Step-By-Step Guide To Sun Salutation A: With Illustrations And Modifications

Laura Finch
written by Laura Finch
part of Yoga Routines
created on August 7, 2019
updated on September 10, 2019

Sun Salutations are one of the best yoga sequences for beginners.

They involve foundational yoga poses that you’ll encounter over and over in every yoga class. They are relatively easy to remember. They offer a full-body workout and stretch in a short span of time. They are an excellent workout to track your progress over time…

I could go on forever.

Here I’m gonna share with you the breakdown of the easiest and the most beginner-friendly variant of Sun Salutations – Sun Salutation A. I’m gonna focus on how to get into and transition between poses, tips to avoid injuries, and modifications for beginners.

Sun Salutation A involves only 8 yoga poses (most of which I’ve already broken down in my article about the must-know yoga poses for beginners). These are:

  1. Mountain Pose/Tadasana
  2. Upward Salute/Urdhva Hastasana
  3. Standing Forward Bend/Uttanasana
  4. Halfway Lift/Ardha Uttanasana
  5. Plank/Kumbhakasana
  6. Low Plank/Chaturanga Dandasana
  7. Upward Facing Dog/Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
  8. Downward Facing Dog/Adho Mukha Svanasana

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Four Tips For Perfect Sun Salutations

Before we start, there are four super important things I’d like to share with you.

Breathe To The Beat

Breath is an essential part of Sun Salutations.

Each pose is connected either to inhale or exhale. A good rule of the thumb is to inhale when extending (backbending) and exhale when folding. With time, you’ll find it easy to coordinate movements with the correct breath.

Try to maintain a slow and calm breath throughout the practice. If you can’t, it’s a good sign you need to back off a little.

You can always control the pace of Sun Salutations by adding more breaths in the position.

As you are inhaling, feel that you are drawing the Lord in the form of breath into your lungs so that you are one with the Lord who is known as the universal spirit. Then when you are holding the breath, you and the Lord are wedded together, divinely united and as long as that feeling is there, hold on.
(Iyengar, London masterclass, 1985)

Focus On Drishti

(Pun not intended.)

Drishti is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “focus,” “vision.”

Each yoga pose has a specific gazing point – a place where you direct your sight. It doesn’t only help with balance but cultivates awareness and presence. Wandering eyes and gaze often symbolize wandering and unquiet mind. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do in yoga.

So along with striking and holding a pose, be aware of your breath and of your gaze. This might take some time and diligent inner work, but it will improve your learning curve in the long term.


Modify Every Damn Time

Don’t chase the full pose right away. Familiarize yourself with the technique, get comfortable in the pose, stay alert when your body is telling you that something doesn’t feel right.

Even if you’re strong and flexible enough, there’s no shame in modifying when you’re tired or not feeling 100% in shape.


Don’t Skip The Warm-Up

Yes, you heard me right!

Don’t jump on the mat and rush through the poses with the speed of light after sitting at a desk all day.

Start slow and take an extra breath in each pose. After a few rounds, start picking up the pace.

Alternatively, warm up with some dynamic movements. Just don’t do static stretches so common in yoga – they are a terrible warm-up. If you don’t believe me, believe the science. I’m referring to some solid research in this article about splits.

Hope you’re ready to rock some Sun Salutations. Let’s start!

How To Do Sun Salutation A (With Illustrations & Modifications)

The name of each pose is given in Sanskrit and its English equivalent. There’s also a short note on the breath of each pose (inhale or exhale) as well as the gazing point you should focus on when doing the pose.

Mountain Pose/Tadasana

Breath: Natural
Gaze: Open

Tadasana, also referred to as Samasthiti, is a starting and ending point of each cycle of Sun Salutation.

In this pose, strive to keep your body neutral and aligned on the central vertical axis. Lengthen up to the sky through the crown of your head and reach to the ground through the tailbone.

How To & Tips:

  • Place your feet together. With your toes touching and heels slightly apart, stand firmly on both of your feet. Do not lean more on one side or another. Rock back and forth, lifting your toes and heels to find the perfect balance.
  • Preserve the natural curvature of your spine. It should in no way resemble a straight line |. Depending on your anatomy, you should either lift the pelvis or tuck it to find the neutral position.
  • Tadasana is not a relaxing pose. You’re not just “hanging out” here. Instead, your body should feel strong, grounded, and ready for movement. To do that, lift your kneecaps, activate the quadriceps and abdominal muscles.
  • Stay open through the chest, but prevent the back from bending and ribs from caving forward. Slightly lift the chest and roll your shoulders back and down.
  • Softly gaze forward and take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose.

Upward Salute/Urdhva Hastasana

Breath: Inhale
Gaze: Thumbs

Upward Salute is a fantastic full-body stretch that doesn’t get enough credit in yoga (in my opinion). We often get into the pose to catch our breath before transitioning to deeper bends.

Next time you’re enjoying a slow Sun Salutation, try to stay in the Upward Salute a bit longer and feel the boost of energy flowing all the way through the fingertips to your heels.

How-To & Tips:

  • Stay active in your body. Start to inhale and raise arms overhead. Keep the arms alongside the ears.
  • Connect the palms of hands but prevent the shoulders from creeping upwards.
  • Shift the weight of your body into the heels and keep your knees straight. As you continue inhaling, gently arch your arms, head, and chest backward.
  • Lift the chin up and gaze at your thumbs.

Modifications:

 

  • Keep your arms shoulder-distance apart.
  • Skip the backbending part. Stay upright with your arms overhead and gaze in front of you.

Standing Forward Bend/Uttanasana

Breath: Exhale
Gaze: Nose

Standing Forward Bend is the first forward fold in this flow. Be gentle to your hamstrings and lower back. Start easy with your knees bent and don’t shy away from yoga props (check the guide to yoga gear here), such as yoga blocks, that can bring the floor closer to you.

How-To & Tips:

  • On the exhale, fold forward to the ground. Bring your hands beside your feet.
  • As you come down, activate your back muscles and hinge from the hips. Lead with your open chest, preventing the upper back from hunching.
  • Once you fold forward, release the back muscles and activate the front side of the body. Namely, quadriceps – they will allow your hamstrings to open more; lower stomach muscles – they will protect your lower back from overstretching.
  • Don’t lock your knees. In fact, bend them slightly as you come down to the ground. If your belly is touching the thighs, try slowly straightening the legs.
  • Relax your head and neck.
  • Play with balance. We tend to dump all the weight in the heels when doing a Standing Forward Bend. If that’s the case, shift the weight slightly to the center and balls of your feet.
  • Gaze at the tip of your nose.

Modifications:

 

  • Bend the knees as much as needed.
  • If you can’t reach the floor with the knees bent, place your hands on the pair of yoga blocks – they will bring the ground closer to you.

Halfway Lift/Ardha Uttanasana

Breath: Inhale
Gaze: Third Eye/Upward

Halfway Lift is necessary to prepare your body for the challenging transition to Low Plank/Chaturanga Dandasana and to link breath with movement.

Ardha Uttanasana stretches the muscles in your legs as well as strengthens the back and spine.

How-To & Tips:

  • As you inhale, lift the head and torso until you straighten the elbows. Feel your back lengthening as you lift your palms and come on your fingertips.
  • Keep the weight of your body in the balls of your feet. It will help you lengthen through the hamstrings.
  • Stay active in your legs and lower belly. As you come from the Standing Forward Bend, your back muscles should activate too to keep the long spine.
  • Open through the chest. It might feel like you’re bending slightly through your upper back here.
  • Roll your shoulders back and away from the ears.

Modifications:

 

  • Place the hands on your shins if this is what allows you to keep a straight back.
  • Do not dump your weight into the hands. Your legs, core, and back should stay active.

Plank/Kumbhakasana

Breath: Exhale
Gaze: Forward

Traditionally, Sun Salutation A skips the Plank pose and goes all the way from Halfway Lift to a Low Plank pose /Chaturanga Dandasana.

To do that, press your hands firmly into the floor and slightly shift your body forward. You need to possess enough strength in your hands and arms to bear the weight of your whole body without relying on the support of your feet. Then jump back landing in Low Plank/Chaturanga Dandasana.

Those still working on their strength can jump back into Plank Pose.

How-To & Tips:

  • Start to exhale, press into your palms, and shoot your legs back into Plank Pose. (Mind, this is an advanced option! Check for modifications below).
  • Prevent wrist discomfort by spreading your fingers wide and pressing your knuckles into the mat.
  • Activate your whole body. Press your toes into the ground; lift the knee cups, and engage the legs and buttocks; draw your rib cage in to support your body from the bottom.
  • Keep the body in a straight line. You might need to either lift or tuck your pelvis.
  • Your chest must be open. To do that, draw your shoulder blades down. Your acromion – the bump on the top of the shoulder should point forward, not down.
  • Gaze in front of you without crunching your neck.
  • Take an additional inhale to link the breath with your movements.

Modifications:

 

  • Gently step back one foot at a time from the Halfway Lift into High Plank Pose.
  • Lower your knees to the ground. Position them behind the line of your hips.

Low Plank/Chaturanga Dandasana

Breath: Exhale
Gaze: Forward

Low Plank is one of the best yoga poses to build strength in the upper body and core. It lays the foundation for more advanced arm balances and inversions.

The problem is – Low Plank is hard. Many things are going on anatomically. Without proper technique and understanding the alignment, you predispose your shoulders to injury.

If the full expression of the pose is too challenging at the moment – no worries! There are more accessible alternatives that help you maintain the proper technique and build strength.

How-To & Tips:

  • From High Plank, slightly shift your body forward; bend your elbows and lower halfway down to the floor.
  • Stay active through your legs and core.
  • Keep your elbows close. They shouldn’t splash to the sides.
  • Don’t let your shoulder blades pinch together, collapsing your chest forward. Keep the shoulders broad, even if that means you will lower only a tiny bit.
  • It’s better to keep your shoulders high than low. Ideally, your shoulders, elbows, and wrist should form a 90-degree angle. Don’t let the shoulders dip lower than that or you risk an injury.
  • Softly gaze forward.

Modifications:

 

  • Lower your knees on the floor. Keep your core and buttocks active as you lower halfway into Low Plank.
  • Alternatively, lower all the way down to the floor on your belly.

Upward Facing Dog/Urdhva Mukha Svanasana

Breath: Inhale
Gaze: To the sky

Upward Facing Dog is an advanced version of Cobra Pose. In this pose, only the palms and tops of your feet are touching the mat.

This is a backbend, and beginners can often feel pinching and discomfort in the lower back. Instead of bending through your back more, try lifting and lengthening the spine.

How-To & Tips:

  • Start inhaling, push into the palms, and draw your chest forward while straightening your arms.
  • Flip your feet, so your soles are facing up.
  • Press through the tops of the feet and keep your legs engaged. This will help lift the legs off the ground.
  • Broaden through your chest and shoulders. Press the shoulder blades down and keep them away from the ears.
  • Softly gaze up to the sky.

Modifications:

 

  • Lower all the way to the floor from Low Plank and come into Cobra Pose.
  • In Cobra, try to lift your upper body while the lower body stays on the ground. Use the muscles in your back to lift and lengthen your spine, not the strength of your arms.

Downward Facing Dog Pose/Adho Mukha Svanasana

Breath: Exhale
Gaze: Navel

The most ubiquitous of the yoga poses Downward Facing Dog can transform into anything you want: a full-body strengthener, a stretch, or an active rest. This mild inversion is also great for relieving stress and spine stiffness.

How-To & Tips:

  • On an exhale, flip the feet back to the ground. Press down through the palms and lift your hip high and back, creating a V shape with your body.
  • Ground down through your palms. Press your knuckles into the ground, taking the pressure from the base of your palms and minimizing wrist discomfort.
  • Engage the muscles of the lower belly and pelvic floor.
  • Create space for the neck. To do that, draw the shoulder blades down and away from the ears. Release the tension from the neck and upper body.
  • Softly gaze at the navel.
  • Stay in the pose for several breaths if you need to take a break. If you’re trying to keep your heart rate up, stay for one breath only.

Modifications:

 

  • Keep the knees bent as much as needed if you lack flexibility in your legs.
  • Place the hands on yoga blocks or a chair if your shoulders are tight.

Halfway Lift/Ardha Uttanasana

Breath: Inhale
Gaze: Fingers/Forward

How-To & Tips:

  • On an inhale, jump between your hands and come in Halfway Lift with a flat back.
  • To prepare for the jump, bend your legs, and lift your heels. Bring the ribs close to the knees. Look between your hands.
  • Follow the cues for the pose given above.

Modifications:

 

  • Skip the jumping part. Instead, walk your feet slowly to the front of the mat.

Standing Forward Bend/Uttanasana

Breath: Exhale
Gaze: Nose

How-To & Tips:

  • Exhale and fold your torso over the thighs. Place your palms beside your feet or on your legs.
  • Follow the cues for the pose given above.

Upward Salute/Urdhva Hastasana

Breath: Inhale
Gaze: Thumbs

How-To & Tips:

  • Inhale and raise your arms overhead.
  • Slightly arch your back while keeping your knees straight.
  • Follow the cues for the pose given above.
  • Gaze at your thumbs.

Mountain Pose/Tadasana

Breath: natural
Gaze: Open

How-To & Tips:

  • On the exhale, return to a neutral position.

The Ultimate Guide To Understanding Sun Salutations & Why Practice Them

What Are Sun Salutations?

Sun Salutations or Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit are a series of yoga postures that smoothly transition from one into another and form a flowing movement.

Sun Salutations are the backbone of modern postural yoga styles such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Power Yoga. However, it’s not uncommon to encounter this dynamic sequence in other yoga styles.

There are tons of variations of Sun Salutations pertinent to different yoga schools and traditions. Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B are the most common types.

8 Reasons You Should Do Sun Salutations Daily

  • It builds muscle and improves endurance;
  • It helps burn fat;
  • It decreases inflammation and lowers the risk of developing diabetes or cancer;
  • It reduces stress;
  • It promotes flexibility (coupled with strength!);
  • It energizes and wakes up stiff body and mind;
  • It is excellent for tracking your fitness progress;
  • It will improve your well-being in the long term.

When Is The Best Time To Practice Sun Salutations?

Traditional Hatha texts suggest that you do 12 rounds of Sun Salutations at sunrise. That’s the best time because your body is fresh from the night’s sleep and your mind is not cluttered yet. Besides, these sequences warm up the body and fill you up with energy for the rest of the day.

I bet not everyone can wake up at sunrise. So go for the time that works for you. Morning, afternoon or evening – it doesn’t matter as long as you’re enjoying the movement. I’d just advise not to strain your body with fast Sun Salutations right before going to sleep. Instead, choose slow breathing pattern and slow transitions.

2 thoughts on “Step-By-Step Guide To Sun Salutation A: With Illustrations And Modifications”

  1. Hi! I’m extremely inflexible.
    I was wondering is it better for me to do additional stretches to Sun Salutations or a regular practice of SS is enough to develop flexibility in my spine and legs?

    • Hi Amer!
      I personally consider Sun Salutations to be a great way of increasing overall mobility and range of motion.

      My first question to you would be – are you conditioning your body to some strength-building exercises? If not, then are you sure you need to become more flexible in the first place?

      You see, flexibility without strength is like bone without minerals: it consists of collagen only and doesn’t hold its form, bending all the way around and offering no support to your body.

      There are so many factors involved as to why you might be inflexible that this deserves a separate article. One of the reasons lies in your brain. Your nervous system might be hindering you from becoming more supple as a way of protecting you from injury. This usually happens if you haven’t built enough body strength and muscle stability yet.

      Though counterintuitive, strength-building is actually a great way of increasing your flexibility.

      So if you’re ‘extremely inflexible,’ as you put it, I suggest that rather than complementing SS with some additional stretches and subjecting your muscles to excessive lengthening, try strengthening (or let’s say, stiffening) the areas you want to become more supple.

      Believe me, you’ll be surprised by the result.

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