Yoga Basics: Sun Salutation Flows

August 16, 2019

"How you react to challenges on the mat, can translate to your reactions off the mat as well."

Today’s episode is another show in Dr. Nancy’s exercise series. In this show, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, talks about a form of exercise that increases joint flexibility and muscle strength, improves posture and offers dozens of benefits for the whole body, including quieting an anxious mind and helping to de-stress.

Today’s show is on basic yoga, and Dr. Nancy will demonstrate a great way to start, regardless of age or fitness level. Energize both body and mind today with Dr. Nancy as she takes us through two basic yoga flows that can be done anywhere.

Video Highlights

  • 03:56: You CAN do Yoga!
  • 14:51: The Benefits of Yoga
  • 24:22: Sun Salutation A
  • 35:23: Sun Salutation B
  • 42:41: Wrap-Up

Although yoga has some amazing health benefits, many people believe that they aren’t able to do yoga. They might think:

  • I’m flexible enough or I’m not fit
  • I feel feel awkward compared to others in class
  • I just can’t quiet their mind

It’s a list filled with fear and uncertainty, and it’s unfortunate that so many people are holding themselves back from experiencing all that yoga has to offer. So before we get started, let us help address these concerns, so you can feel comfortable getting the most out of this great exercise. 

“I’m not flexible enough”

The reality is, yoga increases flexibility; it doesn’t require flexibility. Very few of us are dancers or gymnasts, and we don’t need that level of flexibility in order to manage our day-to-day lives. Yoga increases flexibility in body and mind by giving us the opportunity to slow down, listen to our physical and mental response to each pose, and determine how fast and far we wish to grow in our flexibility. Yoga isn’t about the perfect position. So if you feel like you lack flexibility, take a deep breath, reach your arms to the sky, and exhale as you fold forward. Allow a little bend to your knees and simply be with where you are, letting each inhale and exhale open you up.

“I feel awkward compared to others in class”

Yoga is non-competitive, which is a concept that can be tough when we come from such a competitive culture. It’s easy to look at the people in a yoga class and feel intimidated. The best advice you can get or give, is that everyone is working on something. We never know what energy they have put into getting where they are, or where they’re trying to get. In competing with others, we are robbing ourselves and them from enjoying the moment and the journey that we all take in our own way. Don’t compare your body to others! You’re unique and you have a different history than anyone else.

“I can’t quiet my mind”

For many people, this is one of the hardest aspects of yoga, and that’s why it is the best reason to keep coming back to your mat. Many of us don’t get much time to clear our minds, and if we do have time, it can be scary to be alone with our thoughts. It is also easy to feel like a failure at quieting the mind if each time you try, you find your mind wandering or your thoughts becoming chaotic. But this is perfectly normal. It’s hard to leave all your issues at the door when you come to your yoga mat. But take note of the discomfort that comes. We tend to avoid things that bring discomfort, like yoga or exercise, and take time to do things we like instead. But sometimes what we don’t want to do is good for us. Our minds are like a child who has been told to stay quiet while the adults talk. When the mind gets the chance to open up, it does! So don’t judge yourself for having a difficult time quieting your mind. Like anything else, it requires practice.

Yoga teaches us that the breath is always there to guide us. Start small and embrace a minute or two of letting your mind quiet, taking a deep breath each time you start to feel overwhelmed by the thoughts that intrude, and letting them go with an exhale. Again, this is not about achieving perfection!

The Benefits of Yoga 

Did you know that doing sun salutations, which is the sequence of positions you will learn today, on a regular basis, can increase muscle strength and reduce body mass index (BMI)? Many people don’t know this about yoga.

Performing regular sun salutations is an excellent way to get your body moving and stretch out your muscles, which is good for increasing bone health as well. In fact, it’s been shown that doing yoga on a regular basis can help improve bone density, since a lot of the postures you perform in yoga are weight-bearing and you use your own body weight to support you. 

Yoga also helps improve joint flexibility, and it does so by:

  • Increasing range of motion
  • Keeping the joints lubricated with synovial fluid, which hydrates joints and keeps them healthy
  • Strengthens the muscles that support joints
  • Helps maintain elasticity within the cartilage of the joints

In general, sun salutations, also known as Surya Namaskar, are a great way to:

  • Energize both the mind and the body
  • Stretch and strengthen the long muscles of the body like the abdominals, the muscles of the legs, and the muscles along your spine
  • Benefit the whole body, including the internal organs
  • Quiet the mind and bring breath into the body

That last one is huge. Yoga is a great way to de-stress, as well as a great tool to help you manage stress. When you practice asana, which is the movement of yoga, you are also bringing breath into the body, as well as strengthening the mind-body connection, also called biofeedback, or the ability to listen to what is going on in your body. In doing so, you are able to become more self-aware and to catch negative habits before they start. This is a great tool to use if you have anxiety or if you find yourself in stressful situations. In yoga, you’ll be challenged to do poses and moves, which may be difficult or uncomfortable. How you react to challenges on the mat, can translate to your reactions off the mat as well. If you give up as soon as something’s hard on the mat, how will you react to challenges in the rest of life?

Yoga helps give you the ability to take an extra beat to breathe and assess the situation instead of just reacting. 

When doing yoga, you want to try your best to sync the movement with your breath. Expanding as you inhale, contracting as you exhale. For instance, you would inhale your arms up, and, when you exhale, fold forward. Inhale, come back up, reaching the arms overhead and exhale the arms either down at your sides or in prayer at heart center. 

Sun Salutation A

Don’t stress yourself out if you don’t have it right away, just take your time and do each pose until you get better at it.

Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Now, stick your booty out. Do you feel your inner thighs rotate toward the back of the room behind you? As you tuck your tailbone, you want to keep that rotation happening in your thighs. You should already feel strong and powerful like a mountain.  

From there, stand up nice and tall, lifting up through the crown of your head. Bring your shoulders back and slightly down, arms down at your sides with your palms either facing forward or facing your thighs. 

If you can keep your balance, maybe try closing your eyes. If not, just let them soften. Stand here and breathe, taking a quick scan of anything you’re feeling physically or maybe notice what kinds of thoughts you’re having. But just notice — try not to make a comment or any sort of judgment.

Now, inhale your arms overhead. Exhale and swan dive, folding forward. Make sure you’re folding at the waist.

Inhale, come halfway up, either onto your fingertips, or if you can’t quite reach the floor, that's perfectly okay — just bring your hands to the tops of your shins or your thighs. You want a nice flat back here. Then exhale, fold forward.

On your next inhale, come forward until you’re in the top of a push-up. This is called Plank Pose. You should be in one nice long line. You want your shoulders directly over your wrists and push out through your heels. Your seat shouldn’t be too high up in the air, but your hips shouldn’t be sagging either. 

From here, lower yourself down onto the ground. You can get there by either placing your knees down, then your chest — keeping your seat lifted in the air — and then your chin. Or you can lower down into what’s called Chatarunga Dandasana. You want to go from this high push-up position, so to speak, to a low push-up position. 

If you’re doing Chatarunga Dandasana, you want to keep your elbows close to the body — don’t let them wing out — and try not to let your hips sag and touch down first. You want to be strong in this position, and maintain that nice long line. If you find that you are sagging in the hips, just stay with Knees, Chest, and Chin until you get stronger. You’ll still be working your arms in this posture. 

Now, bring your hands underneath your shoulders and press the tops of the feet into the floor or mat and just lift your head and your torso, coming into Cobra Pose on an inhale.

Exhale back down and press yourself back into Downward Facing Dog. Downward Facing Dog is basically an upside down “V.” Again, here, you want your feet about hip distance and hands should be shoulder-width apart. Ideally, you want equal weight in your hands and your feet, lifting your tailbone toward the sky. Plug your arms into your shoulder sockets and try to press into the mat with the second knuckle of each finger. Maybe even try and press into the mat more on the thumb and forefinger side – this will take pressure off your wrists. 

Look up at your hands and either walk or step your feet up to meet them. Come halfway up on an inhale and, on an exhale, fold deeply.

Inhale, bring yourself all the way up to standing. Exhale your hands either down at your sides or in prayer at heart center. 

Sun Salutation B

Alright, now that you’ve got Sun Salutation A down pat, let’s do Sun Salutation B. Typically, in a yoga class, you do 3 to 5 Sun Salutation A flows, and then move on and do 3 to 5 Sun Salutation B flows. This allows you to warm up the body and prepare your muscles for the postures that follow throughout the rest of your yoga practice. Doing a series of Sun Salutations also helps prevent injury. 

Sun Salutation B looks very similar to Sun Salutation A, except we begin in Chair Pose and throw in a Warrior I pose. So, again, ideally, you want to try and sync your breath with each movement you make, but don’t get tripped up on that if it’s too much to think about when you’re first starting out. 

To come into Chair Pose, you have 2 choices:

  • Stand with your feet hip distance apart, or
  • Stand with your feet and your legs together

Standing with your legs together may be the easier option, because you press them into one another, which can make this posture a little bit less difficult. Once you pick your leg stance, sink the hips and raise the arms overhead as high as you can.

There are a few things to watch out for here:

  • Tuck the tailbone so you have a nice flat back. You don’t want your booty sticking out and causing undue pressure on your lower back.
  • Look down at your feet. Can you see your toes? If not, sit back a bit, bringing more weight into your heels. 
  • Don’t feel like you need to take your arms all the way overhead. If you have tight shoulders, holding your arms straight out in front of you might feel better. Just make sure you’re drawing the arms into the sockets and reaching out through the fingertips at the same time. 

On an exhale, straighten the legs as you fold forward. Inhale, come halfway up, and exhale, find your way back to Downward Facing Dog.

Inhale, come forward into Plank, and on an exhale, lower down using Knees, Chest, and Chin, or Chataranga, which is that low push-up position. Place your hands underneath your shoulders and inhale up into Cobra maybe coming up a little higher this time. Exhale lower down and inhale, finding your way back to Downward Facing Dog again. 

Here’s where we make a little change. 

As you inhale, raise your right leg to the sky. If that’s not possible for you, no worries — just keep it on the ground and continue to breathe. Look up at your hands and step your right foot in between your hands. If your foot doesn’t quite make it, give it a little assist by grabbing hold of the calf and helping to step your foot forward. It’s very liberating! 

Now, release your left foot onto the floor or the mat so that your foot is at a 45 degree angle. You want your left toes pointing toward the top left corner of your mat. Also, if you can, try and have your right heel and the arch of your left foot in one straight line. If that’s uncomfortable, you can “train track” the feet, meaning you can toe-heel your right foot out to the right a little as if you were standing on train tracks. 

You want your hips to be square to the top of the mat, so try both feet positions and see which one feels best, as well as which one helps you square off the hips the most. 

Next, take your arms overhead. In a vigorous yoga class, you’d stay here for one breath, but go ahead and stay here and take a few nice, slow, deep inhales and exhales. This pose is called Warrior I.

On your next exhale, lower your hands to frame your front foot. Again, step back to Down Dog. 

You have options here:

  • Stay in Down Dog and breathe.
  • Move through a Vinyasa, by moving to plank, then chatarunga, up to cobra or up dog, and then back to downward facing dog, remembering to move with your breath. 

We have to do Warrior I on the other side, so either inhale your left leg into the sky or just remain in Down Dog for another breath. 

Look up at your hands and step your left foot in between them, again, using your hand to the back of the calf to give yourself a little help if you need. Drop your right heel down and make sure your right foot is at a 45-degree angle, with the right toes pointing toward the top right corner of your yoga mat. Take your arms overhead, making sure to keep the shoulders down away from the ears – try not to let them hike up – and breathe. 

Exhale your hands down to frame your front foot, and find your way back to Downward-facing Dog. Stay here for a few breaths or move through that Vinyasa again. 

From Down Dog, look up at your hands and step or walk to meet them. Inhale, come halfway up with a nice flat back, exhale and fold. Inhale come all the way up to standing, again, trying to keep a nice flat back. Take the arms overhead and exhale your hands down at your sides or to heart center in prayer. 

That’s it! You did it! How do you feel? 

Did you know you can do Sun Salutations A and B as a stand-alone yoga practice? It’s true! If you’re short on time or you feel like you need an energy boost, do a few sun salutations and you’ll be good to go!

Wrap-Up 

Today, we showed you how to do Sun Salutations A and B in a yoga sequence. You can do these as a stand-alone practice or as a warm-up to a longer yoga practice. Dr. Nancy recommends doing 5 - 10 Sun Salutation A’s followed by 5 - 10 Sun Salutation B’s. After that, you can add in other more advanced poses as you like. Work your way up to advanced positions with practice.

Sun salutations have a number of health benefits, including:

  • They help with joint flexibility and longevity.
  • They can strengthen bones and combat osteoporosis.
  • They can help strengthen the mind-body connection, which can help you cope better with stress. 
  • They strengthen the long muscles of the body and have been proven to improve body composition and BMI.

There are also lots of modifications you can do to various poses as you work your way up from the foundations. You also want to make sure to stretch and rotate the wrists to relieve pressure on them. As you practice, your body will become stronger, you will become more confident, and the difficult parts will become easier.

We hope you found today’s show helpful. We’ve got more exercise-based shows coming soon. See you next time!

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