Many introductions to yoga don't always come with the detail you need when you're starting from scratch. And they often don't come with progressions, either. What should you do next, when this set gets too easy, or you want a better stretch just here?
Here, we'll take a basic yoga set, the Salute to the Sun or Sun Salutation, and show some ways to expand on it once you're comfortable with it.
Almost every yoga tradition has some kind of variation of Sun Salutations in its basic syllabus, so if you're thinking of heading over to the local yoga class but you want to have some idea what you're letting yourself in for, this is a good place to start. If you just want to practice at home, or you're looking for a mobilisation session for use between more intense training, well, there's a reason that this basic sequence is the beginning point for the majority of yoga traditions. It's simple, fairly comprehensive and effective.
Let's talk through the basic Sun Salutation sequence. As we go, I'll offer pointers on how to improve the sequence to meet your needs.
1: Stand at the front of your mat or the area you've chosen to practice on. With your feet together but without letting your ankles touch, and stand up as straight as you can. Your hands should be by your sides with your palms facing forwards. This is called Mountain Pose or Tadasana in Sanskrit. Concentrate on keeping your body erect and your neck and back long. Throughout your yoga practice, try to elongate your spine.
Take it further: a mirror can help you correct your posture.
Tip: Imagine a piece of string connecting the crown of your head to the ceiling and pulling you upright. That's the crown of your head, not your forehead!
2: Inhale as you bring your hands up and together over your head, palms together and looking at your hands. Breathe in three stages - first, let your belly expand, then fill your lower chest, then consciously expound your upper chest. When you look up, try to move from your upper chest rather than from your neck -this will help open and relax your chest. Over time it will improve your head and neck posture too. You're now in Raised Arms Pose or Urdhva Hastasana.
Make it easier: raise your arms with the palms facing up and relatively close together to make the movement easier on your rotator cuffs.
Take it further: Raise your arms right out to the sides and begin with palms down, rotating your arms slowly throughout the movement.
Tip: Push your upper chest toward the ceiling.
3: Exhale as you lower your arms outward by your sides and to the floor, bending at the hips and then allowing your back to flex. Ideally you'll put your head against your shins or even your feet. For most of us that's not happening, so simply aim to hang and relax as close to your feet as you can. Don't fall into the trap of bending your upper spine too much to compensate for having a stiff low back: try to keep the bend about the same though out your back. This is Forward Bend or Uttanasana.
Make it easier: inch your hands down your legs to give yourself some support.
Take it further: once you can get your fingertips on the floor, try to reach out further away from yourself forwards, stretching out the muslces under your arms and helping to elongate your spine.
Tip: make sure your hips are the highest part of your body.
4: Inhale as you straighten your spine until you're looking at the floor. Remember you want to bend at the hips, not the waist. Ideally, you'll put your hands flat on the floor in front of your feet. If you don't have the mobility to do that, don't force it. Instead, work to keep your posture good, with your legs straight but not locked and your spine straight, and work on range of motion slowly and naturally. Come up as high as you need to - put your hands on your shins if you need to. What's important is getting a straight back! This is Flat Back pose, or Ardha Uttanasa. Exhale as you return to Forward Bend.
Make it easier: put your hands on your shins to keep the shape correct.
Take it further: think of moving your upper chest towards the floor between your hands.
Tip: check that your hips are level and your back isn't twisting.
5: Exhale as you place your hands or fingertips on the mat and extend your left leg behind you on the mat. Your left leg should be straight but not locked out and the foot should face forward with the heel off the floor. There should be a straight line from your back heel, through your hips and up to your shoulders. Your fingertips or hands should be level with your front foot. This is Low Lunge or Anjaneyasana. Pause here and inhale, then exhale.
Make it easier: bend your back knee until it almost touches the mat.
Take it further: push your back hip forward and down and your back heel backward and down to get more of a stretch in your hips.
Tip: make sure your weight is evenly distributed on your front foot and the shin is vertical.
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6: Inhale as you bring your right leg back until your feet are together. Look at the floor just in front of your hands and make sure that your shoulders are directly over your hands and your back is straight, with a straight line through your shoulders and hips to your heels. Don't let your hips sag or 'pike' - flex to take the strain off your abs. This is the Plank pose, or Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana.
Make it easier: Let your knees remain on the floor.
Take it further: Think about rotating your elbows in, teaching your shoulders to externally rotate into the movement.
Tip: tense your flutes and abs slightly to feel the right position better and stop yourself sagging.
7: Exhale as you lower your weight to your chin, chest and knees. This is called Eight Limbed Pose or Ashtangasana. Keep your hips high and your elbows close to your ribs - ideally, have them touching your ribs.
Take it further: Do low plank instead - slowly bend at the elbows and lower your weight under control.
Tip: Use your back muscles to extend your back as you do the pose, and keep your neck and upper chest in alignment.
8: Inhale as you come into the Cobra or Bhujangasana position. Here, your feet and knees are on the floor, your hips off the floor and your chest and head high. Again, try to elongate your spine and flex backward with the muscles of your back rather than using your hands.
Make it easier: arch your back less, keeping your elbows bent, if you're struggling.
Take it further: do upward facing dog instead, using the same posture but with only your feet and hands on the floor.
Tip: again, use your back muscles. Don't worry too much about how far back you're bending - instead, try to make the curve even through your whole spine, especially in your upper chest.
9: Exhale as you move backward into Downward Facing Dog or Ahdo Mukha Svanasana posture. Rather than push yourself into this posture with your hands, which is hard and not great for the shoulders, pull your hips back and up. Imagine yourself being pulled into the pose by a rope from the ceiling wrapped around your hippos. Once you get the movement, it isn't very difficult. Downward Dog is a good pose for relaxing the muscles on the side of your body as well as your back and hamstrings. You should be a triangle - no forward bend in your back or knees and your hips high.
Make it easier: do Child pose, or Balasana, instead. Put your knees on the floor, leave your hands where they are and rest your forehead on the floor with your hips over your feet, so you're kneeling and bending forward.
Take it further: take one foot off the floor and extend the leg behind you until it forms a straight line with your spine. Switch legs and repeat. Be careful!
Tip: making sure your downward dog is good is a great foundation for further yoga practice.
10: Inhale as you bring your right foot forward into a low lunge. The momentum of changing poses from downward dog should make the transition easy. You should end up in the same low lunge you were in in step 5.
11: Exhale as you bring the left foot back to meet the right and stand up into forward bend posture.
12: Inhale as you stand back up into the beginning posture by raising your arms as you stand, having them meet overhead, then lowering them to your sides.