Ask any yoga teacher about their background in learning flow (vinyasa) yoga and they will likely refer to the sun salutations as where it started. For many of us, the sun salutation (whether it be the traditional hatha sun salutation or the ashtanga based variation of Surya Namaskar A), was our first experience of sequenced movement linked with breath. Consequently a lot of the vinyasa based classes utilize moves from the sun salutations as the backbone from which other sequences branch from. However, in the context of all things taught in yoga, I personally consider sun salutations to be one of the more advanced things to learn, and biomechanically it has some risks for some individuals and the novice student.
In consideration of Surya Namaskar A (as it is the more popular of the sun salutations in flow classes these days), a major concern is the repetition of forward bends, with straight legs, from standing. When you consider that at least 50% of us strain to touch our toes due to tight posterior leg muscles, it lends that many of us compensate forward bending by flexing the spine (thoracic, lumbar, and sacrum regions), and too much of this can lead to injury in the ligaments and discs of the spine.
Another strong consideration of safety in Surya Namaskar A is the transition from plank to four-limbed staff pose and then into upward facing dog. Transitioning between these postures requires a great amount of core and scapular/shoulder stability strength. For many of us moving from plank to upward facing dog without adequate shoulder strength could result in straining of the rotator cuff. Also upward facing dog imposes a great deal of lumbar extension and makes it harder to access the core stability strength required to stabilize through the lumbar spine – another potential risk zone for injury.
Jump backs and forward hops in the transition from standing bend to downward dog and back is another advanced piece to Surya Namaskar A that many people would struggle to do safely, if at all. The dynamic nature of this move requires a tremendous amount of stability control through the core muscles, shoulders, and arms. As well, the movement of hopping feet forward to hands is anatomically awkward to some individuals for reasons such as hip and knee inflexibility or abdominal and chest girth. So if you are new to sun salutations, it’s comforting to know these jumps are totally optional and easily modified.
In the video below I demonstrate how to modify Surya Namaskar A to reduce the risks mentioned above. For example you will see I bend my knees in and out of the forward bends, step backs instead of jump backs, slower pacing with the breath sequencing, plank lowering from the knees instead of the toes, and the use of the lower cobra pose instead of upward facing dog.
Please note – having modified some of the risk zones of the original sun salutation, still does not make this a beginner sequence. The truth of the matter is that it’s not just about your experience level in yoga that makes this modified version applicable. Some of us, no matter our years of experience with yoga, may not be comfortable doing the full version (consider old injuries, arthritis, unique anatomies), while others may be physically fit from prior athletic training and have no difficulty doing the full version right away. So whether you are new to yoga, a seasoned yogi, or just needing a gradual start, this video demonstrates a safer, more accessible version to try. (This modified sequence also serves as a nice way to warm up into the full version).