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How To Do Cat-Cow Properly To Warm Up Your Spine — Or Relieve Back Pain

September 10, 2021

Odds are, if you've taken a yoga class, you've probably done cat-cow (or chakravakasana in Sanskrit) before. But are you actually doing it properly to get the most out of this juicy spine stretch? Here's how, as demonstrated by certified yoga instructor Phyllicia Bonanno.

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How to do cat-cow, chakravakasana

Image by mbg Creative / mbg Creative
  1. Come to tabletop with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips stacked over your knees.
  2. Ground down through your palms.
  3. As you inhale, tilt your tailbone up, drop your belly, and lift your gaze slightly up without bunching the back of the neck. (This is the "cow" half.)
  4. As you exhale, tuck your tailbone, curl and round your spine, and bring your gaze toward your belly button. (This is the "cat" half.)
  5. Repeat for at least three breaths.

Tips & modifications:

  • Allow the breath to guide the movement, rather than the movement guiding the breath.
  • Focus on working all the way up the spine from bottom to top, first starting at the tailbone, and emphasizing each vertebra on the way up.
  • Keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
  • If you need to modify due to wrist or knee pain, you can come to your forearms or place extra padding under the knees, respectively.
  • Try a seated cat-cow if getting on the hands and knees isn't accessible (or if you want to squeeze in a stretch while you're sitting down).

What are the benefits?

Cat-cow is a great warm-up stretch to do before yoga, or any workout really. It involves flexing and extending the spine, which helps get all those spinal vertebrae nice and loosened up. This, in turn, can help improve posture, as you open up the chest and shoulders.

If you deal with back pain, especially from frequent sitting, this is a great pose to help relieve some of that tension, especially because it's simple enough to do anytime.

And if you feel like you're in need of a breather, pairing breath with the gentle movement of cat-cow can be very relaxing, making it great as a cool-down stretch as well as a warm-up.

The bottom line is, whether you incorporate cat-cow in your yoga practice or take a few rounds whenever your back starts feeling stiff, this simple pose is beginner-friendly, quick, and super effective, making it a staple in yoga studios everywhere.

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