The asanas in this group form one of the most popular, core practices of yoga. The name comes from surya, the sun, and namaskara, expressing homage or greeting. The asanas in this group have many physical benefits and also double as a way of honoring the positive, life-giving light of the sun. Through surya namaskara, the practitioner internalizes the sun’s beneficial, vitalizing energy, enlivening his or her body, mind, and spirit.
Scientific research corroborates the traditional wisdom on surya namaskara’s benefits. Even if you perform no other positions, ten or twenty minutes of surya namaskara every day will reduce stress and increase your overall physical health. Researchers have found a difference between performing this sequence slowly and quickly. The advantage of going through the positions several times quickly is similar to other aerobic exercises and improves cardiovascular and respiratory health. It has tremendous overall benefits, promotes weight loss, improves digestion, strengthens the abdominal muscles, reduces stress and anxiety, increases flexibility, tones the muscles in the arms and legs, strengthens the back, makes you look young, and, for women, promotes a regular menstrual cycle.
There are twelve poses to be performed as part of a single sequence—seven initial poses, which are then repeated in reverse, coming back to the original pose. You’ll see what this means as we go through the poses one by one and learn how they all flow together.
1. Prayer Pose
Begin by standing with the feet together. The back, neck, and head should be held straight, so that your entire body is aligned. Join the palms of your hands at the level of your heart in a gesture of respect. Breathe normally, in a relaxed way. Allow any tension in the body to relax, and feel the weight of your body where your feet touch the ground. Gently follow the breath as it goes in and out, just allowing your attention to rest on the the movements of the breath. You may close your eyes or keep them open, maintaining a gentle gaze and looking ahead.
Pranamasana establishes a restful, meditative mindset at the beginning of your session. It induces relaxation and brings your concentration within, allowing you to feel calm and centered.
Benefits: Pranamasana relaxes the mind, enhances focus, and gives a sense of balance to body and mind.
2. Raised Arms Pose
From the standing position of prayer pose, raise both arms high above your head as you inhale. The arms should be separated, held apart at shoulder width. Arch your arms, head, and torso backwards in a gentle curve, so that you feel the muscles in your abdomen stretching.
Benefits: This pose stretches and tones the abdominal muscles. It engages and strengthens muscles in the arms, shoulders, and back. Specifically, this helps improve various spinal problems and stiffness and tension in the shoulders and back. Hasta uttanasana increases lung capacity by expanding the ribcage and opening up the chest. It also improves digestion by stretching abdominal organs.
3. Hands-to-Feet Pose
As you exhale, bend forward and touch the floor with the fingers or palms of your hands on either side of your feet. Do not bend your knees: keep your legs straight. If you can, touch your knees with your head. But this will be a challenge to accomplish at first, and you may even have difficulty bringing your hands all the way to the floor.
It is important to remember, in this as in every yoga position, not to try to force your body into a position that it does not want to hold. Yoga is not about the mechanical repetition of positions. It is about bringing the mind and body into harmony with one another. As your mind becomes more and more attuned to your body, you will become aware of the messages that the body is communicating to you. If you experience any pain or strain while attempting a position, that means your body is sending you a clear signal: No, don’t force it, ease up a bit. So listen to these messages and don’t push yourself any farther than is comfortable. If you can’t make it all the way, just bend forward as far as you can go and no farther. In time, your flexibility will improve.
Benefits: Padahastasana stretches and lengthens the muscles in your back and legs, especially your hamstrings. It allows your shoulders and neck to relax. It also benefits the wrists and can improve the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. It improves digestion by targeting abdominal problems and can help relieve constipation. It also improves circulation.
4. Ashva Sanchalanasana / Equestrian Pose
From hands-to-feet pose, with the palms of your hands on the floor, stretch your right leg back as far as it can go while inhaling. Simultaneously bend your left knee without moving your left foot from its position. Bend your back and neck, so that the head is arched backwards and your eyes gaze directly above you. As you achieve the final position, your fingertips should remain touching the floor, shoulder-width apart on either side of your left foot.
Benefits: This position stretches, strengthens, and improves flexibility in the leg muscles. It stretches the abdominal organs, stimulating their functioning.
5. Downward-Facing Dog Pose
From equestrian pose, bring the left foot back and place it beside the right foot as you exhale. At the same time, straighten your arms and legs and push your butt up towards the ceiling. Lower your head between your arms, so that your ears are aligned with your inner arm. Press the heels of your feet to the floor. Take some time to breathe deeply and let yourself feel the stretch in your calves, thighs, shoulders, and arms.
Again, it is important not to force yourself into position, so as to avoid injury. Get your body as close as it can comfortably get into downward-facing dog, and no closer.
Benefits: Downward-facing dog stretches the legs, arms, shoulders, and spine, strengthening the muscles there. By pressing the heels to the ground, you stretch the calf muscles, which can benefit conditions such as tendinitis of the foot. It improves digestion and the immune system and stimulates circulation. The downward position of the head increases blood flow to the sinuses. It also energizes the body and mind and helps reduce stress.
6. Eight-point Salutation
This position is so called because eight parts of the body touch the floor and the body is positioned as if prostrating. From downward-facing dog, lower yourself to the floor so that your knees, chest, hands, and chin are all touching the floor. The toes are bent, resting on the floor. Your butt and abdomen should be raised into the air, and your shoulders touch the backs of your hands. The eyes look forward.
When you move into ashtanga namaskara, there is no inhaling or exhaling. Instead, hold the breath outside for a few seconds as you maintain this position—that is, move into eight-point salutation from downward-facing dog after exhaling.
Benefits: The eight-point salutation strengthens the muscles in the arms, legs, and chest, and helps loosen up the upper part of the spine, flexing the neck and the area between the shoulder blades.
7. Bhujangasana / Cobra Pose
Lower your hips to the floor. As you inhale, straighten your arms somewhat but keep them slightly bent. Arch your back and lift your chest from the floor. Bend your head back, gazing upwards with your eyes. Only lift your chest and arch your back as far as they can go without lifting your hips and pelvic area from the floor; unless your spine is very flexible, your elbows will probably remain somewhat bent. The feet may be either lie flat on the floor, or balance on bent toes. Squeeze your buttocks to remove pressure from your lower back.
Benefits: Cobra pose increases flexibility in the spine, helping to relieve stiffness in the lower back especially. It stretches the muscles in your chest and abdomen. It stimulates abdominal organs, in particular improving digestion and helping to alleviate constipation. It elevates your mood and relieves stress. For women, it helps promote regular menstruation.
Contraindications: If you have spinal problems or pain in your back, you may find this position a bit uncomfortable or painful, so don’t try to force yourself into it. Take it easy on spine, keeping your elbows bent, and do not arch your back to the point of discomfort.
8. Downward-Facing Dog Pose
As you exhale, resume downward-facing dog just as before, once again lifting your buttocks towards the ceiling, pushing your heels to the floor, and lowering your head between your arms. Starting with step 8, you will be performing the same sequence in reverse, so the positions will be the same as described above.
9. Equestrian Pose
From downward-facing dog, bend your left leg and bring it forward so that the foot rests between your hands. Resume the equestrian pose as before, with your left leg forward and your right leg stretched back. (When you repeat the entire twelve-position sequence, you will alter (4) and (9) by keeping your right leg forward and your left leg stretched back.)
10. Wide-Angle Pose
Sit with your legs out in front of you, and lean back slightly on your hands. Spread your legs out to a rough 90-degree angle, or as close as you can get. Press down and lift your butt from the ground and move it forward, so your legs are spread a bit farther apart.
Press your outer thighs against the floor, rotating them a bit. Lift your toes up and stretch the soles of your feet. Putting your hands between your legs, walk them forward slowly as you lean forward. Take it easy here—this gives quite a stretch to your groin, and you don’t want to injure yourself!
Lean forward as far as you can without pain or strain, and no farther. If you’re very flexible, you can lean all the way forward and grab your toes with your fingers. Hold your final position for a minute or two, breathing slowly.
Benefits: Stretches the inside of the legs, the hamstrings, and the groin. This pose also stretches the spine and increases flexibility in the hips.
Surya namaskara can be performed quickly and slowly, depending on your purpose. If you go through the sequence slowly, then hold each position for fifteen to thirty cycles of the breath, allowing your muscles and mind to relax fully. Doing surya namaskara slowly has profound benefits for relaxing body and mind and induces a deep meditative state and heightened awareness of the body. In addition to developing meditative awareness and integration of body and mind, this can also have a tremendous effect on reducing stress and anxiety, alleviating depression, and regulating your mood, which will help you remain calm and happy throughout the day.
Performed quickly, surya namaskara is a powerful cardiovascular workout that strengthens muscles in the entire body, improves respiratory and circulatory function, and promotes weight loss, in addition to the specific physical benefits of each position. It goes without saying that a healthy amount of exercise is also a huge mood boost, and also helpful for reducing stress. But in general, we could say that going through the sequence slowly has meditative and mental benefits, while going quickly benefits the body.