A Stretch That Activates Every Inch of Your Spine
If I were, for some reason, only allowed to do one stretch for the rest of my life, I’m fairly certain I would pick cat-cow. This thing is so useful, so versatile, it’s like the little black dress of stretches: You can do it as a warmup, as a cool-down, as a recovery break between sets; you can do it when you’re feeling great, or when your back hurts. If it’s one you’ve tried but mostly overlooked, though, I get it: You’re just sticking out your belly and then arching your back — what’s the big deal?
The deal is, cat-cow gives you the opportunity to articulate the spinal column, one vertebra at the time, to bring movement and circulation to every single inch of the spine (including portions that don’t typically see a lot of movement). In turn, the muscles and connective tissue of your back awaken, stretch, and activate. All this circulation and activation help prepare your body for movement, and the stretching helps you recover from whatever difficult thing you just did, or helps your back work out painful kinks.
Two keys here: Move slowly — you get points deducted for doing this one too fast — and always start the movement with your pelvis. You’ll begin in tabletop (or, if you need to modify, standing with knees slightly bent and hands resting on your knees; or even seated), find neutral spine, and initiate the movement into cow pose by tilting your pelvis forward. You’ll do the same when you transition into cat pose — start by rotating your pelvis toward the back.
Here’s how to do it:
- Begin on all fours. The tops of your feet can be flat on the mat or floor; if you feel too off-balance, you can tuck your toes. (Yoga instructors prefer toes tucked during cow pose and flat during cat pose, so try it that way if you’d like.) Find a neutral spine.
- To move into cow pose, begin by inhaling and tilting the pelvis forward toward the floor, then continue to exaggerate the curve of the lumbar spine, dropping the belly; as you move into the mid-back begin to move your chest forward, bringing your shoulder blades down and toward each other to broaden the chest. Lift your face toward the upper corner of the wall as the final part of the movement, but don’t strain your neck.
- To move into cat pose, begin by exhaling and tilting the pelvis back and tucking the tailbone underneath, then articulating vertebra by vertebra through the spine until your upper back is arched like a cat. Gently let your head drop between your shoulders — feel a true release of any tension in the neck.
- Move very slowly between these two positions as many times as it feels good, making sure to sync the movement with your breath (inhale to move into cow, exhale to move into cat). Keep your arms extended the entire time; no bending the elbows.
If hands-and-knees doesn’t work for you, you can also perform this movement standing, with your knees slightly bent and hands resting on the tops of your knees or thighs. Seated is lovely as well — try to sit as upright as possible so your spine is in a neutral position when you begin.
A personal note: I started writing this column as the executive editor of Elemental. Lots has changed in recent days, but I’ve enjoyed your responses and enthusiasm so much that I’d like to keep it going for a while and see how things go. Feel free to follow me so you’ll get notified of future Monday Moves.