A Yoga Sun Salutation Your Back Will Love

The Yoga Sun Salutation Your Back will Love

A woman completes a cycle of the yoga sun salutation.
One full cycle of the yoga sun salutation. Kais Tolmats/E+/Getty Images

For most of us, the term “sun salutation” conjures up images of standing whole body moves that only intermediate and advanced yogis are capable of doing without pain. And if you're prone to pain, you may cringe at the thought of so much back and forth motion, especially while in a weight bearing position.

Here’s some good news.  A sun salutation can be simple.  It can be done at your desk.  It doesn’t have to be a hard workout.  The main ingredient of a sun salutation is the alternation between spinal flexion (i.e., bending forward) and spinal extension (i.e. arching back.)  If your version of a sun salutation preserves this movement pattern, you’ll likely be well positioned to enjoy the pose without risking your back.

Of course, if you have an back problem, it’s important to ask your health provider if a sun salutation - even a modified version such as one that can be done at your desk -  is okay.  This article only describes how to do the sun salutation; it does not recommend that you do it. Again, only a licensed, qualified health professional who has seen you in person can advise you directly.

That said, some spinal conditions are sensitive in terms of the way movement affects symptoms.  A good general rule of thumb to prevent symptoms and/or irritation of your problem is:  If you have spinal arthritis or facet joint problems, be careful about (or even forego) arching your back. If your discs are the problem, be careful/forego about flexing your spine.  (Flexing is the same as rounding or bending forward.) 

Desk Sun Salutation Start Position

A smiling woman sits at a computer.
Start the desk sun saluation with good sitting posture. AndreyPopov

Start by sitting up on your chair, arms by your side. Your 2 sitting bones should be contacting the chair firmly and evenly, but without gripping or excess tension in the buttock muscles. 

It's okay to use the back of a chair for support, as necessary. If you can sit upright with ease and without pain, consider positioning yourself at the edge of your chair, rather than toward the back.  That way you’ll be working solo, in other words, without external propping.

Keep your gaze forward.

Keeping the connection between your sitting bones and the chair, soften your body.  In particular, relax, as best as possible,

Sun Salutation Phase 1 - Forward Fold

A businesswoman sitting in an office chair leans forward.
The forward bend phase of the desk version of the yoga sun salutation should come from the hips, not the back. cherezoff


On the exhale, let go (even more) of any tension at the front of your hips.  Allow your torso to fold forward over your legs. How far down you go is less important than the technique you to get to your end point. The next paragraph explains this important point in more detail.

If you have weak abs, feel free to support your weight with your arms or hands on your chair's armrest.

Remember, this movement is not about rounding the spine; it’s about folding forward at your hips.  The movement begins at the pelvis.  Keeping the front of the thigh released helps you take the bending action well inside your hip joint rather than in your low back.  As mentioned above, this is preferable, especially for people with disc issues.

Hold for 5-30 seconds. Breathe!

Sun Salutation Phase 1 - Return to Start

A woman with a curved trunk sits on an exercise ball.
This exercising woman demonstrates the spinal curve movement. Wavebreak Media

To come up, exhale, and pull your abdominal muscles toward your spine.  Starting from the pelvis, begin to uncurl sequentially. Try to be aware of which parts of your spine tend to move in 'clumps', i.e. where the vertebra cannot uncurl independently when it is their turn. Achieving movement independence between each vertebra may be a good long-term goal should you choose to practice the desk sun salutation regularly.

If this way of coming up is not possible for you (for example, if you have a disc condition) you can come up with a straight spine.  Be sure to use your abs.  And as I mentioned earlier,  it's okay to hold onto your chair seat for a little help, as well.

Sun Salutation Phase 2 - Check Your Position

A smiling woman sits at a computer.
Start the desk sun saluation with good sitting posture. AndreyPopov

As with the first part of the sun salutation, the forward fold, sit upright in a relaxed, yet aligned position. Perform a check to see that your feet are parallel with one another, your arms rest easily down by the sides, and your gaze is forward, with your chin slightly tucked.

Sun Salutation Phase 2 - Give Your Trunk a Good Stretch

A woman sitting at her desk stretches.
Raise your arms and stretch your trunk for the 2nd phase of the desk sun salutation. Fuze/Getty Images

Inhale, and take your arms over your head, by reaching them out to the sides first and then bringing them up to straight (or as straight as you can without pain.)  Getting there is like drawing half circles with the fingertips.  As you do this, keep your elbows straight, but not locked, and try to make the movement happen from your shoulder blades.

Reach your torso up towards the ceiling/sky as you hold the position. 

Slowly, thoughtfully, release the stretch from your trunk and bring your arms down.

Moffat, Marilyn, P.T. Ph.D. and Vickery, Steve. The American Physical Therapy Association Book of Body Maintenance and Repair. Owl Books. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. New York, New York, 1999. Seated Low Back Stretch p.228 

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