Yoga Moves

Yoga Has Literally Thousands of Poses, but a Stretching Expert Says This One Unwinds Every Muscle

Kells McPhillips

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No one has an exact count of the number of asanas out there (it could be thousands or millions), but trainer and massage therapist Joe Yoon, author of the newly-released book Better Stretching, says that one pose outperforms the others when it comes to better mobility and flexibility: cat-cow stretch.

“When I was a trainer, I thought ‘oh this is just a yoga move for the extension and flexion of the spine,” says Yoon. Once he started studying up on stretching, he learned that the movement works way (and I mean, way) more than just your vertebrae. “When I started to actually look at the movement, I noticed that you’re moving your shoulder blades into protraction and retraction, too,” says Yoon. “So it’s almost like you’re reaching for something and then when you’re dropping your chest down and pulling your shoulders down and back.” And that’s just what cat-cow does for your upper body.

Cat-cow asks you to pull your chest forward (cow) then puff up your back (like an angry cat), but this move doesnt’ happen in isolation, it pulls the rest of the kinetic chain—your middle and lower body—along with it. For example, “It’s great for [alleviating] pelvic tilt. So your hips tuck under and then they arch. That’s another thing that people just don’t have awareness of,” says Yoon.

But reader, this is just scratching the surface. Below, Yoon and yoga teacher Beth Cooke share the tiny cat-cow tweaks that can help you reach into undiscovered stretching territory.

4 modifications for cat-cow stretch that touch every last muscle of your body

Before learning how to optimize cat-cow for your stretching needs, you’ll first need to learn the basic movement:

how to do Cat-cow stretch

  1. Start in a tabletop position kneeling on all fours. Place your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips.
  2. Inhale and gaze forward, engaging your core.
  3. Exhale and tuck your chin into your chest, dropping your head. Draw your belly button toward your spine and round your vertebrae toward the ceiling.
  4. Return to tabletop position.
  5. As you inhale, look forward and push your stomach towards the mat. Lift your tailbone toward the ceiling, drawing your chest and sternum forward and up.
  6. Return to tabletop and repeat as many times as you like.

Variation 1: work into your forearms and biceps

“If you turn your wrists around or your palms around [in tabletop] then you start working your wrists a bit more,” says Yoon. You’ll also feel the stretch inch up your forearms and biceps. If it feels good, push your hips back slightly while keeping your wrists planted for a deeper stretch.

Variation 2: Better your toe and feet flexibility

By simply tucking your toes and performing cat-cow as you normally would, you’ll feel a stretch in your toes, arches, and calves.

Variation 3: delve into the midback

“Another thing you can do is instead of being in that tabletop position, you can shift your hips back towards your heels and then continue the cat-cow,” says Yoon. “That actually isolates more of the mid-back.”

Variation 4: Make cat-cow stretch feel like a calf massage

Looking for more ooey-gooey spine stretches? Try this sequence for your middle back, and sleep like this for back decompression overnight

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