by Jessica Young | Photography by Hannah Fehrman
The second pose in our Caring for Your Back sequence is a dynamic, flowing pose that warms up your entire spine: Cat-Cow Pose. Tula Yoga's Cassi Stuckman shows us the ropes.

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BEFORE YOU BEGIN

When working with your back, especially if you have a previous injury, TAKE YOUR TIME. If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it! If you’re at all unsure of whether your body can handle these poses, consult with your health care professional, and if you feel pain, STOP! These poses are designed to build strength and flexibility, to encourage surrender, to cultivate relaxation, but not to cause pain.

Take it from the top: Learn the first pose in this series, Child’s pose. Each week, the yoga experts from Tula Yoga will be back with a new pose to help you slowly and steadily master a sequence—and bring peace, calm, and balance to your everyday.


Cat-Cow Pose, or Marjaryasana-Bitilasana, is actually what’s called a vinyasa, or a dynamic pose that links breath and moving. Vinyasa literally means, “to put or place in a special way.” In this pose you place your spine carefully with each inhale and exhale in order to warm up your spine and prepare for more movement.


BENEFITS

Cat-Cow is an accessible way for every practitioner to warm up her spine at the beginning of practice. Linking the breath to movement can create a thorough internal massage for your organs, and stretches muscles in your back, neck and pelvis. In this pose your movements and your breath become wavelike, almost meditative. Try Cat-Cow pose at the beginning of your yoga practice in order to warm up for more difficult poses, or use it as a transition from your standing practice to your seated practice, or to Corpse pose, your final resting posture.



TO DO

Come to your hands and knees on your mat, and take the time to set up your alignment in this pose mindfully. Check carefully that your joints are stacked: your shoulders should stack above your elbows, which are above your wrists, and your knees stack directly on top of your hips. Keeping your joints stacked over each other puts less stress on your joints when they’re bearing weight.

Begin with a neutral spine: imagine the crown of your head releasing toward the wall in front of you and your spine extending straight back, so that your tailbone points directly behind you. Engage your core, so that your abs are pulling in, rather than letting your stomach dump toward the floor. Let your spine be long and straight, and feel the energy streaming from the center of your body out through the top of your head and your pelvic floor. Press your hands firmly into your mat. Spread your fingers, pressing into the knuckle of each finger, and lift up through your palms, so your weight is evenly distributed through your entire hand, instead of collapsing into your palm. Release the tops of your feet to the mat, making sure that they’re pointing straight back toward the back edge of your mat.

On an inhale, keep your shoulders where they are and shine your heart forward. Spread your collarbones wide and feel the front line of your body stretch. Raise your sits bones toward the sky, and imagine your spine coming into a well-balanced curve. Feel your lungs expand as the front of your body opens. Your spine will have a sway-back, like a cow.

On the exhale, pull your navel in toward your spine, tuck your tailbone in and pressing through your hand, stretching the space between your shoulder blades and the back line of your body. Your spine will have an arching curve, like a Halloween cat.

Keep flexing and extending your spine, letting it curve inward gently on the inhale and bowing it outward on the exhale. You’ll find this movement happens intuitively: when you begin to inhale, you’ll feel your body naturally want to expand the front line, providing space for your lungs to fill; when your back body stretches, pulling in your belly toward your spine will feel good, and your core muscles will help you exhale. Continue these movements, linked to your breath, for several cycles, and return to a neutral spine when you’re finished.

MODIFICATIONS

This is a really accessible yoga pose; whether you’ve been practicing for years or have never worked out in your life. Still, if you need to make it more accessible, make sure you’re not moving too deeply for comfort in your extension (inhale) and flexion (exhale). You should feel a pleasant, even challenging stretch in both directions, but as with all poses all the time, don’t push your body further than it’s ready to go. If your knees hurt in this pose, take a blanket under your knees or double up your mat for extra cushion.



SAFETY TIP

Notice Cassi’s head in these two pictures: she’s letting her head and neck be a natural extension of her spine. This is important to do, because it takes that spinal stretch into your neck, where we often store tension. We hate to sound like a broken record, but keep those joints carefully stacked; spreading your knees wider than your hips puts unnecessary stress on your hip sockets and lower back.


DEEPENING THE POSE

Cat-Cow is a great pose to use attached to other poses to build a vinyasa. Try taking Cow Pose, and then as your spine curves up for Cat Pose, tuck your toes under and lift your hips up as you exhale back into Downward Facing Dog Pose. Inhale back to your knees, and exhale into Child’s Pose. You can use it in any sequence of poses you’re doing that are linking your breath to your movement.
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