If you spend hours sitting at a desk all day, your bod is probably craving a good spine stretch. Enter cat-cow (a combo of cat pose and cow pose). The moves are typically paired together during a yoga class, but it’s also a favorite of physical therapists and fitness instructors. “In some settings, they would be called spinal flexion and spinal extension,” says posture coach and yoga instructor Courtney Bauer, RYT. “It’s safe, simple, and accessible to mostly anyone.” (Read: No yoga experience required.)

You can add it to the end of your work day for a moment of zen or kick off your sweat sesh with some cat-cow. The move targets spine mobility, upper back mobility, lumbar mobility, and some core strength, per physical therapist Sherri R. Betz, American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) spokesperson. “It's not hugely challenging for core strength, but it's a good preparation for doing something like a plank or a push-up,” she says. It also helps lengthen the spine after a long day sitting with not-so-perfect posture.

What's more, cat-cow is a complete circle of movement that can be done as a standalone stretch or incorporated in a longer yoga sequence. “Yoga at the end of the day is defined as the balance of opposites,” Bauer says. “Cat and cow is emblematic of a complete yoga practice in that sense.”

Here's everything you need to know about cat-cow, including how to practice it with perfect form, all the benefits of doing it regularly, and modifications and variations for all skill levels straight from experts.

How To Do Cat-Cow Pose With Perfect Form

Cat-cow pose may be simple and packed with benefits, but only if you perform the move with proper form. Here's exactly how to nail cat-cow according to Bauer.

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  1. Start on all fours on your yoga mat. Make sure your hands are flat on the ground and your shoulders are directly over your wrists. Align your hips over your knees. You can vary the position of your feet (press the tops of them down on the mat or curl your toes under).
  2. Check your alignment. You’ll want to align your heels with the midpoint of the back of the knee. Then, make sure your shins are in alignment with the knees. Maintain a nice and long neck by setting your gaze a few feet in front of you on the floor. If you’re using a yoga mat, look at the front edge of your mat. Tuck your chin and reach out through the crown of your head so that the back of your neck is long.
  3. Move into cat pose first. Tuck your tailbone under, round your spine, tuck your chin, and shift your gaze to your belly. Make the letter “C” with your spine (think of an angry Halloween cat) and take one exhale.
  4. Transition through neutral spine and into cow pose. Tilt your tailbone up to the ceiling, arch your back, lift up your head up through the throat and chin, and set your gaze where the ceiling meets the wall. Take a big inhale moving into cow.

That's one rep. Complete 10 reps, moving smoothly between positions following your breath.

Cat-Cow Pose Modifications To Try

Don't let a bit of discomfort keep you from enjoying this oh-so-good spine stretch. If you’re dealing with an injury or other sensitivity, there are several ways to accommodate and adjust cat-cow pose so it works for you.

  • Rest your wrists. If your wrists are sensitive, Bauer suggests making a fist with your hands or using yoga blocks to alleviate the strain. Simply place your palms down on the yoga blocks or fists down in your tabletop position before starting the movement.
  • Give your knees some relief. If you feel pain in the knees, it’s also totally cool to put a thin towel as a cushion underneath them when you practice the move.
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  • Swap a seated position. Getting down on all fours isn't the only way to practice the move. “You always have the opportunity to do it seated,” Bauer says. “I usually have people scoot forward to the front of their chair. They place their hands on their hamstrings or on the backs of their legs. They round the back just like cat pose, and they do as much range of motion in their spine.”
  • Kick it up a notch with extended time. First and foremost, always make sure you’re focused on your alignment and breathing in the move, Bauer says. Once you have that down, you can focus on holding the poses longer or doing more reps of the cat-cow cycle.
  • Intensify the pose by lifting the knees. Raising them just an inch off the mat takes cat pose from a great spinal flexion to a kickass abs exercise. Betz is a fan of bringing a wobble board into your cat-cow practice to intensify it. Place the board under your hands so it’s “a little more challenging on the shoulder and the rotator cuff, and allows for more variation in the wrist position,” she says. Alternatively, you can place the wobble board under your shins if you want to challenge your lower body and abs during the move.

How To Add Cat-Cow To Your Routine

Cat-cow pose is one of many moves that start in tabletop position, so it's natural to flow into other tabletop exercises. Bauer recommends adding these tabletop poses before or after your cat-cow to reap all the flexibility benefits:

Knee Hovers (Bear Plank)

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How to: Begin on all fours. Set your gaze a few inches in front of the mat. Lift knees a few inches above the mat without moving the rest of the body. Maintain your gaze. Gently lower knees back down to the mat, returning to tabletop. Repeat lifting and lowering the knees eight times. End the sequence in tabletop. Take a big breath.

Tiger Pose (Bird Dog)

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How to: Begin on all fours with wrists directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Set your gaze a few inches in front of the mat. Lift and extend your left arm at shoulder height, reaching toward the front of the mat. Lift and extend your right leg at hip height, reaching toward the back of the mat. (Avoid shifting hips forward or back. Avoid shifting side to side.) Return to tabletop and repeat on the other side. Alternate sides for 30-60 seconds, breathing naturally.

Puppy Pose

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How to: Start on all fours. Then, lower one forearm to the mat at a time. Arch your lower back, straighten your arms out, and drop chest down. Rest your forehead on mat. Keep hips high and aligned over knees the whole time. Hold for 30-75 seconds and breathe naturally.

Inverted V (Downward Dog)

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How to: Start on all fours. Tuck toes and lift knees off the mat and hips into air, extending legs and shifting weight back into feet so body forms an inverted "V" shape. Hold for 30-75 seconds and breathe naturally.

Benefits Of Cat-Cow Pose

So what can you expect to feel after practicing cat-cow? The move brings all kinds of mind and body boosts. "Both spinal flexion and spinal extension mobilize the spine, stimulate digestion, increase circulation, boost your mood, strengthen your back, and stretch your abs and chest," says Bauer.

Cat-cow pose stretches your torso from all angles, too. "When you go into cat, you are lengthening the back muscles,” Bauer says. "With cow, it’s the opposite—you’re lengthening the front and you’re getting a nice stretch along the muscles that slouch all day."

The stretch also offers extra relief for anyone with scoliosis. "One of my favorite ways to do cat-cow is with people with scoliosis," Betz says. "You can put a thick book or a half yoga block under one hand that kind of pushes up that concave side, and then have them do the cat-cow like that. " This helps those with scoliosis have a bit of restructuring of their spine while in a more neutral alignment, Betz says.

Cat-cow pose, like other yoga positions, impacts the mood, too. "Sometimes when we're feeling frustrated and angry, you can kind of feel a tightness in your chest, right?" says registered yoga teach Gina Benson. "Cow would benefit someone who's feeling a little yucky, feeling a little dissatisfied, because it's actually breaking apart that rigidity."

The cow side of cat-cow is a heart opener and can make you feel lighter. On the other hand, cat is a really good move for those dealing with anxiety since it helps you get more grounded. “Rounding the spine by getting close to the Earth,” Benson says, “that actually has a lot of beneficial properties for those who have anxiety.”