I’ve taken thousands of yoga classes throughout the years, with hundreds of different teachers in many different styles of practice. Yet many of those classes have been oddly similar.
We run through the same motions: a few rounds of sun salutation A, followed by a few rounds of sun salutation B or a solid set of surya namaskar classic. As soon as we begin the practice, everyone in the room knows that sun salutations are coming. Everybody knows that this is how you warm up for yoga. But do you have to?
To be honest, I dislike sun salutations, and I always have. And I never understood why they are exalted in the yoga world. There aren’t many other movement modalities that utilize the exact same warm-up to begin an activity every single time.
I’ve even heard teachers say things like “It’s dangerous to begin a yoga practice without warming up with sun salutations first.” But is this really true?
There are a number of reasons why I think it’s wise to consider other methods of warming up.
Though different schools of yoga practice sun salutations in different ways, many of the more “classic” versions include one of two things: either knees, chest, chin or a jump back to chaturanga dandasana. Both of these options are relatively advanced, however, and not accessible to the average student.
Knees, chest, chin is a pretty deep backbend that requires a lot of mobility in the neck, upper back, and lower back—something many practitioners don’t have, especially at the beginning of a practice before they’re even warmed up.
And a jump back to chaturanga dandasana requires incredible strength and stability in the shoulder girdles, core, and beyond. Many people don’t have the necessary strength and stability to practice chaturanga alone with integrity, never mind adding the momentum of a jump back.
It's true that many teachers will offer a “step back” to plank before chaturanga rather than the traditional “jump.” However, as I’ve already mentioned, chaturanga itself is a posture that is not accessible to many, given the sheer amount of strength it requires. In addition, many students have wrist sensitivities, which makes weight-bearing through the hands uncomfortable or even painful.
Of course, teachers can always offer modifications and variations to these sequences in order to make them accessible to all. However, in my experience, I find that it’s rare for teachers to “stray from the script” with sun salutations. In the yoga world, these “ancient” sequences seem to be revered in such a way that few people dare to change them.
Piggybacking on the fact that sun salutations are not accessible to many, common aspects of sun salutes can be troublesome for those with common health conditions. For example, I have low blood pressure, so the simple movement of flowing from standing forward fold (uttanasana) to upward salute (urdhva hastasana) makes me feel dizzy and disoriented.
I also recognize that I am not alone in this feeling. I have had countless students with low blood pressure who tell me they’ve had the same experience. And it’s not just those with low blood pressure who may feel lightheaded in sun salutes. I’ve received similar complaints from students with high blood pressure, vertigo, and heart conditions. Also, it is recommended that those with certain types of acute low back pain avoid postures like cobra and up dog—both of which are included in sun salutations.
The fact that sun salutations are not accessible to many practitioners supports the point that these sequences can be too intense to use as a warm-up. Many of the more complex postures practiced within sun salutations (such as chaturanga and down dog) require the collaboration of many different joints within the body and recruit many different muscle groups. These poses ask a lot of the body. And in my opinion, they’re too intense to jump right into at the beginning of a practice. In preparation for bigger postures and sequences the body can benefit from warming up with smaller, less intense movements.
I’m a huge fan of warm-ups. I believe they’re essential for maintaining safety in a practice. I would never suggest heading straight into the hardest part of your sequence without offering your body some time to acclimate to the demands it must meet. And while sun salutations can be useful to generically build heat in the body, they’re not the only way to achieve this.
If your sequence for the day is all about backbends, for example, then sun salutations aren’t going to do you much good as a warm-up because sun salutes heavily favor forward folding. In surya namaskar A, we do five forward folds (uttanasana, ardha uttanasana, down dog, ardha uttanasana, and uttanasana again) compared to one backbend (upward facing dog). And that doesn’t even include the forward folding we may do in the transitional movements (such as jumping back into chaturanga and floating forward into ardha uttanasana). So if you’re looking to open the front body and compress the back body in preparation for backbending, it would be wiser to practice targeted movements to achieve this goal.
I dislike monotony in my yoga practice. And, quite frankly, I find sun salutations to be boring. Also, I especially dislike expectations in my practice. To me, yoga is all about being in the present moment. And that means leaving an element of mystery and surprise.
Allowing for spontaneity in our practice can have valuable implications for both our bodies and our minds. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Manipulation of loading variables can have profound effects on the nature, structure, and function of the wider neuromusculoskeletal system.” By changing our loading patterns (and thus our movements), we encourage our muscles (and even our neural stimuli) to better respond to different loading patterns and movements. This helps to prepare us, for example, to stabilize ourselves quickly (without injury) when we trip. On a mental level, without expectations, we’re better able to follow life—or in this instance, our practice—as it unfolds.
When I taught sun salutes regularly, it always seemed like my students were rushing through the warm-up to get to the “good part” of class—no matter how slowly I cued them or how many times I offered mindful invitations throughout the practice. This caused me to take a long, hard look at my sequencing and to adapt my practices to invite more mindfulness and presence.
As you can probably guess, I don’t believe we can codify a warm-up into a neat little package that works for every practice and every practitioner.
I think our warm-ups need to be adapted just as much as our flows. So, instead of practicing “traditional” sun salutations, make up your own! Move your body in particular ways that will prepare you specifically for what’s to come in your practice. And if you’re a teacher, let that exploration inform what you offer your students.
Practice small movements to warm up the major joints you’ll use in your practice and gradually build up from there by incorporating larger and larger movements.
To prepare, identify which part of your practice will be the most demanding on your body, and then work backward from that place. What needs to be flexible and open? What needs to be stable and strong? How can you establish the foundation for these needs in your body before reaching this “peak”?
For example, if your practice is focused on backbending, then warm up with some gentle backbends to set the tone for the rest of your sequence. Flow through a few rounds of cat-cow. Play with spinal extension in tabletop and then in a prone position. Throw in some twists to lubricate your spinal column. Practice hamstring curls in a low lunge and then stretch your quadriceps in that lunge. Although it may not be “traditional,” a simple sequence like this will better prepare you for the practice to come.
I don’t believe that sun salutations are bad or that they need to be completely removed from yoga practice. However, I do feel that the way they are revered needs to be reconsidered.
Science tells us that variability in our movements and loading patterns is extremely healthy for our tissues. Ultimately, the more we vary our movement patterns, the more adaptable our bodies are to change. Thus, our exercise and movement practices (including yoga) can translate to functional movement in our everyday lives. And with creative yoga styles like vinyasa, we have already invited this crucial element of variability into our practices. So why should this not apply to our warm-ups as well? Why have we adopted certain sequences as “sacred” and “necessary”? And why have we elevated their status so much that just about every single yoga class teaches them as the proper and inherent way to begin a practice?
When creating a warm-up, I believe that creativity and variability, spontaneity and specificity, and accessibility and intelligent, deliberate sequencing are far more important factors to consider than whether a sequence is “traditional” or “classical.”