How to Do Cat-Cow Stretch (Chakravakasana) in Yoga

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

cat-cow stretch
Photo: Ben Goldstein / Model: Emily O'Connell

Targets: Spinal flexibility and abdominal strength

Level: Beginner

The Cat-Cow Stretch (chakravakasana) is a yoga essential and for good reason. It consists of moving the spine from a rounded position (flexion) to an arched one (extension). Each movement is done in conjunction with either an inhalation or exhalation of the breath, making this a simple vinyasa (linking breath to movement). This pose may be done as a part of a warmup sequence, a relaxation sequence, or as an exercise to prevent back pain.

Benefits

Flexing and extending the spine can help improve circulation in the discs in your back. It's a basic motion, but one that can be enormously beneficial in preventing back pain and maintaining a healthy spine, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting. It can help you improve your posture and balance. It is also believed to be a good stress-reliever and calming pose as you link the movements with your breathing.

Step-by-Step Instructions

You can perform Cat-Cow on an exercise mat or on a carpeted floor, in any location where you can lay out the mat.

Starting Position: All Fours

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Watch Now: Stretch Your Spine with Cat-Cow

  1. Start on your hands and knees, aligning your wrists underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
  2. Think of the spine as a straight line connecting the shoulders to the hips. Try visualizing the line extending forward through the crown of the head and backward through the tailbone. This is the position of a neutral spine.
  3. Keep the neck long, as the natural extension of the spine, by looking down and out.

Inhale and Arch for Cow Pose

Cow Pose
Ben Goldstein
  1. Curl your toes under.
  2. Tilt your pelvis back so that your tail sticks up.
  3. Let this movement ripple from your tailbone up your spine so that your neck is the last thing to move.
  4. Your belly drops down, but keep your abdominal muscles hugging your spine by drawing your navel in.
  5. Take your gaze up gently up toward the ceiling without cranking your neck.

Exhale and Round for Cat Pose

Cat pose
Ben Goldstein
  1. Release the tops of your feet to the floor.
  2. Tip your pelvis forward, tucking your tailbone. Again, let this action move up your spine. Your spine will naturally round.
  3. Draw your navel toward your spine.
  4. Drop your head.
  5. Take your gaze to your navel.

Repeat the cat-cow stretch on each inhale and exhale, matching the movement to your own breath.

Continue for 5 to 10 breaths, moving the whole spine. After your final exhale, come back to a neutral spine.

Common Mistakes

To maintain the correct stretch and prevent injury or strain, avoid these errors.

Neck

When you lift your gaze to the ceiling, do so with control and don't overextend your neck. When you go into Cat, let your head drop naturally rather than forcing it down. Also, be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and not drawn up toward your ears, which can put strain on the neck.

Arms and Elbows

Keep the arms straight so the movement is with the spine and not your arms and elbows.

Modifications and Variations

There are ways to modify this pose if you have restrictions or if you want to make it more challenging.

Need a Modification?

If you find this pose hurts your wrists, place your forearms on the floor when performing it. For knee discomfort, more padding under your knees can help.

If you have trouble coming to your hands and knees or if you want to sneak in a few stretches at work, you can adapt cat-cow into a chair yoga pose. The movements are pretty much the same as they are on the floor.

Cat- Cow Stretch in a Chair
Ben Goldstein

Begin by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your knees. Take a few breaths to establish a position with your shoulders over your hips and a nice long spine

Inhale

  1. Tilt your pelvis back, emphasizing your tail. Your belly will round forward. 
  2. Pull your shoulders down and back.
  3. Look up towards the ceiling.

Exhale

  1. Tilt your pelvis back, tucking your tail under. Your spine will round.
  2. Pull your navel in.
  3. Curve your shoulders forward and take your gaze towards your belly.

Repeat these movements on each inhale and exhale for five to 10 breaths.

Up for a Challenge?

In the Cat portion of the pose, deepen it by drawing your navel in as firmly as possible.

Safety and Precautions

This pose should always be pain-free. If you feel any pain, gently back out of the pose. If you have back pain, check with your doctor before doing this exercise to make sure these movements are appropriate for your condition. If you have a neck injury, be sure to keep your head in line with your torso and don't tilt your head forward or back.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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