Sun salutations, called surya namaskar in Sanskrit, generate heat to cleanse your body and mind. As a moving meditation, this flowing series of poses honors the light and life-sustaining energy of this powerful star as well as the life force within your own body. This salute to the sun gets your heart pumping, increases circulation and takes your body through a full range of motion, which gets you into a comfortable flow.
Because sun salutations match your inhalations and exhalations with each movement, you connect to the rhythm of your breath and develop your inner focus. Each sun salutation begins and ends by standing in mountain with your hands together in prayer in front of your heart, a gesture called anjali mudra. This is to acknowledge your own inner sun — your heart, also considered your seat of consciousness and higher wisdom. Traditionalists perform the sun salutations facing east to symbolize the dawn of awareness.
While you’ll find various interpretations of the sun salutation, Baron Baptiste, founder of the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute, teaches this sequence: mountain pose, arms overhead, standing forward bend, halfway lift, plank pose, four-limb staff pose, upward-facing dog or cobra, downward-facing dog — held for five breaths — stepping or jumping forward, halfway lift, standing forward bend, arms overhead and back to mountain pose with hands in anjali mudra. Students often repeat this sequence throughout a yoga lesson to start the next pose with a clean slate.
The standing poses ground you to the earth, build body awareness and help you find your center. Forward bend and halfway lift elongate your spine, stretch your hamstrings and cleanse your digestive system. Plank and four-limb staff poses engage the muscles in your arms, shoulders, chest and abdomen. Upward-facing dog stretches your upper body as it opens your chest and frees your breathing. Downward-facing dog works muscles in your entire body and calms your nervous system.
If lowering from plank into four-legged staff pose — which requires core and arm strength — you can modify as you develop these muscles by lowering knees, chest and chin. To step or jump forward from downward-facing dog to standing forward bend without clunking, make sure you engage your abdominal muscles. Eventually, you may be able to “float” by gracefully lifting both feet at once and landing quietly at the front of your mat.
Sun salutations also may include lunges, chair pose and the warrior poses, all of which both stabilize and stretch your body. As you practice on your own, expand your sense of playfulness by incorporating your own variations.
An excellent way to jump-start your day is with a 15-minute morning practice: 10 minutes of sun salutations followed by five minutes resting in corpse pose.