When most people think of the first yoga pose that comes to mind, they think of one of the poses in a sun salutation. If you’re getting into yoga, but aren’t familiar with sun salutes yet, then grab some coffee and get settled. This is one of the most common and useful sets in all of yoga. As you practice with different instructors, you’re likely to do a wide array of variations of sun salutations. Some classes just pass through a couple of basic ones to warm up. Other classes are entirely composed of sun salutation variations.
We’ll take this opportunity to cover each yoga pose that makes up a sun salute in a little more detail. If you haven’t already read our intro to basic yoga poses, read that first by clicking here. It will cover how you should breathe, how stretching should feel, and how to warm up and cool down from a yoga practice. Once you know the basics, you’re ready to move into these easy introductory poses and start putting them all together into a sun salutation.
Basic sun salutations
The basic sun salutation can be done with one breath per movement, or it can be drawn out for a longer period of time. When you get the hang of it, you can do an entire set in less than a minute. However, there’s no rush. Take your time, feel each stretch and breath in the energy of the sun.
First, sun salutations can be done in many ways. But they always start from the same basic set. First, you stretch straight up on an inhale, hands fully extended upwards. Then, on your exhale, you fold forwards with a straight back. Next inhale is used to lift back up to a right angle, straighten your back again and then exhale back into a deeper forwards fold.
Hands go down to the mat, and you step your feet back behind you to a plank position. You exhale as you slowly lower to the mat (like half a push up). Keep your elbows at your sides for best form. Then you push up into cobra or upwards dog, depending on how your back is feeling. And then you exhale as you push your hips back and up into a downwards dog. You will often spend several breaths here before stepping forwards to your hands, stretching back upwards and exhaling your hands to your heart.
That’s the basic set. Usually, it is repeated three to five times, or more. Often times, teachers will add warrior poses, triangle pose, and other variations into each set. Subsequently, they get harder and harder until you come back to rest.
To start your sun salute, inhale deeply and sweep your arms out and upwards. As they extend over your head, you should feel your spine lengthen, and your core expand. Push your heels and toes down into the ground to achieve maximum extension.
Sometimes you will hold this extension for a couple of breaths, other teachers will fold forwards on your first exhale. In your own practice, it’s up to you. I often extend every posture into several breaths for my first sun salute of the day. Then, once I’m warmed up I speed up the pace to be one breath per movement.
The most important part of the forwards fold is that you keep your back straight and bend from the hips. It can be helpful to keep your hands stretched out directly over head as you do this. That way your whole body folds over your hips. Once you’re at the bottom of your exhale and your fold, inhale back up to ninety degrees. Most teachers will say “inhale halfway” or “halfway lift” for this part. Then you release your breath again and complete the fold to a true hanging position.
You should maintain a micro-bend in your knees, so they don’t lock. Your head should hang heavily towards the ground. In your first forwards folds of your practice, you should hang, not pull or reach down strongly. Later in your practice, you can work with pushing the stretch if you like.
Then, you place your hands on the mat in front of your feet at hip width. You may have to bend your knees to do this. Step one foot all the way back to the corner of your mat and then the other. You should end up in a plank position with your elbows directly below your shoulders and your back straight.
Once you get the hang of the motion, getting into plank pose will all be done on one inhale. Once you’re in the pose, your torso should be tight and your lungs full. Then you’re ready for chaturanga, my personal favorite movement in all the yoga I’ve practiced to date.
Chaturanga to upwards dog
Chaturanga is like half a pushup downwards and is followed by upwards dog; sort of a reverse swan dive upwards with your chest. When you get advanced at the motion, it’s really more of a chest dive to lift. However, it takes a while and a bit of strength to get there.
Basic chaturanga involves lowering from plank down to let your chest and legs rest on the floor. Your elbows should stay close to your sides as you lower. You should move slowly and with full body strength, not flop onto the floor. Untuck your toes, so the backs of your feet are flat on your mat. Then gently push your torso up towards the sky to arch your back into cobra or upwards dog. Your knees can stay on the floor (cobra pose), or you can raise up by tightening your core and lifting everything but the tops of your feet off the mat (upwards dog).
Once you become more advanced with your chaturanga, you will never touch the ground. Instead, lower down chest first to hover right over your mat and slide forwards as you raise your head to the sky. You can learn to roll over your toes in a really satisfying way during this transition. Once you get it dialed, it will all be done on a single exhale down, and then an inhale as you raise your torso up.
Perhaps the most iconic and well-known yoga pose of all, downwards dog gets its name from how dogs stretch after they’ve had a good nap. It can be very challenging for some people, or very restful for others. Don’t be hard on yourself if it feels difficult to you, it’s still difficult for me, and I’ve been practicing for over five years. But it does get easier.
When you’re in downwards dog, it’s more important to have a straight spine than straight legs. Bend your knees at first. Or pump them out, one bends, then the other. Almost like you’re running in place. Push your whole palm and all your fingers firmly into the ground. With every inhale, push your shoulders away from your ears. On every exhale, relax your neck and let the crown of your head hang towards the floor.
If downwards dog is hard for you, try bending your knees more. Or you can adjust where on your mat your feet are. It’s possible that they are too far from your hands, or too close. Try adjusting the angle of your hands. This will shift your whole arm and have a big effect on how the pose feels. Your fingers should point straight ahead and be spread wide. Don’t expect your heels to touch the ground right away. You’ll improve with time. Just try to keep your back straight and your hips high.
Warrior one is a great pose for opening your hips. However, it’s often overshadowed by it’s more common cousin, warrior two. After all, they are pretty similar and can be easily confused with one another. In my practice, I prefer to start with warrior one with a couple of variations, then move to warrior two once my hips are stretched out a bit. That’s because I have really tight hips and warrior two can be a bit much right off the bat.
For warrior one, take a lunge position with your front foot facing forwards and your back foot facing almost forwards. It shouldn’t turn out more than 45 degrees. Your hips and torso will face forwards. As you breathe, sink slowly into the stretch in your hips. If it’s too much, make your stance narrower. If you need more, widen your feet a bit.
In warrior one, your hands typically go straight up overhead. Some people like to back bend slightly. Or, you can make it an active pose by inhaling up into a back bend and exhaling down to touch the mat. Be sure to do this equally on both sides to stay balanced.
Warrior two makes some of the best yoga photos and is common in almost all forms of yoga. It develops strength and hip flexibility at the same time. It has a number of good variations, and flows nicely with other poses. You’ve probably done it before.
Set up as for warrior one, but turn your back foot to face at 90 degrees to your front one. Your toes will point straight off the side of your yoga mat. Your back leg should be straight, your front knee bent. Be sure that your knee isn’t past your ankle though. You want your knee directly over top of your ankle joint. For warrior two, your torso faces the side of your mat. Your back is straight. You should feel a strong opening stretch in your hips. Every breath should pump the stretch a little deeper as you sink into it.
From here, many people bend backward into a reverse warrior. Your front arm reaches straight up with your gaze. Your back hand drops to your thigh or towards the mat. Be sure to inhale as you enter and exhale as you sink into the stretch. Conversely, you can bend forwards into extended side angle pose. Here, your front forearm will rest on your front knee while your back arm reaches upwards. Gaze up at your hand if you feel balanced and breathe into the stretch. Alternating between these two variations makes for a great set.
There are hundreds of ground poses we could cover. Not to mention hundreds of ways to stretch your hips. However, one of the simplest, and most effective of all is pigeon pose. It’s also very common across many styles of yoga.
For pigeon pose, one leg is in a cross-legged position, and the other is extended straight backward behind you. This is often entered from downwards dog by bringing your knee towards your chest and then setting it down in a sideways position. Then, you slowly sink into the pose with your breath. This pose can be very intense for beginners and should be modified to feel right.
Ideally, your front leg will be at a 90-degree angle to your back, but for many beginners, that’s just too intense, so let it be where it feels right. Your weight should be in the center of your hips, not falling to one side or the other. You should feel the stretch in the outside of your thigh and glutes. If your hips are tight, you may also feel a stretch in the groin of your extended leg.
Find a place that feels balanced, check your alignment, and then breath deeply in this stretch. Pigeon is often held for five to ten minutes or more. Just slowly breath into the pose. Let the pumping of breath in your abdomen intensify and release the stretch over and over. Slowly sink deeper and deeper. When it’s time to come out, take your time and move slowly. Be extra careful that you never feel any pain in your knee during this pose.
Linking yoga poses
As you can see, the beauty of yoga comes in your own personal flow. Once you become familiar with enough poses and motions, you’ll be able to flow with your breath between poses. Some people like to take a fast flow through their practice and hold each pose for just a few breaths. Other people like to move slowly and really dive into each posture for a long time.
There’s value in each mentality, and I recommend that no matter how experienced you get, you still take days where you switch up your practice. Learning new poses, new flows, and new ways to link one motion into another is what personal progression through yoga is all about. As your body becomes more capable and you learn more, your practice will expand.
That’s why it can be really great to take classes from a wide range of teachers. If you can’t afford a bunch of yoga classes, then try taking classes on Youtube for free. Not only is that a great way to learn new yoga poses, but it’s also a great way to challenge yourself to practice in ways you wouldn’t normally on your own.
Yoga is a personal journey, and only you can decide where it will take you. With these basic steps, you’ll be well on your way to developing a strong and healthy personal practice. Each time you practice, you’ll learn and grow more, always approaching greater wellness and gratitude. Namaste.
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