Yoga For Beginners: The Surya Namaskar Steps You Need To Get Started

1st January 2021

surya namaskar benefits

Getting started with yoga can feel overwhelming — there are so many amazing teachers, studios, online yoga courses, and, if your budget permits, IRL yoga retreats to learn the basics. But I honestly think the best, most accessible, welcoming — not to mention the cheapest — place to start with yoga for beginners, is at home with some good ol’ Surya Namaskar poses… trust me, I’ve tried pretty much every style and platform of yoga going and home practise and self-guided learning is the most effective.

It wasn’t until I got really familiar with the Surya Namaskar steps, also known as sun salutations or Surya Namaskara, that yoga started to make sense and become enjoyable for me. The sun salutation sequence teaches you so much, not just about yoga poses, but yoga as a whole.

There are loads of Surya Namaskar benefits: they are a mix of dynamic full-body strengthening, stretching and gentle cardio, which is why they are the perfect yoga warm-up and constitute totally manageable yoga for beginners! They can also help to regulate the breath which is great for the nervous system and overall health, and because sun salutations are traditionally a set sequence, the more you practise them, the more mindful and meditative they become. So, if you are wondering how to start yoga, or how to start yoga at home, then this guide has got you covered!


Yoga for Beginners: How to Use My Sun Salutation Guide

Let’s be honest — yoga is weird, especially in the optic of yoga for beginners. There are all the specific Sanskrit terms to get your head around and unnerving pictures of people pretzeling themself into strange shapes on the internet. But with the sun salutation sequence, things are stripped back to basics — and once you get familiar with the sun salutation steps, I promise you yoga will seem less weird and scary. Because the sun salutation flow is the foundation for pretty much all dynamic styles of yoga, from Vinyasa to Power, once you understand sun salutation A and B, yoga becomes a whole easier.

There are a few variations on sun salutations, but in this guide, I will be covering sun salutation A and B, traditionally from the Ashtanga primary series, because they are the most commonly taught in yoga classes.

I recommend watching the videos below first. Then, using this blog to do each individual pose so you become familiar with the sun salutation steps. Once you understand the poses and steps, you can practise with the beginners yoga videos as a visual guide. The aim is to memorise the sun salutation flow, so one day you will be able to practise the poses by just being present with your own body and breath — hence sun salutations as a moving meditation. I’ve also put my teacher training to good use and included lots of yoga teacher tips.


I have other yoga resources if you want to know more about yoga, particularly the philosophy of the practise, then these yoga movies and yoga quotes are a great intro. If you are looking for some more yoga asana then I recommend these poses everyone should do every day, or grab a pal and try out these yoga poses for two people.


Surya Namaskar Steps

This is both a sun salutation for beginners guide and as well as a resource for people who have practised some yoga before but find the 12 poses of Surya Namaskar a bit of a struggle — physically or mentally.

Before you start, the most important thing to know is that the sun salutation sequence should work for you. If something doesn’t feel right, modify it. I have made a real effort to make this guide inclusive and accessible with lots of different variations. Not only is it beginner-friendly but it also shows you how the sun salutations progress as you become more familiar with them.


The Breath

The breath is a metronome that helps guide your practice. The golden rule is the pose should fit the breath, not the other way round. That basically means breath comes first — in time, your sun salutation sequence will consist of one breath per movement, but until then make sure you are breathing evenly and not holding the breath.

Different styles of yoga use sounded or Ujjayi breath — but these are not important if you are a beginner. Just focus on inhaling and exhaling and moving with the breath. In time, you can explore working with pranayama (yoga breath practices) if they feel comfortable for you, but they aren’t for everyone.

Yoga teacher tip: Take extra breaths in the poses to begin with — this is a great way to get familiar with the sun salutation poses and progress as a beginner.


Sun Salutation A – Surya Namaskar A

Get familiar with the sun salutation A sequence before moving onto sun salutation B. I have included the Sanskrit name on the yoga poses (asana), and also breathing instructions — take extra breaths, but try and do the key movement on the breathing instructions provided.


Mountain pose

Tadasana or Samasthiti

yoga for beginners

Tadasana is your home base and foundation, where you start and finish your sun salutations. People rush this pose but there are so many benefits as it sets you up physically and mentally for every other pose.

Take your feet to a comfortable, stable width — this can be anything from feet pressed together to hip-width or wider. Find your neutral feet by bringing the outside edges of the feet into parallel so all your toes point directly forward. If your feet are pressed together the big toes will be touching but there is a tiny gap between your heels.

Spread the toes and check that your weight is evenly distributed across the feet so that you are not hanging back in the heels or forward in the toes. This helps establish good posture in the rest of the body, with the knees stacked over the ankles, hips over knees, and shoulders over hips. Find a neutral pelvis with a slight arch in the lower back.

Let the shoulders be soft down the back. The arms, hands and fingers are ever so slightly active — don’t overdo it and go military straight but also don’t let them just be floppy — find the in-between spot.

Lengthen the back of the neck by ever so slightly tucking the chin, so the crown of your head extends to the ceiling.

Yoga teacher tips:

Feet width, stability and discrimination – traditionally many styles of yoga teach tadasana with the feet together (Ashtanga I’m looking at you)… but did you know this is sizeist, and in some cases sexist? The proportions of your body, including the size of your thighs and width of your hips (the female pelvis tends to be broader than the male pelvis), affects your balance. Trying to bring the feet together may not be possible at all, or if you can it might make you feel unstable because this base of support (feet on the ground) is too narrow to adequately support your physical proportions. Tadasana is all about stability and grounding so take your feet as wide as you need to do. Yoga should work for the body, not against it.

‘Neutral’ feet – traditionally this idea of ‘neutral feet’ is to bring the hips into a neutral position, as the rotation action in your hip socket determines the direction your feet point… however, hip anatomy is really complex. If this neutral position feels pinchy in the hips or uncomfortable in the knees adjust your feet until they feel okay.

If you want to know more about making your practice work for your body NOT the other way round then check out my reading list of books about yoga — it will probably blow everything you thought you knew about yoga and alignment completely out of the water.


Inhale: Upward Salute

Urdhva Hastasana

On an inhale lift the arms up overhead, either bring the palms to touch or keep the hands wider — whatever is most comfortable for your shoulders. If your neck feels okay look up at the hands.


Exhale: Standing Forward Bend

Uttanasana

surya namaskar benefits

On an exhale, soften the knees and fold forward into a forward bend position. Keep the knees bent so the spine is long (not rounded) and the hands can come as close to the ground as possible.

Yoga teacher tip:
If you fold forward without bending the knees and you have tight hamstrings the back will round a lot.


Inhale: Half Standing Forward Bend

Arda Uttanasana

On an inhale, place your hands on to your shins and lengthen the spine to a flat back position. Engaging your core as you do this will help support a long, straight spine. In this variation, your legs and back will be at 90-degree angle. This is what I recommend for yoga beginners.

Yoga Teacher tip:
– As you practise more and your hamstrings become more open you can do this pose keeping your fingertips on the ground – your legs and back will be at roughly a 75-degree angle.

A quick note on vinyasas… the next sun salutation steps (5 to 7) are commonly called a vinyasa. In classes when teachers say ‘take a vinyasa’ this is what they mean.


Exhale: Four-Limbed Staff Pose

Chaturanga Dandasana

sun salutation

This actual pose is a plank position with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. But in the sun salutation is easiest to think of it as a movement, as opposed to a static pose. It’s quite complex and requires A LOT of strength, so here is a breakdown with a few beginner-friendly options.

On an exhale, from Ardha Uttanasana bend the knees deeply, place your hands firmly on the ground, and step the feet back to a high plank position — make sure you have strong core engagement.

Inhale. EITHER, stay in high plank OR release your knees to the mat, in a modified plank position.

On an exhale, bend the elbows back behind you so they skim the rib cage and lower your torso between your elbows. Hover here. Work towards bending the elbows to 90-degrees — this requires a really strong core.

Either, stay hovering the torso off the ground in preparation for an upward dog, or lower all the way down to the ground in preparation for cobra.

Eventually, you will be able to jump back into chaturanga on one exhale… yes jump from a forward fold into a bent arm plank. Just don’t rush it, many a shoulder injury has occurred in this way.

Yoga teacher tip:
– Extra breaths and taking your time is, in my opinion, the best way to build strength here. It’s tempting to rush it (because it’s easier), but this is a really important pose for building core strength and shoulder stability that will benefit you in other poses (interested in inversions? Then start by getting your chaturanga in good shape).

– What if it’s easier to do chaturanga from a high plank not modified plank? Bad news. You are doing it wrong. Usually, this means your core is working less, your shoulders are dumping forward, and your butt is sticking in the air. Most people, particularly yoga for beginners, benefit from chaturanga with the knees down.


Inhale: Upward Facing Dog or Cobra

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or Bhujangasana

upward facing dog

Both these poses are backbends and essentially do the same thing. Upward facing dog demands a little more strength and familiarity with sun salutations, so feel free to get comfortable in cobra first before moving onto the upward dog.

For Cobra:
Check that your hands haven’t moved from your chaturanga position. The fingertips should be roughly in line with your nipples. On an inhale, push the tops of the feet into your mat, draw the shoulder blades down your back and lift the chest into a small backbend — this is baby cobra. Push into the hands and start to extend the arms, as much as feels comfortable, for full cobra.

Upward Facing Dog:
From either chaturanga variation, flip your feet so the tops of them press firmly into the mat. If you are in high plank your thighs and shins will already be off the mat, if you are in a modified plank push firmly into your feet so your shins lift.

Naturally, you will feel your chest wants to move through your arms. So, on an inhale, straighten the arms, and pull your chest through the arms so you are in a backbend.

In time, the flipping of your feet and pulling your chest into a backbend occurs all in one movement — it just takes muscle memory.


Exhale: Downward facing dog

Ardho Mukha Svanasana

From cobra: push yourself into a tabletop position. Tuck the toes, lift the knees and push your hips UP and BACK until you are in an inverted V shape. The knees can stay as bent as you need and the heels can be lifted off the ground. The aim is high hips.

From upward-facing dog: flip the feet over, and push your hips UP and BACK to the inverted V shape.

Check that your hands are shoulder-width or wider and the fingers are spread. Ground firmly through the thumb and index finger. Let the head and neck be heavy, and the shoulders draw gently down the back away from the ears to create space.

A strong core engagement helps to lift the hips high. Think more about a long spine, as opposed to straight legs. Keeping the knees bent and heels lifted off the ground helps to lengthen the hamstrings in the long run, whilst keeping the integrity of the pose.

Over time — that might be 3 sun salutations or in 3 years your heels will move closer to the ground, and perhaps the feet will be flat. Take your feet to any comfortable width. Downward dog is the work of a lifetime.

In the Ashtanga sequence, we rest (lol) in downward dog for five breaths.

Yoga teacher tip:
– It’s about how it feels, not what you look like. The intention of downward dog is to create length in the back of the body, from the heels to the crown of the head, and strengthen the front of the body — particularly the quads and core. Bending the knees helps to keep you lengthening through your back and strong through your front.

From here you go back the way you came…


Inhale: Half Standing Forward Bend

From down dog, on an exhale bend your knees. Take one big step or lots of little steps towards your hands. On an inhale, come to Ardha Uttanasana — step 4.

In time, on an inhale you will jump forward into Ardha Uttanasana.


Exhale: Forward Bend

See step 3.


Inhale: Upward Salute

Ground firmly through the feet, keep the knees soft and come all the way up to your Urdhva Hastasana — step 2.


Exhale: Tadasana

And here you are, back where you began.

Repeat as many times as you are able, up to five times (it gets a bit boring after that).


Sun Salutation B – Surya Namaskar B

The good news — You will be pleased to hear that sun salutation B sequence is very similar to sun salutation A, with just two new poses.

The bad news — it has a total of three vinyasas and requires you to have a verrrrrrry long breath. As always, take more breaths when needed!


Starting pose – Inhale: Chair pose

Utkatasana

From Tadasana, bend the knees into a slight squat, keep the core engaged, and lift the arms up overhead.

There are many different variations of chair pose. Always make sure the width of your feet and arms is comfortable for your body. In Ashtanga the squat in the legs isn’t usually very deep, with the knees staying roughly in line with the toes. However, if you prefer a deeper squat then that’s fine too.


Repeat steps 2 through to 7 of sun salutation A

Exhale: forward fold. Inhale: flat back position. Exhale: chaturanga. Inhale: up dog. Exhale: down dog.


Inhale: Warrior I – Right-hand side

Virabhadrasana I

No rest breaths yet — from down dog on an inhale, step your right foot forward between the hands. Drop the left heel down at a 45-degree angle. Ground firmly through both feet and stand up into warrior 1, keeping the right knee bent, with the arms reaching up over head. The hands can be shoulder-width or in prayer and if your neck feels okay you can look up.

Yes. All that on one inhale. Don’t hold your breath, instead, take as many breaths as you need — but try and stand up into your warrior 1 on an inhale.

Yoga teacher tip:
Can’t get your foot to land between the hands? This part isn’t exactly beginners yoga. It just takes practise! To start out, step the right foot forward as far as you can, then either shuffle it forward as close to the hands as possible, or use your right hand to pick up your right foot and help it forward to the front of the mat.
– enjoy your warrior! In Ashtanga you don’t spend a single still breath in this pose during the sun salutation, you inhale into it and exhale out of it. So feel free to spend a few breaths here, particularly if you are a beginner yogi.


Exhale: Prepare for Vinyasa + Chaturanga

From Warrior 1, place your hands back down on the mat to frame your right foot and step the right foot back into a high plank, from here take your chaturanga of choice — step 5.

Complete the vinyasa (chaturanga, backbend, down dog), and from downward dog we repeat the Warrior I sequence on the left.


Inhale: Warrior I – Left-Hand side.

As above, but left foot steps forward.

Then take your vinyasa.


Rest Breaths: Downward Dog

Finally.

And then, back the way you came.


Inhale: Half Standing Forward Bend
Exhale: Forward Bend
Inhale: Upward Salute
Exhale: Chair Pose

Repeat, up to five times.


Hopefully, if you were wondering how to start with yoga you now have a pretty good idea! This guide is everything I wish I had known when I was first looking for yoga for beginners near me back in Canada all those years ago — don’t underestimate how much getting familiar with sun salutations benefits your yoga practise in the long run. I’d love to hear how you got on with my beginner surya namaskar poses and yoga resources!

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