Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: Working with Cat and Mountain Poses

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Q: So glad to see dialog about osteoporosis and yoga! Very topical for so many of us. Thank you. What about the cat pose in cat/cow sequence? Possible modification in focusing more on rounding the fanny end of the spine, rather than the shoulders? Best poses for back extensor strengthening? Anything that reinforces Tadasana?
A: Thanks for your questions regarding different approaches to yoga poses. I always start by asking myself what is my underlying purpose of goal in doing this pose?  Am I doing it simply as part of a well balanced practice, to both stretch and strengthen as much of the body as I can? Or am I using the pose as a preparation for a more challenging pose later in a given sequence or practice?  Given those possibilities, there are many different and equally valid variations on a theme of a given pose that I might play with.
Let’s look at the Cat position in Cat/Cow. We are allowing the spine to round toward the ceiling, bringing all of the vertebral joints into forward flexion direction, and retroverting the pelvic bones over the thigh bones. If we were standing in Mountain pose, this would be the action we typically call “tucking the pelvis under.” It is not the ideal shape for the pelvis and lumbar area in standing position, but you could do or demonstrate this standing before doing Cat/Cow to set up an understanding of the extremes of the range of motion you are looking for in each part of Cat/Cow.  Likewise, you could do the same from lying on your back and doing pelvic rock and roll in constructive rest. Another way to emphasize the Cat could be to ask the student to bring more attention to drawing the lowest part of the abdominal muscles up toward the sacrum on an exhale, while pointing the tailbone down more actively. With students who are not able to find this, I will ask permission to assist in moving the pelvis into the desired position. What I sometimes discover is that their hip rotators are extremely tight and they are already working at their maximum. Give them time and repetitions to gradually open this area more.
As for poses that strengthen the back body extensor muscles that promote extension or back bending of the spine and torso, I use easy backbends, such as accessible poses like Cow pose in Cat/Cow, Locust and Cobra (low, middle and high), Warrior 1 and 3, gradually moving towards more challenging back bending poses, like Bow and Upward Facing bow. I usually warm up the muscles by doing a dynamic series, such as with Locust from the starting position on the belly, inhaling into Locust, exhaling back to the starting position, repeated six times. Then, I would try to hold the pose for a while, say six breath cycles. In general, a good balanced yoga practice that includes some backbends will strengthen these muscles nicely.
In order to reinforce the Tadasana position (Mountain pose), it really depends on what aspects of the pose you are looking to bring attention to. One thing that I find very helpful is the leg action of “grounding” into the feet. This can be confusing to beginners, but is quickly remedied by having them lie on their backs near a wall, knees very slightly bent, and then have them push the soles of the feet evenly into the baseboard or lowest part of the wall their feet are touching. Have them push the heel and ball of the foot evenly into the wall while noting the feeling of the leg muscles contracting to create this action. Then get them up and have them recreate that feeling standing.
Finding the natural lift of the spine is trickier, but I have a little skull lifting adjustment I do with them that quickly helps them re-align the spine. I will try to get some photos of that, as it is easier to see than describe.
Hope these ideas are helpful as you play with Cat/Cow, back strengthening and Mountain Pose!

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