If you’ve been going to yoga classes for any time at all, chances are you’ll be familiar with the spine-mobilizing movements of cat-cow. This simple sequence, performed on all fours, is an integral point of many yoga warm up sequences.
But just what do we mean by cat-cow pose, and why do yogis love it so much?
Well let’s start by clearing up some confusion. There is, in fact, no such thing as “cat-cow pose.”
We practice cat pose, then cow pose, then cat again and so on, in the much loved “cat-cow” sequence.
Setting up for Cat-Cow
Both postures have as their foundation an all fours posture, with the body in a table top position, supported by the hands and shins. The hands should be directly beneath the shoulders and the knees directly beneath the hips.
Although the arms are straight, it’s important not to fully “lock out” the elbows, especially for those with hypermobility. Having a very small bend, often referred to by yoga teachers as a “micro bend,” at the elbows can help avoid forcing the elbows into hyperextension, as can gently pressing the hands into the mat so that the muscles of the arms are engaged.
Hands should be spread wide, and the gaze is down, keeping the back of the neck long. Initially the spine is in neutral, with the front of the body engaged and drawing in towards the back of the body.
Which Is Which?
In cat pose, the spine moves into flexion. The tailbone curls down or under, the mid back and space between the shoulder blades presses up towards the sky and the chin curls in.
The shape, unsurprisingly, resembles that of the delicious wake-up stretch much loved by our feline friends.
That feeling of awakening and opening is where the benefit of cat pose comes – it stretches the back of the body, easing out tension from shoulders, and waking up our core with a little squeeze. It’s also great for releasing the back of the neck.
In cow pose, we go the other way, into extension of the spine. From a neutral position, the tailbone lifts, the belly lowers towards the floor, the front of the chest expands and the chin lifts.
It’s a stretch and a squeeze in the opposite direction to cat pose. The muscles of the back body engage, and the heart space and belly can open and expand.
The real joy of the sequence is in this continual front-back body alternating between expanding and contracting, stretching and squeezing. The repetitive movement mobilizes the spine, engages core muscles and massages the internal organs and digestive system.
Getting the Most Out of Your Cat-Cow
Here are a few things to bear in mind, to maximize the benefits of this deceptively simple yoga gem.
1. Use cat-cow as part of your warm-up.
I rarely do a self-practice where I don’t include some cat-cow. It’s such a great way to wake up the body, tune into how I’m feeling and link movement with breath.
2. Play with making it more active.
Since cat-cow is so simple, it can be practiced with minimal effort, essentially stretching into cat pose then letting your spine sag into cow pose. However, if you do this you miss out on some potentially juicy sensations.
Instead, when you move through into cat pose focus on drawing the lower belly in to curl the tailbone under, squeeze your mid core to stretch your mid back, and actively engage your chest muscles to press the ground away and open up even more space between the shoulder blades.
As you move into cow pose, actively engage the muscles of the back in sequence – lower back first, then mid back, upper back, and back of the neck. Working more actively allows you to strengthen the muscles of the core and back body while getting more of an opening in the opposing muscles.
3. Work with your breath.
Usually, cow is practiced on an inhalation, and cat pose is on the exhale. Working with the breath in this way helps enhance the muscular engagement just described, especially for cat, where as you exhale you are also squeezing the breath out of the body.
On the inhalation for cow posec, visualize breathing into the sides of the ribs as well as the front of the chest to maximize the benefits.
Taking Cat-Cow to the Next Level
Once you are familiar with the sequence, you can begin to play with it. The movement of cat-cow, like much of our everyday movement, happens in the sagittal plane, that is taking our spine into flexion and extension.
This is great, but to keep your spine healthy, it’s a good idea to incorporate movements in other planes, for example side to side or twisting. So after a few rounds of cat-cow, try mixing things up a bit, perhaps moving your hips in circles, barrel rolling your torso, or making c-shapes laterally with your spine.
Closing your eyes and staying connected to your breath can help you to tune into the movements that your body is asking for.
The final thing to bear in mind is that if you incorporate cat-cow into your yoga practice regularly, you may find yourself going through the motions and doing it on autopilot. To avoid this, stay focused on the sensation of the poses and let yourself be fascinated by the fact that every time you practice cat-cow, it will feel a little a bit different.
By staying tuned in to these subtle differences, you get to experience the full benefits of this deliciously simple sequence.