Sun Salutes for Medical Conditions – The Science and Video Lesson

Sometimes trying to decide what yoga to do is so mentally exhausting that you just wish someone would say “do this for 30 minutes a day, and stick to it for 27 days and see what happens”.  That’s what I am doing for you now!

Whether you are new to yoga, making a return or are trying to decide on your next 108 day sadhana, you cannot beat a good old sun salutation.  Below I list 12 different health scenarios and how to do your sun salutes for each of them.

sadhanaˈsɑːðənɑː/nounINDIAN
  1. disciplined and dedicated practice or learning, especially in religion or music.
    “years of sadhana blessed him with technical mastery”

Sun Salutations (SS) are scientifically proven to be…..“ effective in leading to…..physical relaxation, mental quiet, at ease/peace, rested and refreshed, strength and awareness and joy and reduces sleepiness, somatic stress, worry and negative emotion at a dispositional level.”  (REF1)

The beauty of sun salutations is that they work through your entire body, promote flexibility all over, create subtle strength and tone, make you stronger, promote heart and lung fitness, as well as being a super-uncomplicated no-brainer for indecisive days!

Once you have the basics locked down, you will never forget your sun salutation, so there can never be any hotel room excuses of “I cannot remember how….”.   All you need is the space of a mat.  Outdoors.  Indoors.  As part of an athletic warm up.  Early morning. After work.  Before coffee.  After coffee.  With/without half a glass of red wine (not recommended!).

Benefits of Sun Salutes

There are actually dozens of versions of sun salute variations to suit all ages, abilities, body shapes and health.  Assuming you are physically able, I suggest this one – Sun Salutations with Cobra – to set the base for all the other versions.   This video shows 5 complete rounds of sun salutations.

Now all you need to decide is:

Should I do my Sun Salutes (SS) fast or slow?

Once you have learnt the sequence of SS or Surya Namaskara (the traditional name) you will be able to take your reliable practice anywhere!  Some days you feel whoop-whoop-fast-as-a-kite, and others you feel like a slow plod.  So what should you do?  Here’s what the science says (REF 2):

The slowest SS’s would be holding each part of the sequence for 30 seconds whilst maintaining a full, steady breath; it would take 30-40 minutes to complete 6 rounds (or 5 minutes per round).

Fast sun salutes are with continuous movement, completing 15 rounds in 30-40 minutes) or a round in about 2 minutes).

If 30-40 minutes sounds a bit much to you, then read on to the bottom and I’ll share how to get around this!

1 – For General Weight Loss and Tone:

A mix of fast and moderate sun salutes will be best.  Fast sun salutes will encourage increased fitness to assist you on your journey.  Moderate SS’s (flow continuously without rushing) will increase the length of time your muscles are lengthening and contracting under tension, and improve blood supply to the area (tone), plus build some lean mass (in turn increasing your metabolism).  30-40 minutes a day for 6 months!

2 – For Cardio-Respiratory/Athletic Fitness

A fast SS will increase your systolic blood pressure (REF2).  That’s means the 120 number in 120/80.  Systolic blood pressure is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is contracting (pumping).  An increase is systolic BP is an indicator of an increased cardiac stroke volume and cardiac output.  What does that mean?  Basically your heart is able to increase oxygenated blood supply to your organs aka improved aerobic performance!  Add fast SS’s as a daily practice for 6 months and see what the benefits are.  If you are already nearing your peak athletic performance then consult with a specialised yoga teacher to maximise benefits tailored to your sport(s).

3 – For Improved Muscle Strength

24 rounds of sun salutations (about 30-40 minutes), 6 days a week, for 24 weeks will increase your improve your bench press and shoulder press 1RM.  This is based on people who were not previously active in sports training or yoga, showing that you don’t necessarily need weights and a spin-cycle to make great gains in strength and endurance! (REF 3).  Sun salutations are all you need!

4 – For Obesity:

Quite often weight gain can be the result of stress, emotional angst, and high cortisol levels. So whilst it would be tempting to think that an exercise version of fast SS’s will burn calories, you could be doing more harm than good.   When starting out, try a slow SS for 30-40 minutes for 27 days and see what happens!  Slow sun salutes will also reduce the impact on sore joints carrying extra weight.  After 27 days see how you feel and speed up if you feel ready, completing a total of 6 months for the fullest effects.  Start by using the video provided here to learn the sequence and then pick a speed that suits you.

4 – High Blood Pressure

If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure (more than 120/80 whether or not you are taking meds) and/or have heart disease, then seek out a teacher well trained in cardiac yoga.  The sun salutes here are not recommended for uncontrolled blood pressure, heart disease or recent surgery.  

The science shows that a slow SS for 30-40 minutes over 6 months, produces a drop in diastolic blood pressure and resting heart rate (REF2) – great for anyone looking to reduce blood pressure or calm their nervous system (adrenal fatigue/stress/wired at night).

What is diastolic BP?  When your blood pressure reads 120/80 the diastolic is the 80.  It’s the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxing, aka between beats.  Having a low diastolic pressure is pretty cool – especially if the doc has told you to get it down and you’d rather not take the pharmaceuticals.  

As well as improving your blood pressure and resting heart rate, SS’s can help to bring a sense of confidence in your physical abilities and a peace of mind.    Transition slowly between each move to assist your body in regulating heart rate and BP. Breathe slowly, steadily, fully and completely.  If you have been told by a specialist not to raise your hands above your shoulders then simply lift to shoulder height only. Check with your specialist if you are unsure.

Start with the video provided and then alter the speed to suit (slow, holding each pose will reduce blood pressure and heart rate in the long-term).  Start with two rounds and build from there.

5 – Low Blood Pressure and/or Dehydration

It is possible to have blood pressure that is too low!  Low blood pressure is anything under 100/60.  Some people feel fine with this blood pressure and others feel dizzy, breathless, tired, weak or head-achy.  If you feel fine then keep hydrated and proceed with either fast or slow sun salutes.

Lifting your arms above your head is not always the best option as your heart may have to beat very fast in order to get blood to your brain and fingers! It’s easy to find out if this is the case – simply count the number of beats in one minute with your fingers on the carotid artery in your neck.  If your heart is racing after a few SS (more than 100bpm if you are otherwise fit) then you may have low blood pressure.  Ensure hydration, take a rest and get checked out by a doc.  Ask them to take your blood pressure and heart rate standing as well as seated and note the difference in blood pressure and heart rate from one to the other.  If you are very symptomatic then stick with static poses that are near to the floor – you can still do the lunge part, cobra part, etc.  Always come upright super slow and stay well hydrated.

6 – Adrenal Fatigue

If you are going to do sun-salutes then make them slow.  Adrenal fatigue can alter levels of aldosterone – a hormone that is needed to regulate blood pressure – and you may feel light-headed.  Any cardio activity can raise stress hormone levels – further taxing your adrenal glands.  Resist the urge to go all out.  Adrenal system repair can take several years (!) so restorative yoga and gentle nature walks with friends are your medicine right now.

7 – Under/Over Active Thyroid

If you are under-active and in the stages of repair and feel very tired then either go with one round of slow sun salutes to start with and that will be a major achievement! Slow will avoid stressing your hormonal system further – or stick with restorative poses and walking.  Movement does stimulate thyroid hormone production, but if your body is not making any, then it’s a catch-22 situation.   If you are now optimised with thyroid hormone levels then just be aware that increased activity requires increased thyroid hormone – will your dose need adjusting with more regular or vigorous movement?

If you are overactive and symptomatic, then do the sun salutes very slowly, pausing in each pose for 30 seconds.  If you are well-managed then use a moderate pace of continuous slow-flow, with matching breath.   If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure/tachycardia then sun salutes are not recommended – seek out an experienced teacher.

8 – Diabetics

As long as your diabetes is well-managed with diet or meds, and if none of the other categories apply to you (e.g. high blood pressure) then go ahead and do your  sun salutes for 30-40 minutes a day at a moderate speed.  If you are just getting into activity then take it slow and allow yourself plenty of time to learn the movements. Obviously you need to be vigilant of any changes in blood sugars with regular activity and increase in muscle mass.  Sun salutes should serve you well.    If your diabetes is not well-managed then check with your doctor before trying slow sun salutes.

You might also consider this article about food and diabetes – especially the video at the very end.  

9 – Injuries

If you have any injuries then you must try the slow sun salutations, and if it hurts then it is not for you.  For instance, wrist RSI, carpal tunnel, nerve damage in neck, biceps tendonitis, arthritis flare in hip, back pain – would not be ideal circumstances.  Certainly holding poses in slow SS’s rather than quickly moving through them could be more comfortable for you.  Slow sun salutes when you are ready will also aid the correct realignment of your muscles and skeleton, as well as promoting flexibility in stiffened up injuries.  Sun salutes for injury can help, but your individual case needs an experienced hands-on teacher.  There is plenty of other yoga to try! (Also see comments for shoulder injuries).

10 – During Your Period

It’s really up to you whether you do SS’s during your period.  A gentle stretch using the slow salutes will be best in the first few days of your period. If you already have severe pain such as that with endometriosis or very heavy periods, or just feel fatigued, then rest and restorative poses are your tonic.   If you are A-Okay then go ahead – being aware that heaps of fast sun salutes could leave you feeling depleted over time.

11 – Menopausal Symptoms

12 minutes of yoga a day for 2 years (that’s a daily medicine right there!) has been shown to increase bone density (REF4). Post-menopausal and non-symptomatic (flushes anxiety) peri-menopausal women will benefit from a moderate pace of continuous flow to build and maintain muscle strength and bone density.   Here you can be your own guide, and go with what is comfortable,  30-40 minutes on as many days of the week as possible if it is your only activity.

If you are suffering from increased stress, hot sweats, insomnia and weight gain, then I recommend you try the slow SS’s , pausing for 30 seconds in each pose to calm your nervous system,  aiming for 30-40 minutes.  This should feel like a fairly relaxing practice that will give you great satisfaction in achieving it, as well as increasing your relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system).

12 – Constipation

If your constipation is linked to stress or IBS then your body may be inflamed and you will benefit more from a slower style of SS’s.  Additionally the slow style will give a good lasting massage to your internal organs.

If your constipation is not stress related then pick up the pace to moderate.  Flow continuously through the movements with a steady breath, giving an even greater stretch and massage to the abdominal contents.  Persevere and you may like to try a low FODMAP style of eating.

If you have diarrhoea then rest and hydrate!

How many Sun Salutes should I do?

If you are using sun salutes as your only physical activity, or are really curious to see what you can get out of them, then 30-40 minutes a day is perfect.   Always use 27 day blocks when starting out.  See how you feel and then decide to continue for another 27 days!  6 months of morealess continuous daily sun salutes will show you the fullest benefits.

I don’t have 30-40 minutes what should I do instead?

One round of sun salutes a day at any speed that suits you will be hugely beneficial in the long-term.  Don’t take my word for it.  Commit to one round a day (at morealess the same time of day if you can).  Repeat for 27 days and see what happens.

I missed a day!  Should I give up or start again?

No worries!  You don’t even need to make up for it.  Keep going!  27 days including the day you missed!

Sun salutes don’t seem like a complete body practice to me.  What else should I do?

First of all concentrate on getting your salutes done; That is your priority for the next 27 days (and then 6 months total)!

It’s true that sun salutes don’t include a twist or specific side stretches.  On the days you need more, try these simple poses that you can do anywhere:

I thought yoga had to include mediation, breathing practices and relaxation to be complete?

Whilst that’s somewhat true, we are now concentrating on experiencing the benefits of what only sun salutes can bring! Many people don’t make the time for meditation, but it’s easier for us to squeeze in a physical yoga practice.

Once you are familiar with sun salutes (allow your first 27 days as practice) you will notice your breathing is slow and steady and your mind is more focused on what you are doing.  If you have time to lie down for 5 minutes afterwards and follow your navel moving up and down with breath, then congrats – you just relaxed too!

I’m pregnant – can I do these?

Sun salutes are not recommended in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you regularly practice yoga then it is usually fine to carry on what you normally do – check with your teacher and/or midwife.  A comprehensive and educated online pregnancy yoga course like this one may suit experienced and beginners alike.    If you are new to yoga then check with your medical professional first.

The lady in the video does sun salutes really fast…but you say go slow?

In the video, Sarsha completes 5 rounds in 7 minutes, that’s about a round every 90 seconds.     The scientifically investigated sun  salutes go at about one round every 2 minutes.  The key is to use the video here as instruction for breath and movement, and then find your own speed.  Allow yourself 9 minutes or more a day,  for 27 days to make this happen.

Step 1 – Play the video.  Now put your phone down and actually watch the video!

Step 2 – Join in with the breaths at the same time as watching the movements

Step 3 – Join in at your own pace, keep practicing the breath. Play the video as many times as you need to to memorise the sequence (27 days!), then go at your own pace using the video as a guide.

I cannot do all the parts of the sequence, especially getting my foot back up between my hands!  

This is really common. Go slow and coerce your foot between your hands using your hand!  Literally give it a hand.    If you are struggling with any part of the SS then leave a comment on this page, being as specific as possible.  I will help you out!

Videos courtesy of www.yoga.org.nz

REF1  – Effects of suryanamaskar on relaxation among college students with high stress in Pune, India Anand Sharad Godse1, Bhaskar R Shejwal2, Amruta Anand Godse3 IJOY – Year : 2015 | Volume : 8 | Issue : 1 | Page : 15-21

REF 2 – A comparative study of slow and fast suryanamaskar on physiological function
Bhavanani Ananda Balayogi, Udupa Kaviraja, Madanmohan, Ravindra P N 
Year : 2011 | Volume:  4 | Issue Number:  2 | Page: 71-76

REF3  Asian J Sports Med. 2011 Dec; 2(4): 259–266.  How Effective Is Sun Salutation in Improving Muscle Strength, General Body Endurance and Body Composition?Milind V. Bhutkar, MD,1,* Pratima M. Bhutkar, MSc,1 Govind B. Taware, MD,2 and Anil D. Surdi, MD2

REF4 Top Geriatr Rehabil. 2016 Apr; 32(2): 81–87. Published online 2015 Nov 5
Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss
Yi-Hsueh Lu, PhD, Bernard Rosner, PhD, Gregory Chang, MD, PhD, and Loren M. Fishman, MD, B Phil

About Claire Bhavani

www.thesistahood.org

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