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How to modify a sun salutation with cat/cow

baptiste yoga beginners yoga vinyasa yoga what is a sun salutation Oct 26, 2022

Yoga teachers like to tell their students that yoga is a 5,000 year old practice. This is common folklore to hear around the American yoga studio. Historical evidence tells us that yoga dates back to around 2,500 years, give or take. Many of the yoga poses that we practice in a vinyasa yoga practice are 100 years old at best. I’m not saying ALL yoga poses, but sun salutations are not handed down to us from antiquity. I think it’s important to say that so that we feel empowered to make changes to poses and ask ourselves why we do things the way we do.

People who have learned a sun salutation have probably been taken through a progression of poses that included plank, low-plank (chaturanga), and upward facing dog. In my experience of teaching hundreds of students in the yoga studio, very few people have the full upper body strength to go through this progression of poses without collapsing to the floor or compromising the long term health of their shoulders and wrists. With that being said, I think it’s important that we stay open-minded to our own abilities and that of our students (if you’re a yoga teacher).

One of my favorite modifications for a sun salutation is substituting plank, low-plank, and upward facing dog for a round or two of cat and cow. You can take a round of cat/cow in place of the pose progression as a way to still stay in the rhythm and flow of the vinyasa class. It will also allow you to open your chest and throat the way you would in an upward dog posture. If you want a bit of core strength, you can even hover your bent knees off the floor before gently setting them down for a round of cat/cow. 

Consider there are as many ways to practice yoga as there are people on the planet. You do not have to put yourself into yoga poses that don’t work for your body. I think we use the excuse that the poses are old or “traditional” as a way of keeping ourselves into a tightly wound box. I cringe a little bit when people talk about “traditional” yoga, because I have no idea what that actually means. “Traditionally” yoga was created for men and women were excluded. The average body of a “traditional” yogi was a young male ascetic, probably the age of a teenage male. The word “traditional” is exclusionary in that it does not take the modern person into account when we attempt to maintain these standards. 

I invite you to try on this modification in your practice and see if it works for you. I always teach my yoga students that they have choices on the mat. The yoga mat is a wonderful place to practice making choices, moment to moment. It’s a safe place to practice being a human in a body. When we give ourselves permission to try new things, we feel empowered to try new things in the world. You can start today by substituting a round of cat/cow into your sun salutation practice. See how you like it, and let me know in the comments if it frees you up to try something new in your yoga practice today.

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