In this post: If you’re wanting to start building abdominal strength or stretching tight back muscles, the yoga Cat/Cow exercise is a great place to start. Learn more about this combo that packs a 1, 2, punch!
Although they are technically two different yoga poses, Cat and Cow are often done together as one exercise. However, in Pilates, we normally only do the Cat stretch.
In my opinion, this is a missed opportunity. There are significantly fewer spinal extension exercises (like when you do Cow) than spinal flexion exercises (like when you do Cat) when you look at the Pilates Matwork sequence.
As a gal who was trained in Pilates before yoga, I wondered about how important Cow pose actually was. After all, Joe must not have thought it was so great or else he would have incorporated it into his flow.
Personally, I find moving through the Cat/Cow exercise with intention to be extremely therapeutic. As you choose how to carefully move your body, you can really unlock some tight areas and get a good stretch.
Here’s more about Cat pose, Cow pose, and how to merge the two together into the yoga Cat/Cow exercise.
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Why You Should Do the Cat/Cow Exercise
When you arch your back toward the ceiling (for the Cat portion of the exercise), you are strengthening your abdominals and stretching your spinal muscles.
Then, when you extend your spine, you are strengthening your spinal muscles and stretching your abdominals.
The real beauty of this Cat/Cow exercise is that when you move mindfully, it’s virtually impossible to hurt yourself. Here’s more about these two core-strengthening poses and how to do them.
What You Need to Know About Cat Pose
When you do Cat pose, you’re going to roll through your spine so you arch your back toward the ceiling. This stretches the spine and strengthens the abdominals.
Although this seems really easy and straightforward, many people don’t make the most out of their Cat pose.
In Pilates, we learn that with mindfulness and intention, you can craft different feelings in your body as you move through Cat stretch.
For example, you can choose to start rolling up from your pelvis, from your head, or from a combination of both. You’ll notice that making a choice about how you want your body to move changes your entire experience.
Then, once you are arched up, you have to decide how to lengthen out. Do you want to come out head first, tail first, or from your mid-back out? It’s up to you.
What You Need to Know About Cow Pose
When you practice Cow pose, you have two basic versions to choose from. First, you can decide to just open your upper back–meaning your abdominals help hold your middle and lower back in neutral.
This version is great for anyone who is particularly tight in their neck, shoulders, and upper back. Plus, it’s a wonderful way to prepare for the second version of Cow pose.
In the second version of Cow pose, you let your whole spine move into extension. When I practice this version, it reminds me of when you’re really searching for something and have to turn your purse all the way out.
Here, you’re doing the same thing but with your spine. You’re allowing your spine to completely move into extension.
How to Do the Cat/Cow Exercise
- Use ujjayi breathing.
- Begin on your hands and knees in Table pose. Take the time to ensure everything is in good alignment. You want to particularly make sure your pelvis is in neutral and you’re pushing the floor away from you.
- Draw your abdominals to your spine.
- Inhale here.
- Decide how you would like to round your spine for Cat pose.
- Exhale and round up. Feel how your spine is completely flexed and curved.
- Decide how you would like to lengthen your spine and which form of Cow pose you would like to do.
- Inhale to lengthen to a long spine then allow your heart to rotate forward as you move into your preferred version of Cow pose.
- Exhale to lengthen to a long spine then round up to Cat pose.
- Practice several rounds of this Cat/Cow combination.
- When you are finished, end with a long spine.
For Visual Learners…
Here is a video of how to do the yoga Cat/Cow exercise for visual learners.
Before You Do the Cat/Cow Exercise, Don’t Forget…
Before you practice the Cat/Cow exercise, don’t forget that this shouldn’t cause any back pain. If you start feeling pain, stop.
Any pain you might feel in your shoulders, hips, or spine is probably from abdominal disengagement. This simply means that your abs decided to take a break when they shouldn’t have.
Try again, making sure to keep your abdominals lightly engaged while you move.
If this doesn’t fix your pain, stop doing this exercise for today. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do the yoga Cat/Cow exercise; it just means that today isn’t the right day for it.
Are you interested in learning the basics of yoga and Pilates from the privacy of your own home? Sign up for my FREE 30-day program, and I’ll teach you how to safely practice many popular yoga poses and Pilates exercises.
Is the yoga Cat/Cow exercise your favorite way to strengthen and stretch your spine? Let us know in the comments below.