What are your greatest challenges when it comes to cultivating strength, peace and flexibility? Do you feel like you have to choose between these qualities when choosing a workout? Do you struggle to find time for your chosen workout, or just to get the gym? Do you finish feeling pumped but not focused, or calm but not energized?
Sun Salutations are a staple of yoga practice because they address so many of these common challenges. If you can do one thing every day for your health, make it Sun Salutations.
Sun Salutations are a cycle of yoga poses performed with great attention to the transitions. Depending on how you break it down there are 12-16 poses. Transitions are so important because during the change from one position to the next, you're moving the body while placing load on the extremities. During many of these transitions you're asking the muscle to work while lengthening, also known as eccentric training. This is alternated with stretch and isometric moves for a varied workout that it's difficult for your body to "adapt" to. Each kind of training has it's unique advantages and eccentric training has beneficial metabolic effects complementary to concentric training.
This attention to transition has an equally beneficial effect on our emotional states and mental focus. Because you're engaged the entire time with a broad focus on your physical experience via the breath, you'll feel more focused and steady better able to tackle what's next, whether that's office politics, family dynamics or difficult intellectual and creative work.
Sun Salutations are a complete exercise because they integrate cardiovascular challenge with resistance work when done vigorously, because they address body, mind and heart simultaneously and because they include opposing motions in every round. Every round includes modifiable backbends, forward bends, inversion, weight bearing on the arms, lunges and standing.
By consciously modifying the speed, extension and contact points of each pose you have complete control over challenge and progressing the challenge. At one end of the spectrum you can choose to perform the sequence with minimal contact, maximum safe extension with one breath phase (inhale or exhale) per pose. At the other end of the intensity spectrum you can soften and round the movements, opt for knees down and minimal weight bearing and spend as long as you'd like in the component poses - this version is often referred to as Moon Salutations to acknowledge its refinement, reflective qualities and lesser intensity.
Your ability to modify the series also makes this an optimum exercise for people of many abilities, shapes and sizes. You can modify for chair and wheelchair positions, for injuries, for round bodies and differently shaped bodies, for stiff bodies and healing bodies. Since most of us have many different kinds of bodies throughout our lifetime - larger or smaller, injured or healthy, pregnant, post-partum, trying to conceive, aging and training - having a go-to series that we can modify seems like one of the basic human needs. If I were writing a handbook on how to be human, Sun Salutations would be in it.
You need no equipment and hardly more space than you require to stand in to do Sun Salutations. While I prefer a large, airy, well-lit room with my favorite mat, I've done Sun Salutations in airports, behind seating, theaters, on auditorium chairs, on hikes, on rocks, on sidewalks, in offices, hospital rooms, doctor's offices and funeral homes. Seriously portable.
Since your body provides the resistance, Sun Salutations grow as you grow. As you build muscle and become stronger, the resistance can grow. Body weight exercise is all the rage these days for building lean, strong muscle. Sun Salutations and yoga poses are the original body weight exercise, built for maximum body engagement, mental focus, balance and well-being.