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Surya Namaskar: How to do Sun Salutations in Yoga

Sun salutations are a classic sequence of yoga postures that have been practiced for centuries. In this article, we’ll delve into the origins, benefits, and variations of the traditional sequence so you can adjust it accordingly to the style of yoga class you’re teaching and the varying abilities of your participants.

If you’d like to learn more about the different parts of a yoga class, you might want to check out these additional posts:

📓 Interested in all the Sun Salutation variations? You can find them inside the Yoga Sequencing Society.

Prefer videos? You can see various Sun Salutation Sequences in action!

origins of sun salutations

For millennia, the sun has been a central object for many cultures and religions from the Incas in Peru to Indigenous Americans. It plays a major role in spiritual practices and traditions including yoga.

One of the first references is in the Rig Veda. “Surya is the Soul of both Moving and Unmoving Things.”

In yoga, we honor the importance of the sun as a symbol of spiritual consciousness and the source of physical life through surya namaskar.

Surya = Sun

Nama = to adore, to bow to

Surya Namaskar is a set of 9-12 exercises traditionally performed in the direction of the rising sun and was believed to activate and energize different parts of the body. In today’s modern practice, they’re often practiced at the beginning of ashtanga, vinyasa, and power yoga classes.

sun salutations benefits

Aside from the traditional spiritual significance, sun salutations offer several physical benefits:

  • Warms up your body 
  • Increases circulation
  • Lubricates the joints
  • Builds strength in your upper body, specifically the arms and shoulders
  • Improves flexibility in your spine and hips
  • Improves overall energy levels 
  • Reduces stress and anxiety

While sun salutations are usually practiced at the beginning of a yoga flow class, these nine to 12 postures make up their own mini-practice. When you’re running short on time, complete two to four rounds for a quick, all-encompassing session.

👇 Get your free Sun Salutation Yoga Sequence PDF

If you’re already a subscriber you can find the PDF in the sequence library! If you are a new subscriber, the link will be sent in your welcome email.

sun salutation for beginners

While sun salutations may seem intimidating at first, they can be adapted to suit practitioners of all levels. By incorporating sun salutations into your yoga practice, you can reap the physical and mental benefits while honoring the rich tradition of this classic sequence.

Beginners bring a unique challenge. They know absolutely nothing, or close to it, and many have limited range of motion, i.e. their tight and less flexible.

Keeping these two obstacles in mind:

  • Move through the sequence at a slower pace.
  • Allow ample time to focus on form and breath.
  • Skip the jump backs and chaturangas and opt for plank and cobra instead. 

Additional alternatives include:

  • Keep the knees bent during the forward fold and downdog.
  • Introduce and incorporate blocks and other props to support them.

By starting with these modifications and gradually building strength and flexibility, beginners can master the sequence at their own pace. As they progress, they can adjust the various asanas to match their abilities.

sun salutation variations

Regardless of ability, there are plenty of variations on the traditional Sun Salutations. You can grab those variations in the Yoga Sequencing Society, or if you’d like to get an entire class designed around Sun Salutations, get your class kit here.

There are variations that build upon the traditional sequence, adding in additional asanas and transitions. If you’re looking to increase the challenge, you can incorporate postures requiring greater strength like planks and chaturangas as well as jump backs and jump forwards. These particular asanas require arm, shoulder, and core strength to safely execute.

Or you can focus more on range of motion (flexibility). Practice three-legged downdog and lunges to engage your hip flexors and glutes, and increase your range of motion in your hamstrings and hip joints. 

Finally, if you like to defy gravity, there are sun salutation sequences that incorporate arm balances and inversions such as jumping from downdog to balancing in crow (bakasana) or transitioning from downdog to a handstand.

If you’re interested in practicing with inversions, do it with the guidance of a qualified teacher.

energy flows where attention goes sun saluation quote

how to do a classical sun salutation in yoga

Since this flow is designed to energize you, practice sun salutations in the morning to wake up or at the beginning of yoga class to warm up.

To complete one cycle of a sun salutation sequence, you work through the following postures focusing on the inhalation and exhalation for each movement.

You can watch the video to see how to complete this sun salutation version.

1. mountain

Mountain 2020

Start with your feet hips-width distance apart and your weight evenly distributed through the soles of your feet. You can bring your hands together at your chest and take several deep breaths. INHALE and extend your arms overhead.

2. forward bend

EXHALE to forward fold. Hinge at your hips and engage your core to execute the movement. Bend your knees or use a block under your fingers if necessary.

3. halfway lift

INHALE to half-way lift. Lift your chest “half-way” up. Engage your core and strive for a flat back. You can rest your hands on your shins or continue to use a block. Knees can remain bent.

4. plank to chaturanga or the floor

EXHALE to plank/lower to chaturanga or the floor. Place your hands on the floor and walk (or jump) your feet back to a high push-up. Then using arm strength, lower yourself to chaturanga or all the way to the floor.

**After witnessing too many students injure themselves in chaturanga, and not be properly positioned for updog, I prefer to teach plank->floor->cobra.

5. updog or cobra

INHALE to updog or cobra. Because of hand and shoulder placement, typically chaturanga flows to updog and cobra follows lowering to the floor.

6. downdog

EXHALE to downdog. From updog, tuck your toes and use your arms to push back, shifting your hips to the air. Press your chest toward your thighs. From cobra, release your chest to the floor, push back to your knees, and push into downdog.

7. halfway lift

**This is the way I teach it, however there are multiple ways to get from downdog to standing.

INHALE bend your knees, exhale and walk (or jump) to the front of your mat. INHALE and lift your chest up half-way.

8. forward bend

EXHALE and release from the half-way lift to a forward fold. Bend your knees or use a block under your fingers if necessary.

9. mountain

Mountain 2020

INHALE to mountain. Bend your knees and slowly roll to standing. **I do not teach reverse swan dive because most cannot do it with the proper muscle engagement and risk injuring themselves.

final thoughts on sun salutations

In conclusion, sun salutations are both a timeless and core practice in yoga asana classes that can be adapted to fit any skill level. By practicing mindfully, listening and honoring your body (as well as your students) you can teach the ideal flow for every class.


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Shannon with Purple Lotus Yoga
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