Integrating balanced strength in Sun Salutations
Developing an Arm-Balance in Sun Salutations
There are many different techniques that can be explored within any yoga posture. Sun Salutations are commonly practised in many styles of yoga as a warm-up at the start of class. For this reason, it’s common to overlook their usefulness in progressing towards stronger movements like handstands, crow pose, and backbends. Strong poses don’t have to be hard or strenous - surya namaskara loosely translates to “sun worship,” and when we move with the grace of someone absorbed in worship, with a gentleness, more subtle muscular connections in the whole body begin to awaken. We can really notice what is happening moment to moment, gradually bringing together large patterns of opposing actions throughout the whole body, and the energies they characterize.
Here are some connections to explore in the practice of Surya Namaskara A.
First Movement (ekam):
Spread the arms like wings (to broaden the collar bones), then reach forward around shoulder height (serratus anterior activation) spreading the shoulder blades…. Press the hands together to engage the chest. Lift the chin behind the arms, as Richard Freeman cues.
Second Movement (dve):
Place the hands on the floor 6 to 12 inches in front of your feet. The hands should be the same distance apart that you use in high plank – roughly shoulder width.
Third Movement (trini):
Keep the hands on the floor and lift the heart and head slightly. This is often called a half-lift, but don’t take the name too literally. Quarter lift is enough. Breathe in about 20% of your capacity and push into the hands, leaning the shoulders past the wrists. This is the breath of floating, so if you don’t float, step back to high plank instead, or jump once in a while.
Exhale as the elbows bend, moving slowly into chaturanga. Its important to take your time here and hangout in this beautiful pose. Then slowly lower your knees right before the next position.
Fifth Movement (cobra-dog):
With the knees down, elevate the shoulders mid-way to the ears, and then PULL BACK (engages middle trapezius and rhomboids). Ground strongly through the index finger mound to engage the pecs. Pulling with pec strength co-activates both sides of the joint well to create a shoulder bandha. The shoulders should be slightly elevated to avoid overuse of the latissimus dorsi.
Sixth Movement (wavy dog):
Exhaling, tense the six-pack to curl into downdog. Breathe slowly with ujjayi in downward dog and experiment with different breath patterns. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Can you connect to the external rotators to broaden the collarbones (outer edge of hand). Can you ground the index finger knuckle and lift the arms away from the floor (middle-trapezius and rhomboid activation). Can you play with letting the shoulders lift to the ears while keeping the neck soft? Or is breathing into the lower back and looking at the navel a new connection for you? Get to know all the breeds of dogs out there.
Waves into Frog:
On the last exhale, use the spinal wave, propelling the shoulders over the hands, then exhale to bend the knees and look at the thumbs.
Seventh Movement (supta):
Leap frog on a slow inhalation, jumping behind the hands, or work towards whatever relationship you had between your feet and hands in the second and third movements (dve and trini). Think in terms of only breathing into 20% of your capacity when jumping forwards. Save some gas for the landing and move into the half lift.
Eight Movement (asta):
Exhale to curl in, looking towards the navel.
Ninth movement (nava):
Dig into the heels to come up with strong hamstrings and hip extensors. This strength counters the strength of the psoas in handstand so we don’t overuse the hip flexors. This is also the power that lifts the legs into handstand, headstand and forearmstand. Glute strength, while important to cultivate for general hip health and stability, is not the main lifter of the legs in handstands and inversions.
Not a real pose, but it contains the alignment of a handstand:
1- Chin behind the arms
2- Shoulder blades lifting up towards the ears.
3 - Shoulder girdle also lifting towards the ears
4 - Chest contracted
5 - Spine neutral (with slight extension)
6 - Legs toned and hips turned out, which is a valuable positioning for the early stages of hopping into inversions life headstand and handstand.