Sun Salutations are a foundational part of most Hatha or Vinyasa based yoga classes. For that reason, it’s important to ensure you are performing them safely and with correct alignment. Without this, your body can wear and tear over time and develop bad habits that can lead to injury.
In this article, we’ll highlight 5 alignment tips to strengthen your Sun Salutations and perhaps even advance your practice.
Sun Salutations (or Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit) are a sequence of 11-12 poses linked together. They are designed to bring warmth to the body and increase your heart rate. There are two variations of Sun Salutations – Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. In this article, we’ll focus on Sun Salutation A.
Sun Salutation A involves the following sequence: Mountain (upward salute), Forward Fold, Half-way lift, High Plank, Chaturanga, Cobra (or Upward-Facing Dog), Downward Dog, Forward Fold, Half-way lift, Mountain.
Tip 1: Forward Folding
To come into your Forward Fold at the start of a Sun Salutation, you inhale your arms up overhead and then fold forward. One of the common mistakes here is to round your spine as you lower.
The movement of any Forward Fold should begin in the hips. Your teacher may use the cue to “hinge at your hips” or “fold from the hips.” This is to help you lengthen your spine as you fold.
The next time you practice your Forward Fold, try placing your hands on your hips, and your fingers into your hip crease. As you fold, you should feel your belly folding over your fingertips first, before your head and chest come down toward your mat. Another way to practice folding forward is to reach your heart toward the front of the room, leading with a flat back all the way down to your mat.
Tip 2: Half-way lift
Similarly, you want to maintain a long spine as you lift halfway (both at the beginning and end of your Sun Salutation). This is a deceptively challenging thing to do. Its requires your back muscles to activate, your core to engage, and your hamstrings to be open.
One of the common mistakes in Half-way lift is to forget about the shoulders. Students lift halfway up, but their shoulders round forward toward the ground.
The next time you practice your halfway lift, focus on rolling your shoulder blades back to open your chest. It can help to once again bring your hands to your hips or thighs (with your elbows drawing up toward the sky as you lift). At the same time, your low belly should draw in to protect your low back. Reach the top of your head toward the front of the room, gazing down at your mat.
If this is challenging (and it should be!), you can bend your knees. It’s more important to have a long spine and be strengthening your back muscles, than having straight legs.
Tip 3: High Plank (Jump Backs)
More advanced yogis might practice their Sun Salutations by jumping back from Forward Fold to High Plank.
If this is you, make sure you take Chaturanga straight away, don’t hold in High Plank. That’s because our shoulders are designed to facilitate movement. If we jump back, dump all of our weight into them and hold, we may jar the shoulder, or strain the tendons attaching the biceps to the fronts of the arm bones. If we tear these muscles, the injury is a form of tendonitis called biceps tendonitis. This, in turn, may put strain on the rotator cuff, the group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder.
To avoid this, it’s important to keep your movement fluid. If you are jumping back, keep your elbows soft to catch your weight, and continue the movement down through Chaturanga in the same breath.
Tip 4: Chaturanga
Which brings us to Chaturanga – one of the most challenging poses in our Sun Salutations, and therefore one of those practiced most incorrectly.
The first thing to know about Chaturanga is that it is not a push up. If anything, it’s similar a tricep push up, meaning your elbows remain tucked into the side of your body as you lower down to your mat.
To perform Chaturanga safely, place your hands directly under your shoulders with fingers spread wide. Grip down into each fingertip evenly, almost like you are clawing your mat. This will help distribute the weight evenly into you hand, instead of overloading into your palms and wrists.
Keeping your hands where they are, externally rotate your upper arms so that the creases of your elbows face forward. This will ensure your elbows point behind you, and you lower down with your elbows hugging your side body. If your elbows wing out to the side, then you’ll lose the strength in your trapezius muscles (located in your upper back), which are holding your shoulder blades steady on your back.
Your Chaturanga should be a controlled movement. Your core should be activated and your body lowers down as one solid unit. It’s common for students to forget this, and release their hips too soon, rolling their body down to the mat like a wave. Try and avoid this.
If you are still working on your upper body strength, modify your Chaturanga by dropping your knees to the mat. It’s ok! Form over ego. Focus on your elbows tucking in beside your body as you lower, squeezing the core, and trying not to let your hips collapse to the mat too soon.
If you can perform Chaturanga in its full expression (legs lifted, body lowering in one solid unit), start to focus on your feet. More specifically, use your feet to shift your body weight forward. From High Plank, bring your weight into your toes. This will bring your shoulders and chest forward, so that as you lower your arms form a 90-degree angle. This will help build strength and stability in your shoulders.
Tip 5: Cobra or Upward Dog
The final tip we’ll cover is cobra or upward dog – the backbend of your Sun Salutation. If you are doing Sun Salutations toward the beginning of your practice, take it slow and ease into your backbends. Start with Baby Cobra and build your way up to Upward Dog as you bring more heat and pliability to your back muscles.
With backbends, it’s not so important how high you can lift. It’s more about finding an even curvature in your spine, so nothing feels compressed or painful. Focus on reaching your heart forward as you inhale and lift your chest, and draw your shoulder blades in toward each other, but down away from your ears. Keep your elbows tucked in beside your body. You should feel a gentle squeeze in your upper back (where the rhomboids and lower trapezius are located), not up in your neck.
Whichever you’re practicing – Cobra or Upward Dog – ensure the tops of your feet are pressing down into the mat. The entire body is at work here, not just the torso. As you press down into your toenails, lift your knee caps up toward the sky. You’ll feel your entire leg start to activate. Then draw your low belly in (that space between your pubic bone and your navel) to protect your low back. Back bends are actually a lot of work when your alignment is correct!
If you opt for Upward Facing Dog, watch out for these two things: Thighs and Shoulders. Your thighs should lift up off your mat (pressing down into your feet will really help with this). And your shoulders should remain relaxed down away from your ears, while drawing back. Picture your heart shining and radiating light. It can’t do that if your shoulders are rounding and your chest is closed.
One final tip for Upward Dog: Your chest should draw forward in front of your hands. If it doesn’t, then you might not be ready for this advanced variation. Instead, focus on strengthening Cobra and building greater mobility in the spine (remember: form over ego).
By remembering these useful alignment tips, you’ll build a safe and strong physical yoga practice to serve you for years to come.
Come Practice Your Sun Salutations!
Check out Yoga City’s Summer schedule and drop into the studio to work on your practice. We look forward to seeing you on your mat.
Debbie is a Yoga Instructor at Yoga City, Mississauga. She has been practicing yoga since 2008 and completed her 200 hour Hatha Yoga Teacher Training in 2016 with Yoga City. Debbie has a professional background in writing and digital marketing, with a passion for Health, Wellbeing and Personal Growth. She is thrilled to be able to combine both as the Editor of the Yoga City blog. You can follow Debbie on Instagram @yoga.bee