The bleat of an infant pygmy goat has, in my estimation, no exact analog. Crying baby, disgruntled pigeon, plastic chew toy in the mouth of an eager beagle puppy –– all images that might pop in your head if you listen carefully to a kid goat's particular call. But any comparison you might draw will be imprecise, or, at best, capture only one aspect of the full, goatly texture. The complete performance is usually about three seconds long, high-pitched, and broken into a decelerating staccato, almost, but not quite, like the final ticks of a game-show wheel.
I came to be so familiar with this certain squall because, on a recent Sunday morning, I buckled into the front seat of a Zipcar, drove for an hour into the flat, green borough of Quakertown, and attended a yoga class with goats.
The premise of the program was fairly straightforward. The class put on by Water & Rock Studio, which runs every Sunday through July 23, would be your standard yoga situation –– sun salutations, warrior twos, attention to breathing –– only students would spread out their mats in the tall grasses of an animal enclosure, not a studio. Similar routine, mostly the same goal: oneness with nature, but also with domesticated infant pygmy goats.
I drove up the long gravel driveway of Mountain Pride Farm and parked behind a line of minivans, many announcing the high school and honor-roll status of the driver's offspring. The farm was gorgeous: a white Colonial-looking house complete with red barn and tin silo. The class itself was taught by Suzanne and Japheth Brubaker, a warm, smiley couple who run the studios in Chestnut Hill and Glenside. As participants trickled in from their vans, the Brubakers handed out two packets of waivers, so guests could be sure not to sue if, by chance, they experienced any goat-related accidents.
The students made their way into the enclosure –– a square of greenery surrounded by wire fence. The real estate was split between a pasture and a small shelter for the goats. After a few minutes of petting, photo ops, and holding pygmies like babies, guests took to their mats. An assistant spread hay around the ground, so the goats stayed close, nibbling among the students.
Most yoga classes start with a disclaimer from the teacher: Go at your own pace, if you need to rest, take a minute to yourself. Suzanne Brubaker started the class with a similar preamble.
"Some of you may have done yoga before," she began. "This class is different." That line got a big laugh. "If you find yourself needing to pet a goat, you can take the time to do that."
I should mention here that my history with yoga is fraught. The consensus on whether it is offensively appropriative has never been clear to me, and I have far too much anxiety to be able to ohm with abandon. I like stretching, but there is something about breathing exercises that make me more stressed, not less –– as if, by calling attention to my breath, I've somehow made the whole process more difficult. Also, I have bad balance.
One thing I haven't especially enjoyed in my yogic experiences is a certain self-seriousness among some of its devotees. In high school, I was told by a shaggy-haired WASP in full Lululemon that I had a "particularly disharmonious ajna chakra." His disdain for my imbalance emanated from his every carefully moisturized pore. Fortunately, this attitude is all but eradicated from goat yoga.
Brubaker says that most of her clients are beginners –– many have never attended a single yoga class in their lives. The constant soundtrack of giggles and camera snaps proved that most of the participants came with a lighthearted and distinctly non-yogic sensibility. Still, a vestige of Westernized yogi pseudo-wisdom remained. Throughout the class, students and teachers repeated a platitude familiar to any graduate of high school drama programs: "Stay present."
I have never quite understood what it means to "stay present," or why it's especially desirable. But if presentness is to be achieved, I imagine it rather like a serene, beachish mental landscape, made with soothing white noise and the warmth of a mother's love or something –– which, at least for me, is a hard state to get to when you're periodically interrupted by the clang of two goats headbutting or the panicked bleat of their baby.
That said, there's really no overselling just how cute a baby goat can be. At one point, mid-chaturanga ("four-limbed staff pose," a.k.a. "low plank"), a black pygmy plopped in front of my mat and splayed out like a dropped dish rag, ferociously soaking in sun. I fell out of my pose –– half from muscle exhaustion, half from a primordial need to nestle this toaster-size being into my lap.
Later, as I lay in savasana ("corpse pose"), eavesdropping on two pygmies that seemed to be having some very adorable dispute, it struck me that the two activities –– doing yoga and being a goat –– had rather opposite aims. One sought stillness, and the other, frankly, had no interest in lying, palms up, for a moment of silent meditation. The two seemed almost wildly incompatible.
(Notably, this sentiment was not shared by the whole group. "Goats make you feel centered," my mat neighbor said. "When you're petting a goat, you feel present. When you do yoga, you're in the moment. I think they're very similar." I met her eye to check for irony. She didn't blink.)
At least for me, whatever I usually want out of yoga –– mental quiet or a solid workout –– is off the table when goats are on it.
Still, there was something undeniably pleasurable about the whole experience –– a belly-deep oh man-iness usually saved for birthdays or great dates –– which I couldn't quite place until I spoke with Carolyn Matthews, who introduced herself as a "dog massager." She had done goat yoga once before.
"I was an assistant dog groomer for 14 years, and I took a course in dog massage," Matthews said while rolling up her mat. "When I touch animals, they like it." She had a sober confidence that made me believe her.
Matthews said the key to keeping an animal calm was constant contact.
"One hand should stay on the animals at all times," Matthews said. "You're switching hands, but you should never take both hands off at once."
Even though Matthews had stitches in her shoulder and a stern warning from her doctor not to exert herself, she had driven up to Quakertown to get a taste of a dramatic role reversal: animals who were helping to make her calm.
As I made my way back to Philly on I-76, I found it hard to rebuff Matthews' point. I was distinctly less anxious –– the opposite of what usually happens to me after an hour of direct sunlight.
Animal play and massage function similarly: Both give us the chance to luxuriate in simple physical touch, the kind of unselfconscious contact that rarely takes place outside of a family or romance. Baby goats take that to an extreme. They are the holy grails of visceral human joy and nonstop nuzzles. In the end, I'd say run, don't walk, to goat yoga, not for the practice or the "presentness," but for the actual goats –– there's really nothing like them.