Warming up for exercise - cat stretch
Getting your body warmed up and moving before stronger exercise is important and it's not just heat. Consider that if you've come from another activity, just woken from sleep, been sitting at a computer or doing some other from physical labour. Your body will be imbalanced and the purpose of the warm up sequences is bring your body parts and systems onto the same 'page'.
This is a good opportunity to become aware of your physicality and any areas where muscles may be tight or fatigued. Warm ups prepare the body and mind before doing a stronger exercise which may have the potential to injure.
One of the most popular and commonly used exercises is referred to as a cat stretch. In this exercise,
- Begin on your hands and knees with your back flat.
- Hands shoulder width apart, directly under your shoulders
- Knees hip width, and shins parallel.
- When you breathe in, lift your head, draw your shoulders back,
- let your back and belly sink toward the floor
- at the same time rotating your pelvis to point your tailbone skywards.
- Then as you breathe out, reverse the movements so that your belly and back lifts toward the sky as your head drops down and your pelvis rotates turning your tailbone towards the floor.
- As you get comfortable doing this, try with your eyes closed and feel every aspect of you body moving - coordinated - and this takes time.
One could write a book describing this exercise, so a simple description is to visualise that as you breathe in, your head and tail curl up toward each other as your belly sinks toward the floor.
Play the videos note and have a go
- keep your fingers parallel
- keep your palms pressed flat
- keep your elbows straight
- breath with the movements - in as you look up, out as you look down
- don't rush, work to the comfortable speed of breathing in and out
- move your eyes to 'look' in the direction of each movement.
- Cat and dog? Many make up their own names.
This exercise flexes the spine back and forth helping to soften all the connective tissues and improve circulation along the length of the spine. As such this exercise is also good for general backache and body stiffness. It can be done by almost anyone well enough to make the attempt.
Creating the foundation:
Ideally we are starting on hands and knees with the hands shoulder width apart directly underneath the shoulders, the palms are pressed flat with the middle fingers parallel to each other.
The knees and feet are evenly apart about hip width so that the thighs fall vertically from the hips.
The spine including the neck and head are held comfortably straight and the shoulders are drawn back and broad. This is the neutral or start position and of course the toes are softly pointing away.
In general terms we begin with the inward breath. Therefore the belly drops as the head and tail lift up as if to meet each other without jamming the neck.
The first challenge all new students is simply the coordination. As one breaths in the shoulders pull back as the belly drops down as the tailbone lifts up. It is sometimes helpful for students to ask them to imagine they actually have a tail, and that they are bringing their tail up to meet the back of their head.
Remember here the coordination is that the inward breath takes the same amount of time as it takes to move the body into its maximum extension.
While this pose is usually done very passively, it becomes more dynamic as one pulls back into the hands and the legs activate as if attempting to slide the hands and knees together while looking up. This works to develop maximum tension or stretch through the front body of the spine and it also helps to expand the rib cage.
When going the other way the breath flows out as the chin falls down, the tail tucks under in the back arches up, and as cats and dogs typically stretch in this manner, this is where the name came from.
To make this aspect more dynamic, press into the hands and knees as if trying to slide them apart and lift up through the shoulders as chin and tail tuck toward each other to allow the back to lift up to its maximum in coordination with the outward breath.
The idea here is to combine the elements of the back arch as described above, with the extension and flexion of the legs. This adds another level of coordination and sometimes confusion for new students.
When the leg extends back, the idea is to keep the hips level, in other words, avoid lifting the hip of the raised leg and extend back through the ball will foot with a straight knee. As before, the head lifts up, shoulders and back with the lungs completely full at the maximum extension.
From that maximum extension, the back flexes the other way, the head drops down in the knee comes through to meet the forehead as the back moves up, the lungs are completely emptied as the knee and forehead attempt to meet.
Moving on, we can introduce a balance
The same principles apply as described above. As you breathe in extend one leg back and the opposite arm out beyond the head at the same time as you try to drop your belly and arch your back.
One can return to neutral with hands and knees on the floor, or the hand can return to the floor and the need can come through to meet to forehead as the back lifts up described above.
Feeling creative? Invent your own variations.