Sun Salutation Illustrated Step-by-Step Instructions

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Sun salutations are a key part of any vinyasa flow style yoga practice. You may not even realize you are doing them, but many teachers use them as a warm-up at the beginning of class or even base whole classes around them.

If you learn this sequence, it will really help you if you ever want to practice at home, since one of the biggest obstacles to doing yoga on your own is figuring out what to do when you first get on your mat. Sun salutations are often a great choice.

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Watch Now: A Beginner's Guide to Sun Salutations

The Breath

The breath is a very important part of this sequence. Movement from one pose to the next is always done in conjunction with either an inhalation or exhalation of the breath. You can control the pace of the sequence by altering the number of breaths in each pose. Make sure to move to the next pose on the correct breath.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Follow these simple instructions to start practicing sun salutations at home. Warm up with a few Cat-Cow stretches first.

Begin in Mountain Pose

Tadasana and Urdhva Hastasana

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To begin, bring yourself to the front edge of your mat in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with the hands in Anjali Mudra at your heart. This is traditionally where you might stop and set an intention for your practice if you choose to.

Inhale. Bring the arms out to the sides and up to the ceiling to join your palms above your head in raised arms pose (Urdhva Hastasana). Lift your gaze to your thumbs and allow your shoulders to naturally extend upward.

Uttanasana to Flat Back

Uttanasana to Flat Back

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Exhale. Release your arms to either side and fold over your legs (as if you were doing a swan dive into a swimming pool) to come into a forward bend (Uttanasana). Alternatively, you can keep your palms together and pass them in front of your heart as you fold forward.

Place your fingertips in line with your toes. Flatten your palms, if possible, or tent your fingers. Place your hands on blocks if they don't reach the floor when your legs are straight. You can also bend the knees a little if that makes you more comfortable.

Inhale. Lift your head as you come to a flat back (Ardha Uttanasana), coming onto your fingertips or placing your hands on your shins, whichever allows you to get your back really flat.

Plank Pose

Plank Pose

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Exhale. Plant your palms and step or jump back to a plank position. In plank, make sure your shoulders are over your wrists and your butt is neither sticking up nor drooping down. A straight line from the crown of your head to your heels is what you are going for. Take an inhale here.

As an alternative for more experienced yoga students, you can plant the palms in Uttanasana, jump back directly to Chaturanga Dandasana on an exhalation, and go through your vinyasa from there.

Knees, Chest, and Chin or Chaturanga Dandasana

Knees, Chest, and Chin or Chaturanga Dandasana

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If You're a Beginner

Exhale. Lower to your knees, chest, and chin. Lower your chest and chin down to the floor, landing your shoulders right over your hands. Keep your butt high and your elbows hugging your ribs.

For More Advanced Yogis

Exhale. Shift your shoulders forward a few inches and lower down to four-limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana). Bringing the shoulders slightly in front of the wrists before lowering helps you get the alignment right in the final pose. If you are getting tired, lower to your knees since doing Chaturanga incorrectly can injure your shoulders over time.

Cobra or Upward Facing Dog

Cobra or Upward Facing Dog

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If You're a Beginner

Inhale. Come forward to a low Cobra (Bhudjangasana). Anchor your pelvis and the tops of your feet to the floor, but try not to press into your hands as you come up into the backbend.

For More Advanced Yogis

Inhale. Roll over your toes (if possible) to come into an Upward Facing Dog. Bend your elbows out to the sides at first in order to bring your shoulders down and away from your ears. Then straighten your arms. Make sure your legs are straight and your knees are lifted off the floor.

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog

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ExhalePush back to Downward Facing Dog. You can come through hands and knees on the way if necessary. Stay here a few breaths (or more) if you need to take a break. If you are going ​at a brisk pace, just stay one breath.

Step or Jump to a Forward Bend

Step or Jump to a Forward Bend (Flat Back)

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Exhale. Step the right foot next to the right hand and then bring the left foot to join it in standing forward bend (Uttansana). You may also choose to jump forward instead. To do this, bend the knees on an exhalation and jump your feet to meet your hands.

Try to land with your toes in line with your fingertips. Inhale up to a flat back and then exhale back to Uttanasana.

Finish the Sun Salutation

Sun Salutation (Mountain Pose)

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Inhale. Lift your arms out to the sides and up, reversing the swan dive to return to raised arms pose. Exhale. Come to stand in mountain pose with your hands in a prayer position at the heart

Common Mistakes

There are a lot of moving parts to the sun salutation sequence, which can make it easy to break good form and place stress on the joints or cause injury. Be extra mindful of these poses, in particular.

Misaligning Plank Pose

Core strength and engagement are crucial to maintaining a neutral spine in Plank. Avoid collapsing into the shoulders or sagging in your hips by actively pressing the floor away from you with your hands as you pull your abdominals in. Try adjusting your hand and foot placement to hold you steady. You should also avoid tilting your head up or down—your neck should be in line with the rest of your body.

Collapsing Into Chaturanga

Chaturanga Dandasana is one of the trickiest poses to master. Remember to keep your elbows hugged in close and only lower about halfway or three-quarters of the way down to avoid collapsing into a "banana back." If you're still building core and upper body strength, use the knees-chest-chin method to lower yourself down before transitioning to Upward Facing Dog.

Dropping the Head Back in Upward Dog

The key to a well-aligned spine in Upward Facing Dog is to avoid dropping your head back, which compresses the cervical spine at the back of the neck. It's better to stay lower to the ground, similar to Cobra Pose to ensure length in your spine.

Rounding the Spine in Downward Dog

A common cue for Downward Dog is to straighten the legs and press the heels to the floor. But the problem with that is it can cause a tendency to round the spine, especially if the hamstrings are tight and it's difficult to straighten the legs. To achieve the desired V-shape in the pose, rather than a U-shape, bring a slight bend into the knees. Maintaining a neutral spine is more ideal than striving for straightened legs and heels touching the floor.

Modifications and Variations

There are a few variations of sun salutations to try, some of which are more challenging than others.

Need a Modification?

Sun salutations can be modified to suit almost any skill level. Try the following modification to learn the flow of the movement pattern before progressing onto more difficult variations:

  1. Begin in a tabletop position on your hands and knees.
  2. Keep your elbows hugged in as you shift your shoulders forward past your wrists.
  3. Lower slowly, either all the way down to your belly or just halfway down if you'd like to stay off of your belly.
  4. On an inhale, press into a small backbend or baby Cobra Pose.
  5. On an exhale, press back to your hands and knees.

If you're pregnant and already have a regular yoga practice, try this prenatal sun salutation sequence as a modification.

Up for a Challenge?

Try sun salutation B (surya namaskar B) or moon salutations (chandra namaskar) to mix things up. Sun salutation B includes challenging poses like Chair Pose (Utkatasana) and grounding poses like Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) while moon salutations include a big heart-opening standing backbend.

Safety and Precautions

Sun salutations should be avoided if you have sustained an injury to your back, arms, or shoulders. Those who have recently had abdominal surgery or are pregnant should ask their doctor about sun salutations, particularly Chaturanga Dandasana, which could put pressure on the abdomen.

If you feel any strain on your lower back in Upward Facing Dog, lower yourself down a bit to a low Cobra or skip it altogether. Simply transition from a low plank to a high plank and then back to Downward Dog. As a bonus, your upper body and core will get an extra workout.

Try It Out

Incorporate sun salutations into any of these yoga workouts:

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  1. Sinha, B, Ray, US, Sinha, TD. Physiological study of Surya Namaskar, a yogic practice. Altern Ther Health Med. 2011;17(3):62-63.