Chances are that even if you miss your usual, full-length yoga practice, you’ll still find time to squeeze in a few sun salutations or surya namaskar. As a vinyasa flow teacher, I often use sun salutations as a warm-up before moving on to more challenging sequences or asanas. However, having served as a substitute yoga teacher, I have observed that traditional sun salutations often dominate the practice of yoga in some classes. When I asked for feedback at the end of one such class, one student said she would have preferred more rounds of faster moving sun salutations—and this was from a beginner who had just completed her third class.
Being focused on weight loss and fitness has compelled many practitioners to prioritize quantity, over quality. The most common question I’m asked as a teacher is how to lose weight by doing yoga, and the standard belief is that this comes from doing multiple rounds of sun salutations. Sun salutations are great, combining some of the most beneficial poses in yoga (including the favorite of many, downward facing dog, or adho mukha svanasana). But sun salutations may also lead to excessive strain on the back, wrist, shoulders, and knees if done too fast, too many times, or especially without focusing on mindful movement.
I enjoy creating new sequences based on the traditional sun salutation, but I also don’t hesitate to replace it with other sequences.
Here are a few tips for either varying your approach to sun salutations or modifying the sequence:
• Use specific breath counts to move more slowly (or to help your students do so). Speed does not equal intensity. Try four-second inhalations and exhalations to experience the subtleties of each movement. Seasoned practitioners may wish to try eight-second inhalations and exhalations. Try staying for a few breaths in each posture before moving to the next. Remember to stay focused on the breath, and find moments of stillness while moving.
• Take time to adjust your alignment (or your students’) in the basic postures found in sun salutation. Are the shoulders scrunching up toward the ears in upward dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)? Are you (or your students) so focused on getting your heels to the floor in downward dog that you compromise the length of the spine?
• Use traditional sun salutations as part of a warm-up, doing only four to six rounds after some simple dynamic stretches and asanas.
• To stretch the hips and legs, add hip-opening asanas such as parivrtta anjaneyasana (revolved runner’s lunge/low lunge) between the poses of a traditional sun salutation.
• Work on flexibility by adding postures such as pyramid pose (parsvottanasana) to your sun salutation: Each time the leg goes back for lunge, turn the back foot in 45 degrees and exhale, beginning to straighten the front leg as you exhale. If your lower back or hamstrings are tight, keep the front knee bent. After staying for about two breaths, take the front leg back to downward dog, and proceed with the sun salutation (through plank, chaturanga dandasana, and upward facing dog). Then repeat parsvottanasana on the other side when taking the left leg back before proceeding with the traditional sun salutation.
• Use milder poses in place of more challenging ones. If you are a teacher, offer such options to your students, reminding them of alternatives as you move through sun salutation. For example, bring the knees down while doing chaturanga dandasana, instead of upward dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), come into cobra pose (bhujangasana), or hold plank instead of lowering down to chaturanga.
Use a progressive, or laddering, technique: repeat segments of the sun salutation before adding the subsequent postures. Here is an example:
• Start in mountain pose, and then inhale as you raise your arms.
• Exhale to a forward bend.
• Inhale as you step your right foot back to lunge; exhale as you step your right foot forward, returning to your forward bend.
• Inhale as you step your left foot back; exhale as you step your left foot forward.
• Inhale as you rise back up to standing, reaching your arms overhead; exhale as you bring your arms down.
• Repeat this three times before moving on to downward dog or plank pose.
• When coming into plank pose, stay for two to three breaths before lowering down to chaturanga. Staying in plank for a few breaths each time is a good way to build core strength.
Such repetition can be extremely challenging if done slowly and mindfully.
Use different starting points for downward and upward dog, and skip chaturanga dandasana in this alternate sequence:
• Kneel on the mat, sitting on your heels in vajrasana (thunderbolt). Inhale as you raise your arms out to the side and up, lifting your seat off your heels and coming to “stand” on your knees with your arms reaching overhead.
• Exhale into child’s pose (balasana) with your arms extended in front of you.
• Inhale into cat pose (marjariasana).
• Exhale into downward dog.
• Inhale into upward dog by shifting your body forward into plank, placing the top of your right foot and then the top of your left foot on the mat; without touching your thighs (or your pelvis) to the floor, lower your pelvis and broaden and lift your chest.
•Exhale back into downward dog.
• Inhale as you bring your knees down to cat pose.
• Exhale into child’s pose (with arms extended in front).
• Inhale as you raise your arms up, and come back to “standing” on your knees.
• Exhale as you sit back on your heels in vajrasana, lowering your arms back down to your sides.
This is a great alternative to standing sun salutations.
One of the reasons we love sun salutations is because they’re within our comfort zone—once we’ve been practicing awhile, we know what to expect, and how to flow from one pose into the next. According to yoga philosophy, our samskaras (“subtle impressions of past actions”) condition us to think or act in a certain way. But sometimes it’s good to break free of habits. After all, T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, described asana practice as nava sarira samskara—establishing new body patterns, or replacing old patterns with new ones.
A yoga practice is not a test of our physical strength and stamina, and it’s not about how many sun salutations we can do. It is an opportunity for us to explore different movements that can give us a completely new experience.