I had an epiphany recently about the importance of the ubiquitous cat and cow warm up phase that is frequently used in yoga classes. Because it’s so commonly practiced and there are so many more challenging poses to get to in a class, teachers and students alike often breeze through the movements taking little time to review the mechanics.
What can easily be missed is the connection between these beginner level movements and the rest of the practice. Cat and cow are really an ideal teaching tool for mastering two fundamental hip moves needed for deepening forward folds (dog tilt) and backward bends (cat tilt).
Liz Delaney of Greenville Yoga describes it best:
In all forward folds, you want to initiate the movement by dog tilting the hips (index fingers move down). This lengthens the hamstrings and allows the lower back to lengthen and telescope up and forward, preventing injury. Try it now while sitting in your chair. Tip your hips in dog tilt as you sit here. What do you notice? Length! Now draw the navel to the spine and you have even more length and a safe, protected low back.
In all backbends, you want to initiate the movement by cat tilting the pelvis (thumbs move down). This movement creates space in between the vertebra of the low back. Then the backbend moves into the upper back and becomes a heart opener. If you suffer from low back pain in bridge, cobra, wheel, you need more cat tilt before going into the pose. An easy way to remember this is before any backbend, lengthen the tailbone toward the heels.
Knowing which tilt to use when may not be intuitive to newer students. Looking at a person in a cat pose and seeing them hunched forward, you might assume that cat tilt should be used for forward bends while a dog tilt in cow suggests a back bend. But spend a little time trying some forward fold and back bends using both tilts and your body will fully understand the difference the proper hip motion makes.