Hearing the term “yoga back bend” likely has you conjuring images of intense wheel poses (with one leg off of the ground, perhaps?) or at the very least thinking about one of those juicy bridges that teachers seem love so much. But while backbends are certainly an important part of any practice, they don’t necessarily have to require contorting your body into pro-level poses. You can get a solid stretch through your spine by using one of the simplest postures of all: the Cat stretch.
The Cat stretch, which happens on your hands and knees and mimics the type of movement a cat would do when waking up from a nap, is a yoga mainstay. It usually happens at the beginning of class alongside its counterpose, the Cow Stretch, in order to get your body prepped and ready for the full flow. Yoga instructor Molly Warner calls it a “gentle, accessible back bend that mobilizes and stretches the spine.” Because you’re close to the floor—it happens on your hands and knees, and allows you to stretch your back by increasing flexion in your spine—it helps you ground your practice while opening up your front body and activating your core.
But that’s not all: “Cat stretch loosens the spine, stretches our hips and abdomen, while massaging our internal organs,” says Warner. “It stretches the back, torso, and neck, improving posture and spine health. Holding Cat stretch can release tension in the upper back and neck. Flexing the spine improves circulation to the discs between our vertebrae, also relieving stress from the back.”
While the Cat stretch can clearly do a lot for your body on its own, you’ll get the most out of it if you pair it with a Cow pose, which counters the cat’s spine flexion with a spine extension. “In Cat pose, we are flexing and rounding the spine, contracting our abdomen, folding inward and broadening the back body,” explains Warner. “In Cow pose we are extending the spine to find a heart opener, using the inhale to lift the sternum and tailbone, and gaze outward.” By incorporating both, you’re allowing your spine to fully mobilize, which gets you ready for all of the other poses you’ll do during your time on the mat. Even if you aren’t planning on getting down for a full flow, yoga instructor Claire Grieves is a fan of doing the moves first thing in the morning to “gently warm up your spine muscles for the day ahead and get blood flowing through your body and mind,” which she says will help “awaken your energy from within.”
Here, Warner breaks down how to properly perform the Cat stretch and cow stretch. Do them on their own or put them together to really get that back stretched out—no one-legged wheel pose necessary.
How to do a Cat stretch
1. Come into a table top position, kneeling on all fours. Place your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips.
2. Balance your weight evenly between all four points.
3. Inhale and look forward, find a slight engagement of your belly
4. Exhale as you gently tuck your chin into your chest, dropping your head. Draw your navel toward your spine, as you round your spine toward the ceiling.
5. Keep the fingers spread wide as you push the mat away, focusing on lifting the space between and above your shoulder blades. This is Cat pose.
6. Hold Cat pose for a few breaths before you return to the initial tabletop position.
How to do a Cow stretch
1. As you inhale, raise your chin and tilt your head back, push your stomach towards the mat, and lift your tailbone toward the ceiling, drawing your chest and sternum forward and up.
2. Exhale and round your spine, coming back into your Cat pose.
3. Maintain awareness of your body as you move through these two movements, linking your inhales to the cow and your exhales to the cat, noting and releasing any tension that arises in your body as you move.
4. Continue for five to seven rounds, before coming out of the posture to a table top or child’s pose. And for more heart-opening yoga poses try this flow.