomorrow can be different, and five rounds may seem exhausting. Being able to experiment and adapt your routine to the way you feel is the beauty of yoga.

In traditional Ashtanga yoga, each class starts with five rounds of Sun Salutation A and five rounds of the variation B. If you’re a beginner in need of guidance, these numbers are a good start.

If you’re trying to lose weight, more rounds of vigorous Sun Salutations and more frequent sessions will help you burn more calories.

If building strength is your goal, there’s no need to throw yourself into a crazy fast pace. Instead, slow down and hold each pose for an extra breath (or even two) to really feel the burn, causing metabolic stress that will help you gain lean muscle mass.

So What’s The Deal With 108 Sun Salutations

In the yogic tradition, 108 Sun Salutations are practiced to celebrate the change of seasons and important events.

That is 108 is considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Just as an example of why number 108 is so significant:

  • The distance between the Sun and the Earth is 108 of the Sun’s diameter.
  • There are 108 sacred sites across India, according to the texts.
  • Mala beads used for praying and meditation have 108 beads.
  • There are 108 energy lines/sacred points in the human body.

What Is The Difference Between Sun Salutation A and B

The main difference between the two is that Sun Salutations A is easier than Sun Salutations B and comprises less poses.

Generally, you should start the practice with a few rounds of Surya Namaskar A before moving to a more advanced B variation.

I’m A Beginner. Are Sun Salutations Only For Advanced Yogis

Absolutely not! Sun Salutation routine is beneficial for newbies and experts alike. But here are just some of the reasons they are especially helpful for beginners:

You don’t need to learn many yoga poses. There are a lot! Sun Salutation A sequence, for example, involves only 9 movements and repetitive yoga asanas. No need for tons of alignment cues and instructions that can be overwhelming, especially if you’re starting to practice individually at home.

You will get a solid foundation for future progress. Sun Salutation consists of poses that are archetypes for the whole range of other postures. Master these few asanas and you’ll be-in-the-know in 80% of postural yoga classes – even if you’ve just started doing yoga.

You can learn to focus on the breath. Breathing is an area where beginners often struggle. Sun Salutation is the perfect routine to cultivate the essential breath-mind-body connection. When you know the poses and what’s coming next, you can dedicate your full attention to develop proper breathing. Besides, every pose in the sequence is linked to the breath: inhale, exhale, or hold.

Can I Do San Salutations Every Day

Yes! Moreover, daily Sun Salutations is a great way to build consistency in your yoga practice.

Print out free YogaKali Habit Tracker to write down how many rounds of Sun Salutations you did each time and monitor your progress with time.

One word of caution: If you feel after-workout soreness and discomfort the next day after Sun Salutations, maybe you strained yourself too much. Be more gentle to your body and make sure to give it a day of rest to regenerate and build muscle.

How To Memorize Sun Salutations

Don’t worry, once you repeat the sequence for a few days in the row, it will get stuck in your memory forever. Before that, use a cheat sheet to memorize the flow of postures.

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4 comments on “The Ultimate Guide To Understanding Sun Salutations & Why Practice Them”

  1. I'm an absolute beginner in yoga, but I hope it can help me build some upper body strength and flexibility. So far I hate them! (Maybe because I lack the strength to do a proper push-up?)
    But yeah, there's no gain without pain, as the saying goes

    1. Thanks for the comment joeny! I feel you 🙂 It took me a while to build upper body strength for a proper yoga push-up.
      There's absolutely no shame in dropping your knees down. Even the strongest and most experienced of us modify.
      P.S. Please, never make yoga about pain! It should give you pleasure and a sense of accomplishment instead.

  2. Adriano 51 from Italy:
    I have been terrible accident woth 2 month's coma and a looot of surgery, now after 20 years I am yoga teacher and living with me yoga practice allways.

    1. Wow, Adriano. Thanks a lot for sharing your story!
      You are an inspiration to all the yogis out there <3


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