3 different ways to cat-cow stretch

Cat-cow stretch is usually described as an easy beginners exercise, often recommended for a back pain management to stretch overworked muscles, ease tension and release back pain. In yoga or Pilates, this back stretch is used to warm up and mobilise at the beginning of the session. For me it was always just a quick stop I had to get through before moving onto more exciting exercises. However, there is so much more one can get out of this pose. Once, I started exploring how individual body parts move in this stretch and learned different ways to articulate through the spine, I realised, that cat-cow stretch is not as easy and simple as it initially appeared. 

What is cat and cow stretch?

The basic cat and cow stretch takes our spine from flexed, rounded position with the tailbone tucked under in a cat pose, to the extension with arched back and head and chest lifted in a cow stretch. The goal of alternating between these two shapes is to mobilise the spine and increase flexibility. But, our body is more complex than that, and simply moving from flexion to extension is not enough to create mobility throughout the spine. I will look at three ways, which lets your body to get more benefits from this already beneficial pose.

Move each segment of the spine

Our spine consists of 33 vertebreas, so to truly improve mobility of the spine, we should bring activation to each segment. However majority of us have parts of the spine, which move well and others, which do not move as easily. If we do not pay attention to the movement, instead of improving mobility in the segments which are stuck, we only increase mobility in the parts which are already moving well. Segmental cat-cow works perfect for finding out how the spine moves. Learning to distribute the motion of the spine into each of its segments though slow controlled movement helps build awareness, bring activation to each segment and create ease in our movement.

Exercise: Segmental Cat-Cow

Change position of your arms and legs

Cat and cow is normally taught with hands directly under the shoulders and knees under the hips to create alignment, but this position allows only for one direction of the movement, spinal flexion and extension. Flexion and extension is one of the basic movement of the spine, but our spine can also side bend or rotate. To move well, we should be able to move our spine easily in any combination of these directions. Changing the position of the arms and legs, will bring different sensation to the spinal movement and allow spine to accustom to move in variety of ways. Try to place your arms far away from each other or closer together or move one or both of your knees further forward or backwards. Experiment with various combinations and feel how the sensation of the stretches changes, when you move from rounded to arch position. May be you will find movement you spine has been asking for. 

Focus on one particular section of the spine

In order to unblock areas of the spine, that lack movement, I feel it is useful to focus only on movement in one particular area, whilst keeping the rest of the spine still. Focusing on one area allows us to recruit the right muscles and create  movement in hard to move parts, whilst keeping the overly mobile parts safe. Our bodies are different and individual approach is essential, but I find that due to our sedentary habits most people have difficulties in two areas, extension in thoracic spine and flexion in lower back. If you feel that in the cow pose most of the back bend comes from your neck and you feel a pinch in your lower back, upper back opening exercise might be for you. On the other hand if in the cat pose most of your rounding is in upper back, focus on lower back flexion exercise. If you not sure which segments of your spine are moving and which are not, try segmental cat-cow first. 

Exercise: Upper back opening in a cow pose

It is common in a cow pose to crank the neck back, thrust the ribs forward and move through the one mobile segment at the lower back, creating feeling of arch. Instead keep your lower back still in neutral position. Push your sternum forward gently drawing you head back into the spine like you want to make a double chin. It might not look or feel like a big arch but it will engage upper back muscles and create mobility in hard to move parts of thoracic spine, whilst keeping your lower back safe. Focus on maintaining stability in pelvis and lower back throughout the  movement. 

Exercise: Lower back flexion

Our habitual position is often more or less rounded and slouchy through our rib cage, shoulders, sternum and upper back and usually it is easy to get into a cat pose in these areas. To direct the stretch into tense muscles of lower back, try to keep you thoracic spine still in set up position and focus only on tucking your pelvis under and rounding your lower back as much as you can. Try to breathe out as you round you lower back engaging your abdominal muscles to get more our of the stretch. 

These three variation give you some different options to your usual cat-cow routine but there is so many other things to consider, when moving through such a simple exercise. Our breathing, the way we engage our arms, shoulders and hips are all elements which play a role and can change the way we experience this movement.  What is your favorite way to cat-cow? Comment bellow or send me a message, I would love to hear from you. 

h.x

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