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Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation A

Simple tips for learning and remembering the ten postures of this breath-linked series of yoga poses

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Sun Salutation A

Sun Salutation A (Surya Namaskara) has ten "breath-linked" movements. Each of these movements is done with either an inhale or an exhale.

In the picture, odd numbered moves (red) are done while inhaling. Think of the inhales as the "working phase" of the breath.

Even numbered moves (blue) are done whil exhaling. Think of exhales as the "relaxing phase" of the breath.

Here's an overview.

The 10 Steps of Sun Salutation A

Start in a standing position with:

While inhaling pull your ribs and head up and away from your pelvis.

While exhaling, relax your head forwards and allow your ribs to sink downwards. Make both actions smooth and slow.

  1. As you inhale lift your arms up to the ceiling. Reach your ribs and arms up. Look up (and make your neck feel long) or look straight ahead.
  2. As you exhale bend forwards and place your hands on your legs or on the floor. Look down or back between your legs.
  3. Inhale and move your ribs and head forwards and up, away from your pelvis. Look forwards as you do so.
  4. While exhaling, place your hands on the floor and step your feet back so that your legs and body form one straight line. Continue to exhale while bending your elbows and lowering your body towards the floor. If possible, stop when your elbows are bent 90 degrees. Position your upper body so that your elbows are over your wrists (your forearms are vertical.)
  5. Position the tops of your feet on the floor so that your toes point back. Straighten your arms and lift your ribcage so that your spine bends backwards. Allow your pelvis to sink down. Use your arms to help lift your ribcage and pull it forwards, away from your pelvis. Make your legs feel like they are reaching back.
  6. Shift your feet so that your toes point forwards. Keeping your legs straight push your pelvis up and back. Position your arms and spine so that they form one straight line angling back and up from your hands. Hold this position for five breaths. After your fifth inhale, exhale and look forwards to the point between your hands.
  7. Inhale and move your feet so that they are between your hands. Reach your ribs forwards and look forwards all on the same breath.
  8. Exhale and bend forwards, looking down or back between your legs.
  9. Stand up as you inhale, reaching your arms up over your head.
  10. Exhale and lower your arms.

To make learning these steps easier you can break Sun Salutation A down into a series of mini-sun salutations.

Mountain Pose

In the first (and last) position of sun salutation A you stand with your feet together.

Notice your heels, forefeet and toes and feel how they press down into the ground.

While holding mountain pose,

To lengthen, pull your head back and up and lift your ribs. To relax, reverse these actions.

Lifting Your Arms

Once you have the hang of lengthening your spine and relaxing it,

Continue to lengthen your spine as you lift your arms up and make your arms feel long as you do so. Slowly try to touch the ceiling as you inhale and let your bones relax down to the ground while exhaling. Read about activating your trapezius muscle if you have trouble touching your hands together over your head.

Bending Forwards

Next bend forwards and place your hands on your knees or on the floor. Bend your spine forwards.

As you inhale straighten your spine and move your ribs away from your pelvis.

If you can't keep your hands on the floor as you do this, reach them back and make them feel long as you do so.

Slowly relax and allow your spine to bend forwards as you exhale.

Mini Sun Salutation A

Now you can practice your first mini-sun salutation. From standing:

  1. Inhale your arms up.
  2. Exhale and bend forwards
  3. Inhale and reach your spine forwarss
  4. Exhale and bend forwards
  5. Inhale, stand and reach your arms up
  6. Exhale and lower your arms.
When you can do all of these moves in one smooth flow, then move on to the next stage of learning Sun Salutation A.

(Note that there are 6 steps in the mini sun salute above. Count those steps to yourself as you do the movements.)

Stepping or Jumping Back to Chaturanga Dandasana

From the "spine reaching forward position" above, place hands on the floor and step your feet back to plank. Bend your elbows and lower to chaturanga dandasana or simply slowly lay down. Try to do this smoothly on one exhale.

Then stand back up and repeat.

Inhale reach your spine forwards, exhale and step back and lay down. Stand back up again.

Lifting to Upward Dog

For the next exercise, start from the laying down position from the above step. You can lift up into upward facing dog or if that is too uncomfortable replace it with either cobra pose or locus pose.

Focus on using your spinal erectors to bend your spine backwards.

Inhale lift into upward dog, and then lay back down again. Repeat this a few times.

Downward Dog

Adding on to the previous exercise, I'm going to add an extra step which isn't normally included in a sun salutation. Normally you exhale back into downward dog both in Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. Instead from upward facing dog, exhale to cat pose and then from there inhale into downward dog.

When inhaling into downward dog focus on using your arms and spine to push your hips back and up. (In the first movement you reached your arms and spine up. In this movement you can try to create the same feeling. But since your hands are on the floor you can focus on pushing your pelvis back away from your hands.)

The next sun salutation A mini-sequence is as follows:

From laying down,

After repeating this a few times you can experiment with this mini-sequence:

Jumping or Stepping Forwards

The next step is to practice stepping forwards from downward dog.

From downward dog, move your shoulders forwards over your wrists as you exhale. Press your fingers tips into the floor as you do so. Keep your hips high. As you inhale walk or jump your feet forwards, between your hands. On the same inhale reach your spine forwards and lift your hands if you need to. Keep your knees straight.

Step back to downward dog and repeat this a few times.

Next, after reaching your spine forwards, exhale and bend forwards. Then inhale and lift your arms. (Touch the ceiling.) Exhale and lower them to your side.

Practice this whole sequence from downward dog. The action a lot of people miss out is "reaching the spine forwards" on the same inhale as they step forwards.

Another Sun Salutation A mini sequence.

From the bent forwards positioin practice the following steps:


If you like the cat pose insertion between up dog and down dog then the sequence will look like this:

Sun Salutation A

Now you can practice the whole of sun salution A. Remember that inhales are odd numbered while exhales are even numbered. There are 10 moves in total so that if you count moves and find that you have more or less than 10 you've made a mistake:

  1. Inhale arms up
  2. Exhale Fold
  3. Inhale Lenghen spine
  4. Exhale to Chaturanga or Laying Down
  5. Inhale Up Dog
  6. Exhale Down Dog (Take an inhale, then exhale shoulders forwards)
  7. Inhale step forwards
  8. Exhale Fold
  9. Inhale stand and reach arms up
  10. Exhale arms to side.

Once you are comfortable with the sequence of moves you can hold down dog for five breaths. Then continue the count as you step forwards (7).

Here's the sequence with cat pose inserted

  1. Inhale arms up
  2. Exhale Fold
  3. Inhale Lenghen spine
  4. Exhale to Chaturanga or Laying Down
  5. Inhale Up Dog
  6. Exhale Cat Pose
  7. Inhale Down Dog
  8. Exhale Shoulders Forwards
  9. Inhale step forwards
  10. Exhale Fold
  11. Inhale stand and reach arms up
  12. Exhale arms to side.

Note that the numbers are a handy way to check your moves when you are first learning sun salutation A (or its variation).

If you like you can hold any of the poses for a few breaths. Just make sure that you move into the next pose with the "defined" breath phase (either an inhale or an exhale as required.)

Breathing and Staying Relaxed

One way of approaching sun salutation A is to stay as relaxed as possible as you move. Generally, the more relaxed you are the more you can focus on feeling your body. You can notice excess tension and release it. You can then work on using the minimum amount of effort to do what you are trying to do. This can be especially true if you want to feel relaxed and energized after you practice instead of worn out and tired.

So that it is easier to use your breath, focus on gradually lengthening as you inhale, in whatever pose you are doing or moving into. Relax as much as you can while exhaling while still holding the shape of the yoga posture that you are doing.

Published: 2011 01 22
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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