a blog by Ellen Davies

About those sun salutations…

About those sun salutations…

If you’ve ever been to a vinyasa class, you know about sun salutations. This 12-step flowing sequence is seen as a base on which to build the entire practice. It originated with Ashtanga Yoga, which was taught to Patthabhi Jois, who as a young man was strong and full of energy. Thus his teacher, Krishnamacharya, created a vigorous practice for him.

Today the sun salutation is used as a warm up to class, a way to get the heart rate up, or a way to “clear the slate” in between sequences.

Unfortunately I also see it used as an ego boost — I have seen students fly through it, jump back to plank with a jolt, move through their Upward Facing Dog like a “drive by,” retain their breath because they are moving too fast, and so on.

My advice to students is this: let the sun salutation work for you, rather than you working for the sun salutation. Modify, modify, modify. Listen to your body.

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But do students really listen? I know I didn’t. 

Several years ago, I was all about the practice of 108 sun salutations. I totally bought into the idea that this practice was a real yoga thing to do. “Yogis everywhere mark the turning of the seasons with 108 sun salutations!” Do they? All yogis, everywhere? Or just the ones who are into heated power yoga, and who like to push themselves, so that their practice is actually a workout? Yeah, that was me. Look at me, look what I can do!

I wrote up a lesson plan and taught this practice at least twice a year. Nine sets of twelve sun salutations! I even led one set of twelve sun salutation B’s, for crying out loud. Did you know that twelve sun salutation B’s is 36 chatarangas?

I look back on that now and shudder. What was I thinking? Well, it was all about the ego, I’m embarrassed to admit. Back then, chatarangas were “easy” for me. I had not yet developed the wrist pain that hounds me today. Who knows, maybe all those chatarangas contributed to it.

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chataranga - Ellen Davies blog - With Heart and Humor - yoga
Chataranga

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A brief explanation of chataranga

Chataranga (four limbed staff pose) is a pose that requires a tremendous amount of strength. You move from high plank to a “low plank” by bending your elbows. Many people “wing” their elbows out to the side, which is not good for your shoulders or elbows. The elbows are supposed to bend back (not out), so that your arms form a 90-degree angle (see the illustration, above). Chataranga also requires core strength, so that you lower the body purposefully. A lot of people just collapse to the floor, or their body sags like a hammock. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough for chataranga — it means they need to modify and build up their strength, which is possible if you lower your knees, chest, and chin to the floor. (See below for modification suggestions.)

The whole purpose of chataranga is to build heat and strength in the body. If you are collapsing, you aren’t doing either one of those things. If you are moving without mindfulness of where your body is in space, or proprioception and kinesthesia, then you run the risk of injury. There are three joints involved with chataranga: the shoulders, the elbows, and the wrists. These joints need to be aligned and used in a way that is beneficial and not harmful.

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cobra - Ellen Davies blog - With Heart and Humor - yoga
Cobra pose

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Backbends and forward bends

Another risk of practicing 108 sun salutations is the strain on your spine. When you “swan dive” forward, you are forward bending. When you move from chataranga to upward facing dog, that backward bending. Your spine is involved. Some people have lots of flexibility and strength, and some don’t. Most people have low back pain. The key is, as always, to listen to your body. Feeling a twinge on that swan dive? Bend your knees, or roll down instead. Are you able to lift up out of the joints in upward facing dog? Are you sinking into your shoulders and wrists because your core is fatigued? Then lower knees/chest/chin and lift the head/neck/shoulders into a baby cobra. Push back to child’s pose, then downdog.

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downdog - Ellen Davies blog - With Heart and Humor - yoga

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I don’t know where the idea of practicing 1o8 sun salutations came from. I first learned about it in my yoga teacher training. We practiced it as part of our training that weekend, because it just happened to be the fall equinox, September 21. Our teacher stressed the importance of modifying, and I remember this: my hamstrings hurt so much that I finished the practice kneeling. I didn’t come all the way up to standing and then “swan dive” forward; instead I went into Child’s Pose then rose to “stand” on my knees. I remember that I felt awkward, and different from everyone else. I wanted to explain why: “I’m doing this because my hamstrings hurt!” I didn’t realize that no one else cared, or even took much notice. That’s how it is in a yoga class — everyone is usually so focused on “going inside” that they don’t notice when you modify. But the beginning yogi doesn’t realize this.

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forward bend - Ellen Davies blog - With Heart and Humor - yoga

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Should you do sun salutations? 

Remember that you are in charge of your practice, and your yoga instructor is there as a guide. You always have permission to skip the sun salutations. There are also many ways to modify, including (but not limited to) the following: 

Step back to plank, hold plank for a breath, then pull back to downdog. Option to put the knees on the floor. Option to pull back to child’s pose, then lift to downdog. 

Step back to plank, lower into chataranga (also called a low push-up), inhale back up to plank, then pull back to downdog. (In other words, skip updog.)

Step back to plank, lower knees, chest, and chin. Come all the way down to the floor, inhale to Cobra by lifting the head, neck, and shoulders. Press back to child’s pose, extend the legs for downdog.

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Caution: 

One popular modification for chataranga is to put your knees on the floor first, in a modified plank. However, moving from this position into upward facing dog puts your sacrum at risk. If you choose to put your knees on the floor in plank, then lower all the way down to the floor and lift up into cobra, not updog. 



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