The most familiar series for all who practise yoga is the Surya Namaskar ("Sun Salutations"). It is usually used as a warm-up before moving into the various yoga flows. Surya Namaskar, when done properly can bring a whole lot of benefits - stretching, strengthening, and toning of muscles; it brings calmness to your mind and can be incorporated into your cardiovascular workout just by speeding up the flow.
Note that in Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga, there are 2 types of Surya Namaskar - Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B. For Hatha Yoga, we usually use Surya Namaskar A. Occasionally, you may observe that there is a slight difference in the steps when conducted by different yoga instructors. This is because some instructors made variations for certain steps to suit the "level" of the class. Kudos to yoga instructors who actively introduce variations to ensure a safe and comfortable practice!
Here is the set of instructions for Surya Namaskar A along with the breathing cues:
1. Begin by going into Adho Mukha Svanasana ("Downward Dog")
2. (Inhale) Step right foot forward in between your palms
3. (Exhale) Lower left knee to the ground, slide your left foot to the back and rest your left instep on the ground
4. (Inhale) Stretch your arms up above your head, lift your hips up
5. (Exhale) Sink your hips down, you can place both palms by the side of your hips or gently on your knees
6. Stay for about 4-5 breaths
7. (Inhale) Place your palms back down on the mat, tuck your left toes and lift your left knee up
8. On the same breath) Step your right foot back to meet with your left foot
9. (Exhale) Lift your hips up, ground your heels and return to Adho Mukha Svanasana
10. Repeat from Step 2 on your left foot
"My knee hurts when I lower it on the ground." You can purchase Yoga Knee Pads to provide some cushioning to your knees during your practice. Be sure to take care of your knees!
"I am unable to keep my balance as I stretch my arms up." Try to ground your foot which is placed forward and maintain equal weight on your hips. Alternatively, instead of stretching your arms up, you can stay on your fingertips and look forward. If this is still challenging, you can place your palms on yoga blocks.
"My lower back hurts during the stretch as I sink my hips down." Try not to go into a backbend by keeping your knees aligned with your ankles, and engage your core to lift your hips up. Focus on stretching your hamstrings and inner thighs/groin area.
Always practice with awareness, and take time to bring your focus and attention to yourself, and your practice.
Try moving through at least 6 series of Surya Namaskar and observe your practice. You can take some notes/videos so that you can self-check later (this is what I do to improve my practice, and it is super effective for me).
Believe that it is never too late for anyone to improve and deepen a fundamental series. Below are some variations that you can adopt if you experience tightness in your muscles or have existing injuries. Throughout your entire practice, never force yourself to be in an uncomfortable pose. You must allow your body to relax and adjust to the pose because tensing up unnecessarily may cause tightness to your muscles and limit your capability to stretch further. Remember to take deep breaths, exhale to relax your muscles, and move along with your breaths.
Now, if you happen to encounter some difficulties while moving through Surya Namaskar, you may adopt some of the variations (I cannot list them all because it will be endless, but please reach out to me on any platforms if you have specific questions on your practice):
"I am unable to fold forward comfortably" | "My palms cannot touch the ground when I fold forward" | "I think I am rounding my back" You can try bending your knees and bringing your abdomen/stomach closer to your thighs. Try to keep a forward gaze to avoid rounding your back. To deepen, stay in this position for a few breaths and gently straighten your knees over time.
"I am unable to keep my balance when I step my foot to the back." | "I am unable to step my foot to the back." You can bring in your foot slightly and avoid stepping too far back for a start, You can stay on your fingertips if pressing your palms on the ground is uncomfortable for you. Place your palms on the ground after you move into Plank Pose.
"I cannot keep my hips up in the Plank Pose" Instead of hurting your lower back, you can lower one or both knees onto the mat. Alternatively, you can drop your elbows onto the mat. During your free time, engage in core exercises (or attend more Yoga Core classes) for strengthening.
"My knee hurts when I place them on the ground." You can purchase Yoga Knee Pads to provide some cushioning to your knees during your practice. Be sure to take care of your knees!
"I am unable to look upwards in Baby Cobra Pose". There could be tightness around your neck and shoulders area, try not to force yourself and breathe deeply while you soften your shoulders. Every morning, gently stretch your neck and shoulders.
"I am unable to keep my heels grounded to the mat in Downward Dog Pose." | "I feel that my shoulders/arms are supporting my weight" You can bend your knees slightly, and push your hips to the back so that your weight can be evenly distributed. You can stay on tip-toes if you feel tightness in your calf muscles.
Consider the above options and adjust accordingly as much as you want to achieve a safe and comfortable practice. Do not worry about getting into the final pose, yoga is all about the journey! Take little notes every time you practice and see yourself gradually improve over time.