Cobra Pose from San Salutation flow done with the sunrise

Difference between Sun Salutation and Moon Salutation

The key differences between Sun Salutation and Moon Salutation are the asanas and their benefits to the body and the mind.

One of the first yoga sequences most practitioners learn when they start yoga is the sun salutation. Sun salutations are used at the beginning of a class to warm up the entire body ahead of the more challenging asanas. However, you may have also come across moon salutations. So what is the difference between the two, and when should you practice them?

Sun salutation and moon salutation are flowing sequences that consist of specific yoga asanas. There are a few key differences, including the yoga postures they feature and the type of energy and effect on the body and mind they create. 

Despite their differences, both types of salutations are highly beneficial. If you’re interested to learn more about these common yoga sequences, read on. Not only will I explain the difference between sun salutations and moon salutations, but I’ll also break down the three variations of the former. 

What is a Sun Salutation?

A sun salutation is a sequence of heat-building yoga asanas (postures) performed dynamically, moving with the breath. In ancient tradition, sun salutations were used in a morning ritual to express gratitude to the sun. Nowadays, they form the warm-up session of many yoga classes. 

Sun salutation translates to Surya Namaskar in Sanskrit, meaning “to salute the sun.” Several rounds of the sequence are typically performed at the start of a Hatha, Ashtanga, or Vinyasa flow class, where you need to build heat and increase the fire element to prepare the body for more advanced asanas. You are unlikely to see them in a yin or restorative class where the purpose is to create a calming, relaxing energy. 

Although you usually find sun salutations as the warm-up in a yoga class, doing a few rounds can be a short yet complete yoga practice. This is because they work the entire body, building strength and flexibility. You can perform a sun salutation without any prior warm-up, and you don’t have to add on cool-down postures after, although I recommend doing a mini savasana

Interestingly, the sun salutation was not designed to be part of a yoga asana practice. Sun salutations originated thousands of years ago, where they were an integral part of Vedic rituals to worship the sun. They can be traced back to 1500 BCE, described in the ancient Hindu text, Rig Veda.

Today, Hindus in some parts of India still practice Surya Namaskar rituals in the early morning, often at temples or other sacred sites. However, these movements are most likely not the same as those practiced in the west. 

How many Sun Salutations are there?

You might already know that sun salutations are not always precisely the same. The sequence depends on the style and lineage of yoga. For example, the Surya Namaskar you practice in a slow Hatha class will look different from the one you practice in a dynamic Ashtanga session.

There are three variations of sun salutations; Traditional Hatha Sun Salutation and Ashtanga yoga Sun Salutations A & B. All three variations feature some of the same postures and some different ones. So let’s take a closer look.

Traditional Hatha Sun Salutation

The sun salutation from the Hatha lineage is the most gentle of the three variations and thus is the best one for beginners. It consists of 12/13 asanas, in the following order:

  1. Mountain pose (Tadasana) 
  2. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana) – Inhale
  3. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  4. Kneeling low lunge (Anjaneyasana) – Inhale
  5. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Exhale
  6. Plank (Dandasana) – Inhale
  7. Eight limbed pose (Ashtanga Namaskar) – Exhale
  8. Cobra (Bhujangasana) – Inhale
  9. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Exhale
  10. Kneeling low lunge (Anjaneyasana) – Inhale
  11. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  12. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana) – Inhale
  13. Mountain pose (Tadasana) – Exhale

Each pose is typically performed via “breath to movement,” as detailed above. However, some teachings omit plank (Dandasana), making it a sequence of 12 asanas. In this case, you hold your breath as you transition through the eight-limbed pose (Ashtanga Namaskar) and inhale as normal as you come into the cobra. Also, note that you need to repeat all steps on the opposite side to complete the round. 

Ashtanga yoga Sun Salutation A

Sun Salutation A, which comes from the Ashtanga lineage, is more strenuous than the Hatha variation but gentler than Sun Salutation B. It is also the shortest variation, with 10 poses.

  1. Mountain pose (Tadasana) 
  2. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana) – Inhale
  3. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  4. Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana) – Inhale
  5. Four limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) – Exhale
  6. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) – Inhale
  7. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Hold 5 breaths
  8. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  9. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana) – Inhale
  10. Mountain pose (Tadasana) – Exhale

Traditionally, you jump back from a half-forward bend (Ardha Uttanasana) to a four-limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana). However, unlike in the Hatha variation, you omit plank and instead lower down through Chaturanga immediately. All poses are done breath to movement except the downward dog, where you pause for five breaths. 

Ashtanga yoga Sun Salutation B

Sun salutation B is the longest and most strenuous variation, featuring 19 poses in the following order.

  1. Mountain pose (Tadasana) 
  2. Chair pose (Utkatasana) – Inhale
  3. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  4. Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana) – Inhale
  5. Four limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) – Exhale
  6. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) – Inhale
  7. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Exhale
  8. Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana I) – Inhale
  9. Four limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) – Exhale
  10. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) – Inhale
  11. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Exhale
  12. Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana I) on the other side – Inhale
  13. Four limbed staff pose (Chaturanga Dandasana) – Exhale
  14. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) – Inhale
  15. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – Hold 5 breaths
  16. Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana) – Inhale
  17. Standing forward fold (Uttanasana) – Exhale
  18. Chair pose (Utkatasana) – Inhale
  19. Mountain pose (Tadasana) – Exhale

All postures in this dynamic sequence are performed breath to movement, except the final downward-facing dog, where you hold for two breaths. Some teachers will add a hold in the first chair pose too. 

Benefits of Sun Salutation

There is a reason why sun salutations are featured in almost every modern-day yoga class, and usually, that reason is not linked to tradition. Sun salutation yoga sequence serves incredible benefits to your body, mind, and energy levels and naturally makes an ideal warm-up or even a short, complete practice. Here are the main advantages of performing sun salutations. 

It opens the body and increases flexibility

If you’ve practiced sun salutations more than a few times, you’ll know that your body feels totally different at the end of the third round compared to the first. For example, you most likely noticed the sensation of tightness in the hamstrings or calves in the first Downward Dog, so much that your heels remained high off the ground. However, by the last Downward Dog, those muscles probably felt much more flexible, and perhaps you could even bring the heels to the ground.

As sun salutations work the whole body, they can improve flexibility in your joints and muscles. For example, Cobra and Upward-Facing Dog stretch and open the front of the body, and Uttanasana (standing forward fold) opens the back body. Likewise, warrior 1 (in Sun Salutation B) improves the flexibility in your hips.

It builds strength

Because sun salutations are usually performed dynamically and include postures that bear weight on the upper body, such as plank and downward dog, they can increase your strength as much as your flexibility. 

The variation of sun salutation you practice and the number of rounds you complete will determine how much strength you build. For example, the Ashtanga variations include Chaturanga, which is the first part of a push-up. As you bend your elbows to lower down, you keep your body off the floor and use your arm strength to push into a backbend (Upward-Facing Dog). 

It increases the fire element

Traditional yogic teachings mention the five elements and their connection to the seven chakras. For example, the sun is associated with the fire element and the third chakra, the Solar Plexus (Manipura in the Sanskrit language). The energy from the sun can increase the fire element within us and thus strengthen our Solar Plexus Chakra. Dynamic, heat-building postures like those used in sun salutations also have the same effect. 

There are several reasons why you may want to increase your fire element. For example, perhaps you live in a cold country, feel tired and depleted, or want to cultivate the qualities of the Solar Plexus Chakra, like confidence, willpower, and courage. Therefore, increasing the fire element through sun salutations can significantly boost your energy and mood. 

It can prevent yoga injuries

Injuries in yoga practices are, unfortunately, pretty common. Many injuries happen because the body is not warm enough for the more advanced postures. For example, if you attempt an arm balance like the crow pose without warming up the wrists and shoulders with postures that bear weight on the upper body, you can easily cause pain or injury.

However, as sun salutations warm up the entire body, you’re less likely to experience injuries later when you move into deeper asanas.

It increases focus

Sun salutations are an excellent way to clear the mind as they require focus and presence. I recall when I attended my first ever yoga class and was introduced to sun salutations. 

When you start learning them, the only way to follow along is to stay focused on the teacher’s instructions. Then, when you know them by heart, performing them still calls for total attention as you link each movement to each breath. Sun salutations can become a form of moving meditation for long-term yoga practitioners.

It reduces stress

As sun salutations help you become more present, they carry stress-busting benefits. For example, a 2015 study on college students found that those who practiced Surya Namaskar for 20 minutes every morning for two weeks showed fewer stress symptoms than those who did not.

You can tailor them to your needs

While sun salutations are traditionally practiced in the morning, it is acceptable to do sun salutations any time of the day. However, as they can be pretty energizing, I wouldn’t recommend doing them right before bed. 

You can vary the speed you perform them, too. For example, moving at a slower pace is beneficial if you feel tired, whereas a breath-to-movement style is good if you want a sweaty practice. In addition, holding the postures for longer focuses more on strength building, whereas moving fast will burn more calories.

What is a Moon Salutation?

The moon salutation is a sequence of 17 asanas that relaxes the body and calms the mind. It’s an ideal flow to practice in the evening or on hot days as it has a cooling energy that lowers the fire element in the body.

Unlike Surya Namaskar, the moon salutation (known as Chandra Namaskar in Sanskrit) is not an ancient practice or ritual. It is believed that this alternative salutation was created as recently as the late 1980s. It was introduced as a feminine, yin, cooling sequence to balance the yang, masculine, energizing Surya Namaskar.

While it makes sense to practice sun salutations in the morning and moon salutations at night, Chandra Namaskar can also be practiced at particular points in the moon cycle, such as the full moon. 

In fact, I was first introduced to moon salutations when one day, instead of doing our usual sun salutation warm-up, my teacher guided Chandra Namaskar to salute the moon. Then, as we flowed through the sequence, we focused on the visualization of the moon to better channel the lunar energy.

How many types of Moon Salutations are there?

There is only one traditional moon salutation, consisting of 17 yoga poses. However, some teachers have created their own unofficial variations, too. The traditional Chandra Namaskar includes the following poses in its sequence.

  1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
  2. Side Bend/Half Moon
  3. Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana)
  4. Star Pose
  5. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
  6. Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
  7. Low Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
  8. Low Side Lunge 
  9. Garland Pose (Malasana)
  10. Low Side Lunge – Turning to the other side
  11. Low Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
  12. Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
  13. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
  14. Star Pose
  15.  Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana)
  16. Side Bend/Half Moon 
  17.  Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Note that steps 5 to 8 are performed on one side and steps 10 to 13 on the other. Thus, you complete the sequence on both sides by step 17.

What is Moon Salutation good for?

Although moon salutations are not practiced much in yoga classes, they have as many benefits as sun salutations. You can use Chandra Namaskar as a warm-up for your practice, but as it creates calming energy, it’s best to use it when you know you want a gentle and relaxing session rather than an energizing one. Here are the top benefits of introducing moon salutations into your practice. 

It calms the mind

The calming, yin qualities of lunar energy make moon salutations an excellent tool for when your mind is overactive or when you experience feelings of anger or frustration. In these cases, yin movement styles are most beneficial as they reduce the fire element within and evoke a calming presence. 

It cools and relaxes the body

The salutation draws from the cooling and calming energy of the moon. As a result, it can be an excellent alternative on days you lack fuel and, for women, on your moon cycle days. It is also beneficial to do instead of sun salutations on a scorching summer day when the fire element is already high. 

It rebalances the nervous system

As Chandra Namaskar relaxes your body and calms your mind, your nervous system can rebalance. If you live a fast-paced lifestyle like many of us do, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) will likely be your default mode. 

So, calming activities like practicing moon salutations will shift you into the parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as the rest and digest mode, this division of the nervous system promotes digestion, healing, detoxing, and rest. 

It stretches and opens the entire body

The Chandra Namaskar sequence doesn’t include the strengthening and heat-building postures of the sun salutations, like plank and Chaturanga. However, it still stretches all body parts, including the spine, hamstrings, and hips. Therefore, regularly practicing it can increase your flexibility, like with Surya Namaskar.

Sun Salutation and Moon Salutation: The key differences

When you look at both sequences, it’s easy to see one of the main differences: the asanas. However, the most significant contrast is the energy they create and their effect on the body.

Sun salutation invokes the fire element of the sun, building heat in the body and boosting your energy. On the other hand, Moon salutation draws cooling, calming energy from the moon, relaxing the body, mind, and nervous system.

Typically sun salutations are best done in the morning, and moon salutations are better at night, but in reality, you can do them whenever you feel like it. To get the most benefits, you can mix and match the two, practicing Surya Namaskar when you want to create energy and Chandra Namaskar when you need to cultivate a sense of calm.

Understanding the differences between sun salutations and moon salutations will help you tailor your yoga practice to your daily needs. The current season or climate can also determine which Namaskar to practice. For example, you might want to include more heat-building sun salutations in your practice during winter and more cooling moon salutations in the summer.