Sun Salutation A, The First Three Moves
Surya Namaskara A, Part 1
This is an introduction to Sun Salutation A. It is the first of a series of articles on sun salutations. My intent is to help you learn to feel your body while learning the movements at the same time. Ideally they'll leave you feeling "peacefully energized" as opposed to feeling "worn out."
What is a sun salutation anyway?
It's a series of yoga postures that you move through in time with your breath. As you inhale you do one move, as you exhale you do another.
Why do them?
You can use sun salutations as a way to warm up your body. You can use them to warm up for any type of exercise but normally yogi's use them as a way of preparing for a yoga practice.
Then again they can be a yoga practice in their own right. Sun salutations can contain 10 or more moves and generally people do them from 3 to 5 times though if doing them for endurance you can do 20 or 25 or more. The truly devoted (or crazy) do them 108 times.
Do You Think Too Much?
Another reason people do sun salutations is that they feel good. They can help to strengthen or keep you strong and they can also help flexibility. But perhaps the most important thing for a lot of people with restless minds is that sun salutations are a movement based yoga exercise.
Holding a yoga pose and being still there is a lot of time to think… unless you learn to direct your mind within your body. For people who are naturally restless sun salutations offer the opportunity to not think because you are absorbed in the movements. And the movements can be challenging but the feeling afterwards, of not having thought about work, family or money problems... the feeling of being absorbed in an exercise that moves your body and makes you sweat and breath afterwards, well that's what can keep yogis coming back for more.
But even if you don't a restless mind or needless worries, sun salutations can still feel good.
Ashtanga Yoga Style Sun Salutations
The type of sun salutations that I like to do (when I do them) are taken from the ashtanga yoga system. There are two sun salutations in ashtanga yoga, called A and B Sun Salutations respectively. The B sun salutation is slightly longer than the A version and has three poses that the A Sun Salutation does not have. I'll focus on the first few movements of Sun Salutation A in this article.
It has 10 movements in all, five inhales and 5 exhales although normally the sixth position is held for 5 breaths. This held position is perhaps one of the more well known poses in yoga, Downward Dog.
To give you a context for the conversation that follows, here are the ten movements of the ashtanga yoga sun salutation. I've numbered the moves for two reasons. One so that you can see that there are ten movements. Two so that you can see that all of the odd numbered movements or positions are done with an inhale while the even numbered movements are done with an exhale.
When actually learning the sun salutations, I'd suggest one way of talking yourself through the movements is to count them, i.e. 1-inhale and lift the arms, 2-exhale and bend forwards, 3 inhale and reach forwards…
You'll also see in the picture below, the inhaling movements I've colored in red and the exhales in blue.
(you might think of inhales as warming and exhales as cooling or relaxing).
To begin, stand with your feet together, knees straight and arms by your sides.
- Inhale and pull your head back and up. Reach your ribs and arms up, away from your pelvis.
- Exhale and bend forwards touching your hands to the floor. Bend your spine forwards.
- Inhale and reach your head and ribs forwards. Straighten your spine.
- Exhale and step (or jump) your feet back so that your shoulders are just ahead of your wrists with your elbows straight. Bend your elbows to ninety degrees keeping your legs, pelvis, ribcage and head in one straight line.
- Inhale and straighten your arms. Pull your chest forwards and up away from your pelvis. At the same time push your pelvis down and reach your legs back with your knees straight.
- Tuck your toes under. Exhale and push your pelvis up and back away from your hands using your arms and ribcage. Keep your knees straight and push your heels into the ground. You can hold this pose for 5 breaths.
- Inhale and step (or jump) your feet between your hands. When your feet are between your hands reach your chest and head forwards as you did in movement 3.
- Exhale and bend your spine forwards.
- Inhale and stand up while reaching your arms up to the sky. Reach your ribs and shoulders up, away from your pelvis.
- Exhale and lower your arms to your sides.
Reaching your arms up
Even when teaching advanced practitioners, I'll prepare them for sun salutations by beginning with feeling their breath. By this I mean actually feeling the muscles that you are breathing with.
When doing sun salutations I often teach costal breathing. That means moving expanding your ribcage to inhale and contracting the ribcage to exhale. The muscles that you can use to cause your ribcage to expand and contract are called the "intercostals." These muscles are located in the spaces between each set of ribs.
When doing costal breathing you may be able to feel your intercostals contracting and relaxing but you are also more likely to be able to feel your ribs expanding and contracting.
To help the top of your chest expand when inhaling you can pull your head back and up. This action helps to straighten your neck and the upper vertebrae of your thoracic spine. That in turn can cause your upper chest to open. From there, as you continue to inhale you can focus on lifting your ribs away from your pelvis.
Once you get the feeling of this action you can focus on spreading your shoulder blades as you inhale. Why? So that you use your serratus anterior muscles to stabilize your shoulder blade with respect to your ribcage. You can then use this same action to lead your arms as you move them forwards and then up over your head.
Feeling Your Whole Body
Usually I teach people how to breath while seated because its easier to focus on feeling your ribs, spine and pelvis while seated. Usually when I teach standing yoga poses the first thing that I teach students is how to activate their feet.
The video goes over this in detail but basically to activate your feet stand with your feet hip width and parallel with your knees bent. Keep your knees bent, roll your shins in. You may notice that you arches collapse slightly as you do so. Slowly roll your shins out so that your knees face forwards.
Use your feet as opposed to your hip muscles to roll your shins out.
Repeat this a few times and then as you roll your shins out focus on pressing the outer edge of your foot into the floor. Then focus on pressing the base of your big toe into the floor. You'll have to pull it back a little and then push down. The feeling is like you are gripping the floor with your feet. One further action that you can do is pull up on the center of the outer arch. You'll feel a line of pull u the outside of your shin as you do this.
Once you've learned to activate your feet see if you can minimize the effort that you use to do this action.
Next you can then focus on moving your pelvis. As you roll your shins out, tilt your pelvis back so that your tail bone moves down and your pubic bone moves up. Tilt your pelvis back far enough so that your lumbar spine straightens. Look for a nice open feeling (a feeling of "fullness") in you lower back. Then let your pelvis roll forwards as you roll your shins in.
Try to make the two actions work together so that you tilt your pelvis back as you roll your shins out. Actually, make it feel as if rolling your shins out causes your pelvis to roll back. Likewise let the movement of your feet and shins cause your pelvis to tilt forwards aswel.
Next practice holding your feet active and your pelvis rolled back. Then as you inhale, pull your head back, open your chest, spread your shoulder blades and lift your arms. Then slowly lower them while you exhale.
Bending Your Spine and Bending Forwards
Feeling Pelvis, Spine and Ribs
After lifting your arms, the next two movements in Sun Salutation A are done while bent forwards. Your first bend forwards and place your hands on the floor or your legs. While doing this you bend your spine forwards. Next you bend your spine backwards and reach your ribs and head forwards.
Generally whenever I do sun salutations or teach them I try to emphasize using the inhale to create space in the body. Make you body feel Big, Open and Long when you inhale. Imagine expanding like a balloon being blown up. But do it slowly and smoothly so that you feel your whole body as you become bigger.
While exhaling the focus, in most instances can be on relaxing, but again, slow and smooth. Sink down into the earth. In the second movement if you keep your legs straight you can allow your head, ribs and arms to relax and hang towards the ground. Then as you inhale you can expand by pulling your ribs and head forwards, away from your pelvis and also away from the ground.
Now you can focus on simply relaxing your head and ribcage down while exhaling into position 2 or you can consciously bend your spine forwards. In movement 3 you can then consciously bend your spine backwards while tilting your pelvis forwards at the same time.
So that you can learn to feel your spine and pelvis its time to sit down again and that's how this video starts, on the floor so that you can practice tilting your pelvis forwards and backwards and then so that you can practice feeling your lumbar and thoracic spine as you bend then backwards and forwards.
The idea of these exercise is to move your pelvis and spine slowly so that you devleop control and so that you can learn to feel your pelvis, spine and ribs. Another thing that you can do as you are bending your spine backwards is to focus on lifting and expanding the front of your ribcage. Then let your ribs sink down as you exhale.
Some Modifications For Sun Salutations
If you have very tight hamstrings (those are the muscles at the back of your thighs) then bending forwards while standing (or sitting for that matter) will be difficult. So that you can get used to the "flow" of a sun salutation, bend your knees when bending forwards.
Although in the above section I said to bend your spine forwards in the second movement, you don't want to bend forwards to much or else you could hurt your lower back. So, bend your knees to begin with.
Another problem you may have is while reaching forwards in movement 3. For this action, first make sure that your feet are active. Then focus on using your gluteus maximus to stabilize your pelvis relative to your legs. In particular try to activate your side glutes.
(You can practice activating these muscles by pushing the top of your thigh bones outwards, away from each other, and then relaxing.)
If you have your pelvis stabilized relative to your legs, your spinal erectors then have a good foundation from which to bend your spine backwards.
Now whether you focus on reaching your ribs forwards, as you inhale or on bending your spine backwards, in either case your spinal erectors will activate.
As you get more and more experience with sun salutations you may find that you can use your side glutes and spinal erectors to help stretch your hamstrings. The key in this instance is to focus on tilting your pelvis forwards. For extra leverage keep your hands on the floor or grab your ankles
A Mini Sun Salutation
With what I've shown you so far you have enough information to do a mini-sun salutation.
This variation has only six movements as follows:
Stand with your feet hip width and knees slightly bent. Activate your feet and tilt your pelvis back. Keep your feet active for all of the following movements.
- Pull your head back and up and open the top of your chest. Spread your shoulder blades and move your arms forwards and up over your head. (You can also move them out to the sides if your prefer!)
- Press your thighs bones away from each other and tilt your pelvis forwards. Place your hands on your legs or on the floor. As you do so allow your spine to bend forwards. Gradually relax your thighs.
- Reactivate your thighs. Tilt your pelvis forwards and bend your spine backwards. Pull your head up relative to your ribcage. Make the back of your neck feel long. Your hands can lift off of the floor or stay on the floor if you are flexible enough.
- Relax your thighs and bend forwards.
- Re-engage your thighs and stand up. As you stand spread your shoulder blades and reach your arms upwards.
- Lower your arms.
One other option while doing these six movements is to shift your weight in time with your breath. I mention this in the third and fourth videos, but once you've learned to activate your feet you can also practice shifting your weight forwards as you inhale and then back as you exhale.
When shifting your weight forwards, position your center of gravity so that the fronts of your feet and toes press down with equal pressure.
When shifting your weight backwards center your weight over the middle of your foot, half way between your heel and forefoot. Your heel and forefoot should press down with equal pressure. Of if you want to work on your balance control, try balancing on your heels when exhaling.
And so for each of the odd numbered moves above, shift your weight forwards, even when bend forwards, and for each of the even numbers moves, shift your weight backwards.
Of keep your weight centered over your feet at all times.