No matter what your activity level is on a daily basis, we all need to stretch and move our spine. Both extension (back bending) and flexion (forward folding) have benefits. Back bending decompresses the inner side/front of the vertebrae and can lessen the pressure on vertebral discs. Forward folding decompresses the back/outside of the vertebrae and compresses and massages the internal organs. Back bending can feel energizing and tends to build internal heat, while forward folding does the opposite and can cool and calm the body.
The sequence of Cat/Cow in yoga is a great way to get both forward folding and back bending together and have them linked with by the flow of the breath. Cow Pose (Bitilasana) is a backbend/spinal extension asana that is done on inhale. It is contraindicated for people with Spondylosis and Spondylolisthesis. Cat Pose (Marjaryasana) is a forward fold/spinal flexion asana that is done on exhale. This pose can be contraindicated for individuals who suffer from degenerative disc disease or herniated discs. With neck injuries it is best to be careful of neck movement in this series as well. Individuals suffering from back or neck injuries should always consult a physician to clarify what types of movement are ok and which are not safe.
To do the Cat/Cow sequence, start on your hands and knees in Table Pose. If you have sensitive knees you can pad under the knees by rolling up the sides of the yoga mat or using a blanket for cushioning. On an inhale tilt the upper half of the pelvis down, followed by the belly and slowly bringing the chest forward to come into Cow pose. As you exhale reverse the movement from the front of the pelvis tilting upward, through the spine and to the chest, which will pull inward. In Cat pose the belly will be towards the ground and the back arched down like a letter “u.” In Cat pose the belly will pull inward and the back will be arched up like a stretching cat.
Move through this flow: inhale to Cat, exhale to Dog, for the number of repetitions you desire. Slow the movement to match your breath, or pause at one of the two poses to allow the stretch to deepen. Use this sequence daily to stretch your spine in both directions and to keep it limber and fluid.