Adapting Sun Salutations to Larger Bodies

I’m a firm believer in adapting asanas to your own body rather than twisting yourself into knots to match how a pose should look like. So, I thought I’d give an in-depth look into the most basic of sequences, Sun Salutations a.k.a. Surya Namaskara, and how it can be tweaked for XL yogis.

A very good example of modifying Sun Salutations to your needs is how Kripalu yoga instructor Megan Garcia turns them into a Wall Flow in order to accomodate her plus-sized body. In her book, MegaYoga, she comments:

Traditionally, this posture is a warm-up for standing poses. However, I’ve found that Sun Salute doesn’t warm me up, because I constantly have to stop to “move the flesh” […] whenever I lunge. Other students, in classes I’ve, taken, are ready for round two of the traditional pose, while I’m still on the floor!

Although my problems with Sun Salutations were different than Megan’s (always out of breath, tight hamstrings, weak wrists), her approach made me start to think about ways I could make the sequence work for me. I came up with a few ideas, experimented, and saw results. I’ll be sharing them with you shortly.

Before moving on, though, I’d like to point out that I’ll only be dealing with the classical series of Sun Salutations, not series A or B (e.g. as taught in Ashtanga). Although the latter two have elements you might want to eventually incorporate into your practice, I’d suggest you first get comfortable with this basic version.

So, here is the Classical Sun Salutations sequence I use (based on Mark Stephens’ Yoga Sequencing):

  1. Start in Prayer pose (Samasthihi)
  2. Exhale to Mountain (Tadasana)
  3. Inhale to Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
  4. Exhale swan-diving down to Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  5. Inhale to Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
  6. Exhale to Low Lunge
  7. Inhale to Crescent Moon (Anjaneyasana)
  8. Exhale to Low Lunge
  9. Inhale to Plank (Phalakasana)
  10. Exhale to Eight-Limbed pose (Ashtanga Pranam)
  11. Inhale to Easy Cobra (Salabhasana B)
  12. Exhale to Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
  13. Hold the breath and step into Low Lunge
  14. Inhale to Crescent Moon (Anjaneyasana)
  15. Exhale to Low Lunge
  16. Inhale to Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
  17. Exhale to Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
  18. Inhale to Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
  19. Exhale to Prayer pose (Samasthihi)
  20. Rinse and repeat 🙂

Whew, are you sweating yet?

At first glance, this may look like a lot to take in, but a single round of the sequence doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to complete. It can be vigorous, especially if you’re overweight and/or unfit, but can be toned down as needed. Here are some suggested modifications to make things a bit more manageable:

  • If you find yourself panting, don’t hesitate to pause and take an extra breath or two in each pose. Treat the first and last few of rounds as a warm-up and cool-down respectively, and allow yourself to turn them into slow flows. As you get warmed up, you might notice you need to spend less breaths in each pose before moving to the next. Follow the rhythm set by your body. Keeping the breath under control and moving with it is more important than making this a cardio session. Just remember to move on the next inhale or exhale as indicated by the sequence.
  • If you have big thighs, keeping your feet together in Mountain pose (2) may be uncomfortable. Bring them close enough for the knees (more specifically the flesh around the knees) to touch, or even hip-width, but make sure the feet are parallel.
  • When coming to Forward Fold (4), keep the knees as bent as you need to avoid injuring the hamstrings. For the first 2-4 rounds, depending on how stiff I feel, I usually swan-dive into a half squat, supporting my upper body on my thighs. This engages the quads, thus helping release tension in the hamstrings. As you do more rounds, start to progressively straighten the knees, but never to the point of locking them.
  • If you have knee problems, use a folded towel under your extended knee for cushioning in Low Lunge (6). Remember to keep the front calf perpendicular to the floor to avoid stressing the bent knee.
  • If the Low Lunge/Crescent Moon combo is too much for your hip flexors, you could come to a High Lunge/Warrior I. Make your stance as narrow as you need. If you have trouble balancing in High Lunge, remember that you don’t have to keep your heels in a straight line. Instead, keep the feet hip-width apart for increased stability, and progressively start to bring them closer to a central line to build strength and balance. Just be sure to keep the hips facing forward and not let them slip sideways (placing the foot of the extended leg at a 45 degree angle is crucial for this).
  • If you have wrist issues, or your wrists aren’t strong enough yet to support your weight in Vinyasa (9-12), start by coming into Dolphin Plank on your elbows, skip Eight-Limbed pose (adjust your breath to compensate), drop your hips into Sphinx, and finally exhale into Dolphin instead of Down Dog. As you grow stronger, consider doing Plank on your knees, followed by Eight-Limbed pose and Easy Cobra, and finishing the vinyasa in Puppy (Down Dog on your knees). Fold your mat or use a folded towel under your wrists to provide extra cushioning.

I think the Vinyasa (Plank -> Push up -> Up Dog -> Down Dog) is probably the most challenging part of this sequence, but using the above variations should give you something to work with. I couldn’t do Down Dog at all due to wrist and shoulder pain, but am now able to stay in the pose for 5+ breaths (they’re not very steady ones, but I’m getting there).

Doing the Dolphin Vinyasa variation will strengthen your core, but will do nothing for your wrists. Unless you have some medical condition that counter-indicates stressing your wrists, consider supplementing your practice with some wall pushups to start building wrist strength and eventually moving on to Vinyasa-on-your-knees. Also, when you’re in Prayer Pose, lift your elbows outwards and push your palms against each other to create tension; do this in a slow pulsing, press-release rhythm. Then, gently stretch the wrists by pushing the fingers one way and the other.

How do you modify your Sun Salutations?

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