Fresh Take Friday: Cat-Cow

Cow Pose (Bitilasana) on the top; Cat Pose (Marjariasana) on the bottom

Cat-Cow is a common movement both in the yoga world and in other movement modalities. This flowing series is most often done on all fours. In Cow Pose (Bitilasana), the spine is in extension or a backbend, with the belly descending towards the mat. In Cat Pose (Marjariasana), the spine is flexed or arched in a rainbow shape, with the belly lifting. These poses are usually alternated several times, with Cow Pose commonly done on the inhales and Cat Pose on the exhales.

While Cat-Cow ostensibly involves spinal movement, it’s really common for people to get some of the movement from other joints, and/or stay pretty immobile through sections of the spine. Because this series is common, it’s also a place where people might check out or go into “autopilot” mode. In addition, although commonly done in beginner or all-levels classes, these poses are actually not accessible for quite a lot of people. Wrist issues, knee issues, difficulty getting down on the floor, limited spinal movement, and other common situations can affect your ability to do Cat-Cow.

For today’s Fresh Take Friday, I want to take another look at Cat-Cow and suggest some other ways to do this movement that might be (1) more accessible, and (2) invite more spinal movement and better awareness in these poses. As with any poses, it’s important to check with your doctor to make sure these spinal movements are appropriate for you, and don’t do any movements that are uncomfortable, painful, or otherwise don’t feel safe in your body.

What makes Cat-Cow Cat-Cow?

When we consider what the Cat-Cow flow is about, there might be a number of different possible answers. For me, there are three key areas I really like to focus on here. One is the movement of the spine into flexion (Cat) and extension (Cow) in a way that is comfortable and ease-filled, and also explores our movement potential through the whole spine. Another is the relationship between that spinal movement and what is happening with the limbs. And the last thing aspect of Cat-Cow that is really salient for me is the breath and the way it relates to our movement.

Making Cat-Cow more accessible

Cat-Cow at the wall

We can explore these Cat-Cow concepts of the spine, the limbs, and/or the breath in other positions and orientations to gravity. Depending on your needs, you can do these movements seated on the floor or in a chair with the hands on the wall as pictured above, or you can do them seated with the hands on the lap.

If your hands or wrists give you trouble, you can come up onto your fists or place your forearms on the mat, a bolster, or two blocks.

If your knees give you trouble, you can stand in front of a chair with your hands on the seat of the chair, and your torso approximately parallel to the earth – like being on all fours except that your legs are in standing.

If spinal movement is not available to you right now, you can stay in seated, standing, or lying down in a supported position, notice the movements of the breath in and out of the body, and imagine the spinal movements occurring or find tiny micromovements with the breath. You could also explore movement in just part of the spine if that’s available.

This movement doesn’t have to be done on all fours to be Cat-Cow, or to be valuable as a tool for awareness, breath, and mobility.

I have a Cat-Cow practice. Now what?

So you’ve found a Cat-Cow practice that works for you, and you’ve learned the movement. What’s your fresh take?

Once you’ve learned the flow and notice you have a tendency to autopilot, or you always do the flow exactly the same way, it’s time to change it up. Doing the same movement in different ways is so good for our bodies and brains! It gives us different input for our tissues and nervous system, and it can lead to more movement options in yoga and in life. Having more options is liberating!

Here are a few ideas for how you can change up your Cat-Cow practice. Do you have other ideas? Share them in the comments below.

  1. Keep your weight centered as you move between Cat and Cow. This works particularly well in variations where your torso is more or less parallel to the earth (on all fours or standing with a chair). Do you have a tendency to rock forward and back as you move? Slow down and stay centered to bring more of the movement into your spine.
  2. Change the pace of your movement. Make the movement faster or slower, a little or a lot. Notice how the pace of your movement affects your awareness and the experience of the pose.
  3. Reverse the breathing. Once you’ve gotten used to doing Cat on the exhale and Cow on the inhale, reverse the breath. Inhale into Cat and exhale into Cow, or do both movements on an inhale, or do both movements on an exhale. Notice whether that changes your experience.
  4. Reverse the direction. Teachers often suggest starting these movements at the tailbone and moving one vertebra at a time up the spine. If you’re used to doing the flow this way, try starting at the head and moving one vertebra at a time down the spine. Or start with the shoulder blades/ upper back, and then add the lower back, and then add the neck. Or however you want to shake things up.
  5. Be more intentional about moving each segment of the spine. Although you may have heard the cue to move one vertebra at a time as mentioned above, when you slow down and pay attention, you may find that you’re skipping sections of the spine or moving chunks of the spine together. Slow down a lot and get as much movement as you can from each segment of the spine. You may find that your arms and legs want to naturally participate in this work. Don’t go into any movements that are painful, and if in doubt, get help from a medical professional.
  6. Work in one part of the spine at a time. Keep the other segments of the spine still. See image below to help visualize the spine.
    • Lumbar spine, sacrum, and tailbone: Start Cat by tucking the tailbone and moving one vertebra at a time up the lower back until about the bottom of the rib cage, and then reverse into Cow in just the lower back. (Moving: pink, blue, and purple on the diagram below)
    • Thoracic spine: Find a Cat spine in the upper back (the part of the spine that runs along the back of the rib cage). Then move into a Cow spine, melting the heart. This part of the spine has limited mobility because it provides stability and protection for the heart and lungs, so these movements will be small. Cow in the thoracic spine is more like flattening the natural curve. (Moving: orange on the diagram below)
    • Cervical spine: The neck is the most mobile part of the spine, and some of your available range of motion may not be comfortable. Slow down as you move through the neck, and stay in a range that is easy and pain free – no crunching, gripping, breath holding, or discomfort. See if you can mobilize all the way to the top joint where the skull sits on the top vertebra of the neck (the atlanto-occipital joint) and really feel each segment of the neck moving. (Moving: green on the diagram below)

If you try any of these variations, let me know in the comments which was your favorite.

The information, instruction, and advice contained in this post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.

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