The Call of the Wild: Practicing Asana With Animals
For a system so steeped in tradition and history, yoga also takes particularly well to trends. From the latest styles to the craziest types of classes, practitioners consistently seek their own unique way of exploring this ancient system and making it theirs. One of my favorite recent trends in the yoga world is practicing yoga with animals. People are doing yoga with all types of animals, and not just your typical dogs and cats—goats, chickens, and even horses.
One of the five major philosophical tenets (or yamas) of yoga, which is shared by Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, is “ahimsa,” or non-harming. Ahimsa recognizes that all beings share a divine spark—a lifeforce. Therefore, hurting another living thing is ultimately akin to harming yourself.
The yogic recognition of ahimsa as a cardinal virtue leads to many yogis adopting lifestyles and practices that keep them from harming others—including vegetarianism and activism. The practice of ahimsa leads to increased compassion for all living things, which is where yoga with animals comes in.
Often, yoga with animals classes have an altruistic angle. Yoga classes with cats are on the rise, and many of the studios offering these classes donate a portion or all of their proceeds to a designated animal shelter, sanctuary, or rescue organization. Hosting yoga classes for a good cause is nothing new, but by bringing the potential adoptive pets into class, people can have one-on-one connections with animals and see what their donation supports. Someone might even go home with a furry friend!
Animals can arguably open us up to new facets of our own practice as well. Even in a class without actual animals present, you’ll likely do several poses inspired by the animal world (like Cat/Cow, Eagle, Gorilla, Scorpion, Pigeon, and many others—check out these yoga poses, with cues, on our site). Human expression has always been inspired by the natural world, and it’s likely that yogis adopted forms they saw around them and honored the animals associated through naming.
Robert Butera, Ph.D., author of The Pure Heart of Yoga, notes that bringing animals into asana practice “can help us to connect with powerful aspects of the soul that we often oppress in our daily lives.” This is especially true when animals are actually present. Animals inevitably bring a sense of joy and playfulness to a practice. Alexander, NC, resident Kelie Micho, who started a series called “Yoga on the Farm: Mindful Stretching with Chickens,” explained that, for her, yoga with animals is about connecting on a deeper level.
“My goal is to provide a space where people can interact with nature and animals on a level they’ve never done,” said Micho, who brings her beloved chickens, plus a rooster and a guinea fowl, into the outdoor practice space. “And for me, it’s specifically with chickens. I am so in love with them; they are the love of my life. People are like, ‘Okay, can you just stop talking about chickens?!’ (laughs). I want to share their light as much as I can. That’s why I created these events.”
Part of the connection participants experience comes through the practice itself. Micho said the classes in her series are slow and mindful so people can connect with the animals. “Bringing an animal in means that now we are going to have a distraction,” Micho said. “We’re going to have other things going on besides just poses, so people do get grounded and find their flow in these practices, but there’s also space to step out of that flow at any time and really connect with the animals.”
Micho is a firm believer that simply being around animals is healing. “They can touch our hearts in ways other things can’t,” she said. “Animals express no judgment when they’re watching people.” She notes that animals can even help heal trauma, a claim backed up by scientific research.
“Animals bring out people’s inner children,” Micho said. “That’s a big part of what I love about it. We need more of that in the world.”