Cat/CowCat/Cow has just as much potential to form core strength and build mind-body awareness as any other pose you perform.
Sometimes, when we’ve been practicing yoga for a long time, and we feel like our practice has advanced beyond a certain point, we can look at a pose like Cat/Cow and think, “I’m a grad student doing the work of a preschooler…why would the teacher bring THIS to class.” If this is your thought process, then frankly, you’re doing it wrong.
EVERY pose has the potential to challenge EVERY practitioner, because if there’s only one thing I’ve ever learned about yoga practice, it’s that you get out what you put in. Cat/Cow is a practice that can seem so elementary that we don’t even try, and that is where the error occurs. Cat/Cow has just as much potential to form core strength, extremity/core connections, and build mind-body awareness as any other pose you perform, IF you put in the effort. As an advancing practitioner, you should have the finer awareness to access smaller muscles and work with more finesse. By accessing and integrating the whole of the body, your Cat/Cow can become a very powerful posture flow.
I observe students practicing Cat/Cow with too much emphasis on the movements at the hips and shoulders, often times swaying significantly forward and back as they breathe. This style wastes a ton of energy. While the work at the shoulders, arms and legs is integral to performing this flow, our action should be initiated from our center and move out through the limbs. This means our Solar Plexus should be where our effort begins, sending energy undulating out in both directions through the ends of the spine, and the limbs playing a supporting role in our relationship to the Earth and gravity. Every joint in the spine should receive the same amount of movement energy, not just the most flexible points. To achieve this we’ll need to be active in both the front and back channels, find fluidity in our strong muscular contractions, but be aware enough to not succumb to clenching or swaying.
I’d also like to note here that even though we typically call this posture Cat/Cow, we often begin practice with an inhale to a Cow Pose. I think there is a ton of value in beginning with Cat and a set of powerful cleansing exhales, toning the belly and activating the shoulder girdle. We can really tune into our connection with the ground, unwind tension at the base of the skull and the tail, and start to build heat immediately.
CAT: Begin in Table Pose.
Make sure hands are wide enough to accommodate the full width of your shoulders. If our hands are too narrow on the mat two things happen: we over engage our chest muscles, throwing us off balance, and we risk impingement of soft tissue structures in the shoulder joint. Both of these conditions lead to injury over time. Some people also have a lateral deviation in the elbow joint that results in the forearms point out to the sides when the upper arm bones are parallel. We call it a Carrying Angle. These folks will need to take their hands wider than their elbows for all postures where the hands are on the ground. See details in the Glossary.Also, make sure the front plane of your shoulder is just behind the crease in the wrist to avoid hyperextension. This will allow for Hasta Bandha to engage and potentially take pressure out of the wrist joints.
Push the Earth away using knuckles, fingertips and ankles.
Gather belly deep toward spine.
Wrap the shoulder blades from the back body around to the side ribs and armpits.
Head dangles heavy.
Hips remain soft as the tail moves naturally as an extension of the spine…not as a clenching or tucking contraction.
Let’s say that 60% of the effort of Cat should come from the shoulder girdle and arms, 35% should come from the lifting of the belly and the remaining 5% should come from the legs pressing into the Earth. Hard hips are heavy hips, so practicing in this way will condition you for lift-off in future inversion postures.
COW: Start from Cat or Table Pose.
Elbows bend and wrap toward ribs, pointing back toward your thighs.
With hands rooted in the mat, pull upper arm bones back in space.
Cow is a back bend. Ideally, the entire spine should activate to avoid pinching or hinging at the most mobile points. Pulling the arm bones back activates the broad Lattisimus Dorsi from ribs to tail, supportive of the lumbar curve. This action can also help engage Serratus Anterior, a deep shoulder girdle muscle that will help broaden the upper back.