More than just a physical practice, the Sun Salutations create a balanced, meditative mind that abides in equanimity between the two opposing forces of flexion and extension. This is the basic lesson of the emotional journey of the Intermediate Series, and it is available within the movements of the Surya Namaskara.
All asanas are held for one breath, except Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), which is held for five breaths in Sun Salutation A and for five breaths in Sun Salutation B.
The first breath of the practice, usually called one (ekam), sets the stage for healthy shoulder alignment in most inversions (see fig 2 ). Every time you raise your arms above your head, you are essentially training the arms how to be in alignment for more challenging postures like Pinchamayurasana, Bakasana (Crane Pose), and Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Contained within this simple movement is also the ability to straighten your arms fully in Urdhva Danurasana and Kapotasana B. Whether you are in the first breath of ekam, Utkatasana (Chair Pose) as the first breath of the Sun Salutation B, or Virabhadrasana A (Warrior I), it is crucial that you maintain the same shoulder alignment that is described in this chapter.
Many students are given the instruction to draw their shoulder blades down their back when raising their hands above their head; however, this instruction is only the first step of the movement. Starting off with your arms down by your sides in Samsthiti (see fig 1), first draw your shoulder blades down your back to create space around your neck. Then wrap your shoulder blades around toward the front of your body to activate the serratus anterior and rotator cuff muscles. Next send your arms and elbows forward, pressing the palms together. Activate your arm muscles and reach upward with your fingers. As you raise your arms, allow your shoulder blades to spiral forward, away from each other, and wrap around your torso. Once the forward shift with your hands and chest is complete, allow your shoulder blades to elevate while you draw your elbows toward each other as strongly as possible.
Do not stop when your arms are raised above your head in a vertical line with the rest of your body. Reach toward the ceiling with every bit of strength you have in your arms. Think about a swimmer’s arms reaching forward to jump into the water and reach with the same intensity toward the ceiling or sky. Do not worry about keeping your shoulder blades drawn down your back—that is merely the starting point to ensure that your neck has space. Fully straighten your arms, press your elbows in toward each other, gently drop your head back, and look up toward your thumbs. Look for an active stretching and strengthening sensation in your deltoids and arms. Most students are hesitant to find the full reach through their arms because they are afraid of lifting their shoulder blades or dropping their head back. In fact, only this lifted arm position creates the space for the head to drop back safely. The neck position practiced here is the same one used for backbends, so it behooves you to start integrating the muscular activation here. Do not worry about whether your elbows are hyperextended or not; instead, focus on your reach and length. Since you are not bearing weight, there is no risk of injury. Additionally, connecting the activation of the body into the energy flow will protect your joints over the long term. You should eventually do this motion in one long inhalation that allows The next place of emphasis for Intermediate students is in the strength movement to and from Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend; see fig 3). Activating the core and the shoulders to float or jump forward and back helps you develop the strength and steadiness necessary for the Intermediate Series. When initiating the motion to jump back from the third breath (trini) (see fig 4), remember not to throw your body back. (Note that trini and sapta are the same position, and the differ only in the entry and exit into the posture.) Instead, firm your shoulder girdle, activate your core muscles, and lean your shoulders and chest forward over your palms. Jump your hips forward by engaging your pelvic floor, and send your hips over the stable foundation of your arms. Then exhale and land softly in Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose; see fig 5). This movement is ideally learned with the assistance of a teacher who can emphasize the appropriate jump height and activation level.