With the increasing popularity of Ashtanga Yoga as well as the many variations of Power Yoga and other flowing Vinyasana styles of practice, the sun salutation (surya namaskara) has become a central practice for many Western practitioners. Although there is a fairly classical and predictable progression of movements in the sun salutation, there is also enormous variation from one tradition to the next as to precisely how it is executed. (Some traditions substitute upward-facing dog for the more traditional cobra pose, for example.) Generally the postures are practiced as a flowing series, although depending on the level and constitution of the student, the sun salutation can be performed slowly with long stays in each posture, or quickly, with rapid transitions from posture to posture.
When practiced consistently and over a period of time, the sun salutation radically improves overall body strength and stamina.
But no matter how it is practiced, the cycle builds heat, warming the muscle tissue so that the body becomes more pliant. It also increases and improves the circulation of blood throughout the body, making it an ideal practice for those with poor circulation in the hands and feet, as well as for those who live in colder climates. When practiced consistently and over a period of time, the sun salutation radically improves overall body strength and stamina.
With so many benefits, it is easy to see why the sun salutation has come into vogue. But there are reasons to be cautious—reasons stemming from the structural demands the cycle places on the spine, especially for the beginning student and those with preexisting spinal problems.
The sun salutation moves the body solely in the sagittal plane (that is, front to back) and as such it has the potential to be as stressful to the spine as an afternoon of heavy shoveling. Gardeners, those in the construction trades, and those who do repetitive factory work tend to have problems with their backs. (Any activity that continually flexes and extends the spine tends to fatigue and strain the muscles of the back while putting undue pressure on the intervertebral disks.)
To counteract this stress many tend to instinctively seek the movement that will release tension in the spine. As a movement educator, I have often observed people with no knowledge of yoga gently twisting and bending to the side when they straighten up from spading the garden, and I have seen others reflexively take hold of one arm of a chair and pull themselves around to rotate the back after hours of flexing forward over the computer. It is these very movements (side bending and rotating the spine) that release the deep muscles of the back (the muscles that join vertebrae to vertebrae) and give relief to the larger longitudinal erector spinae muscles that run the length of the trunk. But some styles of practice popular today involve many repetitions of the sun salutation without the respite of lateral flexion or rotation, and they are introduced to the beginner, whose body is not conditioned for such exertion. And as a teacher, working extensively with beginners, those with back problems, and older students, it has become clear to me that the classic rendition of the sun salutation can at times be entirely unsuitable…at least initially.
From the inception of my own practice as a young woman (and as someone with years of professional dance training), I have found the sun salutation challenging, especially the often abrupt extension of the spine in the upward-facing dog pose. A preexisting congenital weakness in my lumbar spine added to the challenge, and I noticed myself quite unconsciously seeking relief through gentle movements into the lateral plane. The beauty of lateral movement is that the spine cannot bend to the side without slight rotation. Conversely, the joint articulations of the vertebrae are set at angles that require rotation to be accompanied by some degree of lateral flexion. It is not possible to do one without the other.
When we bend to the side we open and release all the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs), which allows the rib cage to move more freely as we breathe. Side bending also releases the oblique abdominal muscles, the psoas major, and the very important quadratus lumborum. This last muscle arises from the top inner lip of the pelvic rim (iliac crest) and extends to the twelfth rib and the side processes of the first through third lumbar vertebrae; it aids lateral flexion of the lower trunk. The quadratus lumborum is short, thick, and remarkably strong; when it contracts more on one side than the other it can cause serious imbalances in the lumbar spine, pelvis, and sacroiliac joints.
As you may discover when you explore the lateral movements described in this article, they feel…familiar. That is because they are intimately connected with many of the early human developmental movement patterns involved in crawling. Lateral flexion is an important movement developmentally because it establishes mobility through the trunk, neurological connections that contribute to balance, and the sequential flow of movement through both the spine and the soft viscera.
Many traditions of hatha yoga incorporate other movements into the sun salutation—such as the standing postures within or in between each cycle—that bring the spine off the sagittal line, thus preventing a buildup of tension in the back. In other systems, twisting and to a lesser degree lateral flexion is used after the practice of forward bends or backward bends as a way to release the spinal muscles and return the back to a more neutral state. Using these movements as counterposes is good, but I believe it is far better to intersperse these rotational movements in a practice before one feels the need for them.
But there are relatively few postures within the hatha yoga repertoire that focus strongly on lateral flexion. The following series of variations have arisen out of an organic and natural experimentation in my own personal practice, which I have since extended into my instruction with both beginning and advanced students. These variations are intended to prevent buildup of any strain in the spine, rather than ameliorate pain after the fact. They are not all intended to be done in one cycle of the sun salutation, nor is it necessary to include them in every cycle you do during your practice. You may choose to experiment with only one variation, or you may add different variations from one cycle to the next, starting with variations in the mountain pose (tadasana), then moving to one of the variations shown for the forward stretch (uttanasana), lunge, downward-facing dog (adho mukha shvanasana), and so on. You may be surprised at how much easier and freer the entire body feels when you then go on to practice the traditional sun salutation cycle.
These variations are intended to prevent buildup of any strain in the spine, rather than ameliorate pain after the fact.
Variations in the Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand in the mountain pose at the front of your mat with your feet hips-width apart. On an inhalation extend the arms out to the side and over the head. Bending the arms, take hold of the outer edge of the elbows. Using the fingers of your right hand, draw the left elbow over to the right and bend to the right on an exhalation. Turn your head to gaze down at the right little toe. Stay for at least three breaths, gradually deepening the stretch along the left side of the body. To prevent collapsing into the right side of the spine, push down strongly through your right leg. Repeat on the second side.
Returning to the mountain pose, now extend both arms over the head. Keeping the left arm overhead, bend to the right, bringing the right arm down along the side of your right thigh. As you bend to the right side, turn your head and neck on the diagonal to gaze down at your right little toe. Press strongly down through both feet to increase the elongation throughout the entire body. After three breaths, repeat on the other side.
Forward Stretch Variation (Uttanasana)
Bending forward from the hips, release the trunk over the legs, bringing your fingertips to rest in front of you. Notice how far forward you have been able to bring your trunk.
Now turn both feet outwards, so you are standing in what is known in ballet as first position. Keeping your hands centered, slowly shift your weight more onto the right foot, allowing your hips to veer off-center.
Feel how this opens and releases the deep muscles of the hip. Now veer off-center to the left. When you return to center, turn your feet to face forward once again and fold forward over your legs. You may be surprised to find how much further you are able to bend after releasing the deep muscles of the hip.
Now lunge the right leg back behind you, allowing the knee to rest lightly on the floor.
Slowly turn your body to the left, rotating your left foot out as you do so. Lift the right knee off the floor and slowly turn onto the outside of the right hip. Point the toes of your right foot and completely straighten the right leg. With your right hand centered under your shoulder, press down strongly through your right arm to increase the length along the right side of the trunk. Bring your left hand to rest along the inside of your right leg.
Work to bring the chest into a vertical position while keeping the right hip low to the floor until you feel a satisfying stretch along the whole right side of your body. (If you sink the trunk into the floor you will gain little from this lateral variation.) When you are ready, rotate the trunk to the right to return to the original lunge position. Repeat on the other side.
Variations in the Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Shvanasana)
From the lunge position, step the left leg back into the downward-facing dog.
Press strongly through the arms and reach back through your sitting bones and tail to lengthen the trunk. Now bend the left knee and slowly lower the right heel to the floor. As you stretch the right heel to the floor, lift the front of the shin and maintain the arch through the foot so you do not achieve the movement by collapsing into the ankle joint. As you lower the right heel, actively reach back through the right thigh. Repeat on the second side.
Now return to the first side, and stretch the right heel down once again. This time actively reach the tailbone to the left, allowing the left knee to turn toward the right underneath you. Press strongly through both arms to elongate the spine as you bend to the left. Now repeat on the other side.
Returning to the original downward-facing dog position, step your left foot slightly forward and under the midline of your body. Extend your right leg into the air behind you and slowly bend the right knee. Ground the arms strongly into the floor as you simultaneously reach up through the length of the right leg. Now slowly turn your belly to the right and upward toward the ceiling.
On each inhalation focus on elongating from your head to your tailbone, and from your hands to your feet. This will prevent you from collapsing into your lower back. As you exhale, progress very gradually into the side bend and twist. Now repeat on the second side before returning to the original downward-facing dog position.
Variations in the Upward-Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana)
Variation A: In this first variation, instead of straightening the arms, support yourself on your forearms with the tips of your elbows in line with your shoulders. Draw the chest upward into a vertical position between the arms, keeping the head level, eyes gazing out at the horizon. Slowly turn to look at your right little toe. Instead of focusing on shortening to the right side, actively reach the left ear away from the left foot so you are elongating as you rotate to the side. Repeat side to side a number of times, reaching through the crown of the head to elongate the spine as you come through center, before moving into the side bend.
On your next repetition to the right side, allow your right knee to bend slightly and to come toward your shoulder as if you were about to crawl. Initiate the transition to the other side by flexing the right foot (toes toward the kneecap). Press the inner edge of the right foot against the floor as you straighten the leg. This will begin a lengthening action through your right side as you turn to the left. Similarly, as you gaze at your left leg, allow the knee to come up. Repeat this crawl-like action side to side, deepening the side bend with each repetition. You may wish to continue with the rest of the sun salutation before moving on to the next variations.
Variation B: From downward-facing dog, move forward through the arms into upward-facing dog with the arms straight. Now bend both knees and flex them so the soles of the feet face the ceiling. Your weight will be resting on the top of your thighs.
Slowly lower the left groin closer to the floor, and as you do so, turn to gaze at your right side.
Repeat a number of times to each side. Now as you turn to look at your right side, allow the right knee to come slightly upward along the floor toward your shoulder. At the same time, extend the left leg along the floor.
This is the same crawl-like action as in the previous variation, except now the back is in a deeper movement of extension. Transition slowly from one side to the other, focusing on lengthening through the entire body as you move through center. Complete this cycle by coming into full upward-facing dog and coming onto the tops of the feet.
Regardless of whether you have worked with only one variation or have gradually incorporated all the variations while doing a series of sun salutations, finish the session by returning to your own rendition of the cycle. Notice if there is greater ease as you move from posture to posture. Then as you continue with your practice, listen intently to the way your body responds to each movement. Sometimes (because of our own imbalances and asymmetries) moving off-center, adjusting an arm off the classic position we’ve learned, or shifting our weight more through one side may move us more into our own individual balance. As you relinquish your attachment to the “idea” of the posture and listen to the body’s inner messages, new and creative solutions may arise to old problems, and previously intransigent stuck places may open into new freedom. This kind of deep experimentation can lead us to find our own unique way of practicing yoga.
Benefits of the Sun Salutation and Lateral Variations
Builds heat and improves circulation.
Increases stamina and overall body strength.
Lengthens, releases, and tones the spinal column.
Improves balance and neurological integration between the two sides of the body.
Those with weakness in the wrists and carpal tunnel syndrome need to be cautious in the movements that require wrist flexion. A small wedge placed underneath the base of the wrist in the downward-facing dog pose, the four-limbed stick pose, and the upward-facing dog pose can help to reduce strain to the joint.
Those with preexisting spinal problems such as spondylolisthesis or spondylolysis should be cautious in the backward-bending movements. Those with disk degeneration may have difficulty in the forward-bending movements and with lateral flexion and rotation. Cautious practice of the beginning variations followed by a 24-hour wait period may help to determine whether these are healthy movements to include in your practice.