Cat Pose and Cow Pose are two commonly practiced yoga poses and they are definitely two of my favorite. They are simple, not requiring any insane strength or flexibility, and are hugely beneficial to most bodies. These two poses can be practiced by anyone at any level of experience. Cat and Cow have alternating spinal movements that create strength and mobility in both the front and back of the torso, and undo much of the pain and stiffness that we get from sitting. There are also many ways to modify this pose if you have physical limitations that I discuss below. Let’s dive in…
I often begin with Cat pose, for no particular reason other than that’s how my body wants to move. Cat pose is typically done as you exhale, flowing with the contracting nature of the exhale. As you exhale, the abdomen contracts, encouraging the abdominal muscles to shorten, and the spinal muscles to lengthen. Exhaling draws the front body toward the back body, thereby strengthening the anterior (front) aspect of our core. We are stretching the spinal muscles and the Rhomboids (between the shoulder blades) while strengthening the shoulders, arms, and pelvic floor.
Start in Table, on your hands and knees. Place your shoulders over your wrists with your palms flat and your fingers spreading apart. Stack your hips over your knees and let your feet relax on the floor behind you. Inhale. As you exhale, engage the pelvic floor (Perineum muscle between the anus and the genitals), activate the lower abdominals and start to round the spine starting with the pelvis. Round the spine moving one vertebra at a time from the tailbone to the head. This sequential movement allows you to move intentionally through each part of the back. You may notice that parts of your back move as a “chunk,” and that’s fine. With practice you will gain more articulation through the spine and more control. At the fullest expression of the pose, your spine is rounded, the head and tailbone aiming toward the floor. Spread your shoulder blades apart and draw the front of your rib cage toward the back. Try to time the breath with the movement, starting your exhale with the movement of your pelvis, and finishing your exhale with the movement of your head.
Cow pose is the spinal reverse of Cat pose. Cow pose is done as you inhale, allowing the rib cage to expand with breath, while contracting the spinal muscles. This pose strengthens all of the posterior muscles (muscles of the back body) and reverses slouching. When we “sit for a living” and are “computering” a lot, our body takes on more of a rounded, much less vertical posture (read more here). Over time, this can have a deleterious effect on our body, causing pain and stiffness in the neck and back. Cow pose is an antidote to sitting, as it contracts and strengthens the Erector Spinae group which support the spine. It also strengthens the Rhomboids which pull the shoulder blades together. Cat pose strengthens the anterior (front) aspect of our core, and Cow pose strengthens the posterior (back) aspect of our core.
From Cat pose, inhale and tip the pelvis in the opposite direction, tailbone lifting upward. Continue that movement through the spine (one vertebra at a time), arching the back, waist moving toward the floor, head lifts last. Think about gently pressing the chest forward through the arms with the shoulders moving backward as you squeeze the shoulder blades slightly toward each other. The rib cage moves forward while the hips press backward, keeping the hips over the knees, but lengthening, rather than compressing, the spine. Press downward through the palms and try to lift up out of the shoulders so that you aren’t shrugging. Feel the abdominals lengthening and stretching as the back muscles gently contract. Like with Cat pose, try to time the breath with the movement, starting your inhale by tipping the pelvis, and finishing your inhale with the lift of your head.
Flowing Between Cat Pose and Cow Pose
While each pose is beneficial in and of itself, moving back and forth between them feels like medicine for your spine and helps support your posture. Spend some time with these poses to get more strength and mobility in your spine and core. Try going back and forth between Cat and Cow 3-5 times, connecting the breath with the movement, the movement with the breath. Start each pose with the pelvis and finish with the head. There is nothing necessarily wrong with moving the head and pelvis at the same time, but when you do, you lose the spinal articulation and a deeper experience of the poses.
There are many ways to modify these poses if you have injuries or physical limitations, you can even practice at your desk or in a chair! If you find it difficult to get on and off the floor, or have other limitations, here are some variations that you can practice to get all the benefits of Cat and Cow. Choose the variation that works best for your body.
Seated in a chair: Sit toward the front of the seat with the knees over your ankles, feet flat on the floor. Your hands can rest on your knees or thighs, whichever is more comfortable. Start by sitting on top of your sit bones with a vertical pelvis and spine. Inhale. As you exhale move into “Cat pose” by lifting the pelvic floor, activating the lower abdominals, and rocking to the back edge of your sit bones as you round the spine. At the end of your exhale allow your chin to drop toward your chest. When you inhale, shift your pelvis in the other direction, rocking to the front edge of your sit bones, gently contracting the spinal muscles, and lifting the ribcage and chest toward the ceiling. Keep your head in line with the spine without collapsing the back of your neck. Keep the neck long by just lifting the chin. Go back and forth 3-5 times to loosen up the spine and get in a little core work at your desk.
Standing: Stand with your feet parallel, somewhere between hip and shoulder distance apart. Let it feel comfortable and stable. Bend your knees, aiming the center of your knees toward the 2nd and 3rd toe of each foot. Place your hands on your knees or thighs and hinge forward with a straight spine. Inhale. As you exhale, lift the pelvic floor, activate the lower abdominals, and round the spine, one vertebra at a time. Just like on the floor, move sequentially from the lower back to the upper back, and let the chin fall toward the chest. As you inhale, reach the tailbone backward and arch the spine, moving one vertebra at a time from the lower back to the upper back. Allow the chin to lift without collapsing the neck. Try to connect the breath to the movement and the movement to the breath. Go back and forth 3-5 times.
On your elbows: If you have hand or wrist limitations, come down onto your elbows and knees, rather than hands and knees. Place the elbows below the shoulders. The hands can either be flat on the floor in front of your elbows or they can interlace in front of you. Follow the directions for Cat Pose and Cow Pose above, as it’s essentially the same but without pressure on the wrists.
Click here to watch a video of Cat and Cow with all of the modifications and variations.
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