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Stretching the Spine

If you've ever watched a cat, be it a house cat or a jaguar, you may have been intrigued by the cat's incredible agility and resilience. How does a cat jump from high places and land with little impact? How can a cat fit into spaces that seem way too small for it? How does a cat balance on the slimmest edge with the greatest of ease? Pilates might not give you the answer to these questions, but if you want to be more like a cat and gain the flexibility, grace, balance, and strength of a cat, Pilates is the way to go.

Myth has it that Joe Pilates was obsessed with the movement of animals and used them as models when developing exercises. The following exercises use the cat as a model and are meant to stretch the spine. You may notice that the word sexy comes up in this article. Face it — having a flexible spine is sexy, and certain movements of the spine are downright sexy!

These stretching exercises are not considered part of classic Pilates, but they're great for everyone. This is where you can get a little creative. Add in these exercises at any point during your day or during your workout when you feel you need to stretch out your spine.

If you wake up in the morning with a stiff back or neck, spend a couple minutes doing one or two of the cat stretches.

Basic Cat (beginning level)

The Basic Cat is one of the gentlest and simplest ways to stretch out the back. You see cats making this movement in the morning when they wake, and you can do it too!

Getting set

To begin, get on all fours. Align your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Allow your back to assume its natural position, in Neutral Spine (Figure 10-1a).

The exercise

Inhale: Arch your back slightly, allowing your head to rise and your butt to stick up and out (Figure 10-1b).

Exhale: Pull your navel in toward your spine and squeeze your butt. You begin with a Lumbar C Curve, meaning that your lower back is curved like a C, then continue rounding into the upper back. Finally, allow the head to slowly drop forward. At this point, your whole spine should be making a C shape (Figure 10-1c). Your back should be rounded to the greatest extent possible.

Push your arms into the mat for extra resistance while stretching the upper back. Keep your abdominals and rib cage pulled in. Think of using this pulling action to stretch through your whole spine.

Think of pulling your tail between your legs and rounding your back into a Halloween kitty pose.

Inhale: Return to Neutral Spine, then go further into the arch, sticking your tail and head upward.

Complete 4 repetitions.

Do's and don'ts

  • Do go for the fullest stretch in each direction.
  • Don't hunch your shoulders. Let them relax down away from your ears.

Figure 10-1: Basic Cat.

Sexy Cat

The Sexy Cat is a modification of the Basic Cat and requires a bit more coordination. Because you spiral the hips and spine, this stretch is three-dimensional and loosens up more areas of tightness than the Basic Cat.

Start by doing one Basic Cat to get the flow of the spine arching and contracting. Then add a spiral in one direction with your hips, and in the opposite direction with your head and neck. Imagine the tailbone inscribing a full circle on the wall behind you in one direction, and the crown of your head inscribing a full circle on the wall in front of you in the other direction

Complete 4 repetitions and then reverse the direction of the spiral for 4 more repetitions.

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