Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskars, are an integral part of most flow yoga classes, whether it’s Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, Power, or any variation of flow – and for good reason. A Sun Salutation sequence works every muscle in the body, providing a strengthening and lengthening method that awakens the body, but can sun salutations assist with weight loss?
Are sun salutations effective for weight loss? Yes. Sun salutations are a great way to burn calories, and help increase lean muscle mass, which in turn increases your metabolism, further assisting in weight loss.
But there are a few factors effecting your desired results: time, pace, and physical health all play a role in how quickly and effectively you reach your weight loss results.
A Sun Salutation refers to a series of poses performed in a flowing sequence. There are about 24 variations of the Sun Salutation, but their purpose is all the same:
On a spiritual level, the sequence is meant to honor the sun, the “dispeller of darkness”, whose power (solar) literally makes life possible.
On a physical level, the sequence builds heat in the body, warming the muscles up and getting blood flowing to safely enter deeper postures.
Many people practice this sequence as a warm up, but also solely practice it to lose weight and gain flexibility with great results.
Though there are approximately 24 variations of Surya Namaskar, the 2 most common you will find in class are Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. Most often, you will do approximately 4 rounds of Surya Namaskar A, followed by 2-4 rounds of Surya Namaskar B, prior to moving into deeper postures.
Surya Namaskar A:
Yes, there are multiple studies that not only prove the effectiveness of yoga on weight loss, put specifically the practice of Sun Salutations. So if you are still skeptic as to whether Surya Namaskar can help you meet your weight loss goals, check out these studies
Study #1: In an 8 month study of male and female participants who practiced yoga 6 days per week in the form of 24 Sun Salutations daily, BMI was decreased in all participants AND muscle strength was increased – and body weight for each participant decreased by an average of 2.6% (that means if you weigh 150 pounds, you’d have lost 4 pounds), while body fat decreased by an average of 2.25% in males and nearly 7% in females!
Study #2: An 8 week study was conducted on females with BMI’s between 25.1 and 34.9 who had not had physical activity within the past 3 months. There were 3 groups that were created to assess the effectiveness of circuit training, treadmill, and Surya Namaskar for weight loss. Results showed that both circuit training and Surya Namaskar were almost equally effective in weight loss, with body fat percentage decreasing by 5% with circuit training, and 3.7% with Surya Namaskar.
So if you would have been 150 pounds with a body fat percentage of 25% in the beginning of this study, after 8 weeks of just practicing Sun Salutations, you would have lost 5 pounds of body fat!
Study #3: A one month study was conducted on 30 subjects who qualified as being obese. After practicing one month of daily 60 minute sessions of sun salutations, the results showed the average weight decreased from 78.46 kg(about 173 pounds) to 74.88 kg (about 165 pounds)! That is an 8 pound difference in just a month of practicing sun salutations!
On average (repeat: a very wide-ranging average! This is across all ages, body types, and sun-salutation styles, so this is not set in stone), a full sun salutation cycle take approximately 3.5 minutes, and burns approximately 14 calories per cycle.
According to Harvard Health, 30 minutes of yoga will burn 120 calories for someone weighing 125 pounds (150 calories for someone weighing 155 pounds).
120 calories divided by 30 minutes = 4 calories per minute
4 calories per minute x 3.5 minutes = 14 calories per Sun Salutation cycle
From a strict caloric burn standpoint: you must burn 3,500 calories in order to lose 1 pound. 3500 calories divided by 14 calories = 250 sun salutations. You could technically practice 35 sun salutations in a row everyday of the week, and lose 1 pound in a week.
But it’s not all about calories. Sun salutations are not only for caloric burn – they also strengthen your muscles, meaning you could potentially gain muscle mass. The good news is that lean muscle mass literally burns more calories at rest than fat does; and one pound of fat takes up significantly more space on your body than one pound of muscle. Basically, you could gain 2 pounds thanks to muscle, but literally be 2 sizes smaller because you’ve lost your fat, which weighed less than the muscle.
For a quick metabolic burn that raises your heart rate, you should perform the sun salutation sequence at a faster pace. Studies have proven that a quicker-paced practice burns more calories than a slower-paced practice of the same yoga postures.
If you’re seeking to strengthen your muscles, enhance flexibility, and center you mind, you should perform the sequence at a slower pace.
What if you want both strengthened muscles and a high calorie burn? Do them both fast and slow! An excellent way to warm your body up during sun salutations is to practice 4 or more very slowly, waking the muscles and joints up, and then beginning to pick up the pace.
1 round of Sun Salutation A, at a slow pace, takes anywhere from 45-60 seconds.
1 round of Sun Salutation A, at a quicker pace, takes approximately 30 seconds.
1 round of Sun Salutation B, at a slow pace, takes approximately 90-150 seconds (1.5-2.5 minutes).
1 round of Sun Salutation B, at a quicker pace, takes approximately 60-75 seconds.
For a well-rounded practice, both! A good way to start, if you’re a beginner, is:
As you get more familiar and gain more stamina and strength, continue to increase the quantity of each exercise.
Some classes will have you take Low Lunge in place of Warrior I, while other classes will have you do “knees-chest-chin” instead of chaturanga. More often than not, a Surya Namaskar B will have a Chair pose thrown in before hopping back to Plank – none of these are wrong or right, they’re just different!
As you make Sun Salutations part of your regular routine, you may notice that you’re saying “no” to junk food or expanding your palette to include more vegetables and leaner proteins – in fact, another study analyzed participants’ yoga as it linked to changes in behavior outside of the postures practiced.
1. Stress reduction: being a mind-body activity, the practice of yoga helps you tame the “monkey mind” that goes 1,000 miles a minute throughout your regular day. When you give your body a chance to just be, and to breathe, your body can leave the state of fight-or-flight to enter a peaceful state, which carries over into everything you do.
2. Mood improvement: A 12-week study has proven (yup, yet another yoga study, haha) that increasing yoga practice to 3 times per week (but even just one time a week) greatly reduced depressive symptoms and thoughts for people experiencing MDD (major depressive disorder).
You don’t have to have depression to want a better mood – we all have bad and/or stressful days sometimes!
3. Better physical and psychosocial decisions: you know how bad habits can lead to a downward spiral (like, oh well, I didn’t eat well today, why bother working out, I’ll just start tomorrow…)? Well, yoga is kind of like that, but an upward spiral. You’ll find yourself wanting fresh fruits and vegetables more than usual, and you may even surround yourself with people doing more active things (such as going to the farmer’s market instead of the bar for happy hour). The more you treat your body well, the more you’ll want to continue doing so!