The cat-cow stretch is a yoga essential, and with good reason. It consists of moving the spine from a rounded position (flexion) to an arched one (extension). It’s a basic motion, but one that is enormously beneficial in preventing back pain and maintaining a healthy spine, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.
Cat Pose (Marjaryasana) — is often paired with Cow Pose (Bitilasana) — for a gentle warm-up sequence. When practiced together, the poses help to stretch the body and prepare it for other activity. Each movement is done in conjunction with either an inhalation or exhalation of the breath, making this a simple vinyasa. If you already have back pain, check with your doctor before beginning to make sure these movements are appropriate for your condition.
Benefits of Cat-Cow Pose
Cat-Cow is a gentle flow between two poses that warms the body and brings flexibility to the spine. It stretches the back torso and neck, and softly stimulates and strengthens the abdominal organs. It also open the chest, encouraging the breath to become slow and deep. The spinal movement of the two poses stimulates the kidneys and adrenal glands. Coordinating this movement with your breathing relieves stress and calms the mind. This sequence also helps to develop postural awareness and balance throughout the body. It brings the spine into correct alignment and can help prevent back pain when practiced regularly.
Those with neck injuries should keep the head in line with the torso, not dropping it forward or back. Pregnant women and those with back injuries should only perform Cow Pose, bringing the spine back to neutral between poses — do not let the belly drop between repetitions, as this can strain the lower back. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
How to Do Cat-Cow Pose (Marjaryasana to Bitilasana)
- Start on your hands and knees, aligning your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
- Think of the spine as a straight line connecting the shoulders to the hips. Try visualizing the line extending forward through the crown of the head and backwards through the tail bone. This is the position of a neutral spine.
- Keep the neck long, as the natural extension of the spine.
How to Do Cow Pose
- Curl your toes under.
- Tilt your pelvis back so that your tail sticks up.
- Let this movement ripple from your tailbone up your spine so that your neck is the last thing to move.
- Your belly drops down, but keep your abdominal muscles hugging your spine by drawing your navel in.
- Take your gaze up gently up toward the ceiling without cranking your neck.
How to Do Cat Pose
- Release the tops of your feet to the floor.
- Tip your pelvis forward, tucking your tailbone. Again, let this action move up your spine.
- Your spine will naturally round.
- Draw your navel toward your spine.
- Drop your head.
- Take your gaze to your navel.
Repeat the cat-cow stretch on each inhale and exhale, matching the movement to your own breath. Continue for 5-10 breaths, moving the whole spine. After your final exhale, come back to a neutral spine.
Cat-Cow Pose for Beginners
Cat-Cow is a great pose for beginners — there should be no pain and very little discomfort (if any) when performed. If you need to modify the pose to make it more comfortable, try these simple changes to find a variation that works best for you.
- If your wrists hurt, place your forearms on the floor.
- Place your forearms on a bolster or stack of firm blankets to lift your torso more upright.
- If your knee caps hurt, fold your mat or place a firm blanket under your knees.
If you have trouble coming to your hands and knees or if you want to sneak in a few stretches at work, you can adapt cat-cow into a chair yoga pose. The movements are pretty much the same as they are on the floor. Begin by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your knees. Take a few breaths to establish a position with your shoulders over your hips and a nice long spine.
- Tilt your pelvis back, emphasizing your tail. Your belly will round forward.
- Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Look up toward the ceiling.
- Tilt your pelvis back, tucking your tail under. Your spine will round.
- Pull your navel in.
- Curve your shoulders forward and take your gaze towards your belly.
Repeat these movements on each inhale and exhale for 5-10 breaths.
Cat-Cow Pose for Advanced
Practicing Cat-Cow can warm the body and prepare it for many activities.
- Be aware of your breath and its coordination with your movements. Imagine your breath traveling up and down your spine as you inhale and exhale, like an ocean wave flowing onto the beach and retreating.
Bringing movement and flexibility to your spine helps your body to become more coordinated. Try a few slow rounds of Cat-Cow when you wake in the morning, or after sitting for a long period. You may notice yourself walking taller throughout the day!