Yoga has been scientifically shown to reduce both stress and feelings of depression.
Now picture striking a downward dog as a real — and really adorable — dog nuzzles your nose from the edge of your mat. Unless you're allergic to pups, it's doubtful you won't react with a smile.
This takes yoga to the next level, with young pooches that stroll the floor as a teacher walks you through a session of poses for 45 minutes or longer.
It's part of a wider trend popping up across Philadelphia and beyond where animals, such as dogs, cats, and even goats(!), are incorporated into yoga classes to elevate the level of lighthearted fun and de-stressing powers of the practice.
"For a lot of people, being around pets automatically puts them at ease," says Stacia Nero, a yoga instructor at Fishtown's Amrita Yoga and Wellness and Queen Village's Three Queens studios. "Incorporating pets into yoga adds an extra playfulness element that can help make people feel comfortable, whether they've done yoga before or not."
Amrita is holding a puppy yoga class on Saturday but, alas, it's already sold out.
Recently, Nero began donating her time to lead cat yoga classes at PSPCA Fishtown, where experience levels span the spectrum. In February's class, Nero recalls several new-to-yoga participants who said they showed up primarily for the interchange with the kitties.
"It's great because people come to see the cats, but then they also discover what yoga can do for your mind and body," says Nero. "They get to see how the two work hand in hand."
When a friendly feline would wander toward an individual student's mat, Nero says she would see the student's face light up with added excitement and joy.
The insuppressible elation that stems from cuddly creatures is natural. Numerous studies show that human-animal interaction can reduce stress-related variables such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure levels.
But it's not just humans reaping the benefits from the yoga classes.
"The dogs love it," says Sophie Samul, the event coordinator at Morris Animal Refuge. "They get to get out of the shelter for a handful of hours, run around, and interact with other people."
The Morris Animal Refuge currently hosts monthly puppy yoga classes at various locations throughout the city. Typically around three dogs are brought in for each studio class, and five volunteers oversee the program to make sure everything runs smoothly.
"Yes, bathroom issues do happen — it's just part of being a dog," says Samul. "But we try to walk them a number of times before and after the classes, and we clean up accidents right away when they occur."
Dogs are chosen based off of personality traits, meaning only behaviorally sound pups are invited to attend the classes. The hope of Morris Animal Refuge, as with many of the animal shelters that partner with yoga studios, is that the classes might inspire adoptions and also build awareness around animal rescue.
"Some folks, however, aren't necessarily in a position to adopt, but they want to give back," says Samul. "This allows them to do so in a capacity in which they're able."
All of the proceeds from the $25-per-person classes go to the Morris Animal Refuge.
Samul points out that the events help to build name recognition, noting that while participants might not adopt right away, the memories can remind people to return to the shelter if and when they do become ready for a pet. Samul also notes that students often tell their friends about the classes, which can inspire others to adopt.
Gillian Kocher, director of public relations and marketing of the Pennsylvania SPCA, says the classes at PSPCA Fishtown have significantly affected the rates in which its cats find homes.
"We always see a spike in adoptions after each class, which might be partially attributed to the social media surrounding them," says Kocher. "The cats don't typically get adopted the day of the class, but usually they will all be adopted within the week that follows."
In the PSPCA Fishtown classes, three to five kitties roam around during each session. Sometimes they'll walk beneath participants as they're arching into their first cat-cow pose of the morning. Other times, a cat will snuggle up on the corner of a student's mat and lend a soothing purr for the entirety of a session.
Participants are given treats, pipe cleaners, and other luring items. However, it's hard to predict how the free-spirited animals will behave during any given class.
"You never really know how it will go, but that's kind of the fun part," says Kocher. "We can count on the instructor to lead a great yoga class, but the cats are the X factor — they might run around and stretch out aside students or they might plop down and nap between mats."
Cat lovers that are lucky will get to attend a class with kittens, which Kocher says is more probable during warmer months when the little ones show up in greater numbers at the shelter.
"There's just something about a kitten coming up to you and brushing against your arm or leg when you're in a pose, or when a cat lets out a 'meow' while the whole group is meditating, that makes the experience that much more enjoyable," says Steven Pessagno, a regular attendee of the PSPCA Fishtown classes and owner to Nabi, a 15-pound gray tuxedo cat. "There's a novelty in it, and the cats provide these moments of cuteness you can't get when you practice elsewhere."
Want to give animal yoga a try? Classes are often seasonal, and tend to ramp up toward the spring. However, below are a few spots that are currently hosting regular sessions. Reservations are typically required in advance.
PSPCA Fishtown: Select Sundays, once per month; 1546 Frankford Ave.; $15; 215-309-6851; pspca.org
Le Cat Cafe: 7-8 p.m. every Monday; 2713 W. Girard Ave.; $15; 267-800-7877; lecatcafe.org
Camden County Animal Shelter: Monthly, dates vary; 125 County House Rd., Blackwood, N.J.; $20; 856-401-1300; ccasnj.org
Philly PAWS: Select dates, including Saturday, April 7 at The Twisted Monkey, 501 Huntingdon Pike, Rockledge, Pa.; price TBA closer to date; phillypaws.org
Morris Animal Refuge: Dates vary; $25; Locations vary per event; 215-735-9570; morrisanimalrefuge.org