May 11

What are the Six Actions of the Spine?

I’m sure you’re familiar with Cat/Cow – it makes an appearance is nearly every yoga class, and with good reason. Cat/Cow is a great spinal warm up, and warming up the spine is crucial to a safe yoga practice. It’s actually crucial to the general health of the spine, so warming it up every day, particularly at the start of the day, is a good practice.

Cat/Cow moves the spine in two primary directions, and there are four other directions that make up the complete spectrum of spinal movement. These six movements help to lengthen the spine and encourage flexibility of the spinal column.

We’ll begin our exploration of the six actions of the spine with lateral side bending.

Directions 1 & 2: Lateral Side bending

By bending up and over to the right and left, we lengthen our side bodies, improving rib cage mobility and creating more space for the lungs. These shapes lengthen the muscles between the ribs and pelvis, as well as parts of the lower back.

You can side bend in a seated position, in tabletop, standing, and even lying on your back. We can create the same action in more active poses like peaceful warrior and extended side angle pose.

Directions 3 & 4: Twisting

Over time, the muscles and other tissues that surround the spine can become stiff. This will lead to a decrease in range of motion, pain, and discomfort that can really affect quality of life.

Twisting to the right and left helps to keep the spinal muscles mobile, helping to keep you mobile as well. It also hydrates the intervertebral disks and massages the organs within the abdomen, which supports digestion.

You can twist in any seated position  – think about lengthening on each inhale and gently twisting deeper on each exhale. You can also twist in tabletop (thread the needle – see video), or on your back for a supine twist. Poses like revolved triangle pose and revolved half moon are powerful standing variations.

Directions 5 & 6: Spinal Extension & Flexion

Spinal extension is best described as the ‘cow’ portion of Cat/Cow. This shape lengthens the spine, expands the chest, strengthens the lungs and facilitates deeper breathing. The simplest version of spinal extension is a seated arching stretch (seated cow), and cow pose is a version in tabletop.

More dynamic versions of this shape are poses such as cobra, upward-facing dog, bow pose, and wheel. These poses are typically called ‘backbends’ but I prefer referring to them as ‘heart openers’, as this brings the focus to the thoracic spine, rather than the lumbar.

The sixth and last movement of the spine is spinal flexion – most easily described as the ‘cat’ portion of Cat/Cow. This shape expands the entire back, stretching the back of the lungs, increasing breath capacity, and toning the abdomen with an engaged core.

Deeper versions of this shape are seated forward bends like paschimottanasana, standing forward bends like uttanasana, or humble warrior.

Let’s practice!

The video below will guide you through the six actions of the spine both in a seated position and in tabletop, but remember that you can create many of these spinal movements while standing, on your back, or on your belly.

I hope this post and video have been helpful; if you have any questions at all, please drop me a comment or shoot me an email!


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