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a woman holds cat pose

Cat–cow is a two-part yoga flow that stretches the front and back of the body while mobilizing the spine. It’s commonly included in yoga classes and in broader fitness sessions, often as part of a warm-up or mobility sequence.

By all appearances, it’s as easy as getting down on hands and knees, arching the back to lower the belly and point head and tailbone to the sky, and then reversing the move to round the back, tucking the chin and pelvis.

But it’s common for people to move quickly and aggressively between the cow (bitilasana) and cat (marjaryasana) poses. Often, limited mobility causes them to flex and extend well only in some segments of their spines. Moving fast and forcing deep flexion and extension can exaggerate these imbalances and lead to neck and lower-back pain.

To avoid these troubles, the first thing to do is slow down. Move through your range of motion painlessly, focusing on finding movement throughout your entire spine. Inhale as you drop your belly and move into cow; exhale as you round your spine for cat. Feel free to practice each pose individually, returning to a tabletop position instead of flowing between cat and cow.

Once you gain comfort flowing with control, explore ways to have fun with cat–cow or further adapt it to your needs. Try adding lateral movement by shifting your hips from side to side with each breath, or try rolling your shoulders back each time you exhale.

Challenge yourself to try to move extra slowly; imagine articulating through the spine vertebra by vertebra.

See what happens if you initiate the movement from your tailbone, especially if you tend to lead with your head and neck.

Practice the move in a chair or other seated position for a more upright variation of the pose.

  1. Start on your hands and knees in an active tabletop position; keep your neck in a neutral position, with your eyes looking down.
  2. Move first into cow: Inhale and lift your tailbone and chest toward the ceiling, as you allow your belly to relax downward. Lift your head to look forward.
  3. Round into cat: Exhale and draw your spine toward the ceiling. Relax the top of your head toward the floor, but don’t force your chin to your chest.
  4. Reverse the motion on an inhale to move back into cow, and repeat the sequence. Stay active through your hands and feet, but take care not to shift your shoulders and hips forward or back by pushing hard into the floor.

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Seated Cat–Cow

  • Sit upright on a chair, stool, or bench with your hands in your lap or hanging loosely at your sides, your feet parallel and hip width apart. If your chair has a back, don’t lean into it; sit on the front edge of the seat.
  • Slowly roll the tops of your hips backward, rounding your lower back and allowing your head to tip forward so you are looking down at your lap.
  • Slowly roll the tops of your hips forward, arching your lower back and allowing your head to tip backward so you can look at the ceiling.
  • Repeat the sequence slowly and with control; focus on the breath and quality of movement rather than pushing or forcing your body to stretch. Draw your shoulders downward, away from your ears, while you perform the movement, and focus on the movement in the hip joints.

This article originally appeared as “The Cat-Cow” in the May 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Maggie
Maggie Fazeli Fard

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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