Dog-owners and yoga-lovers have finally found a way to bring their two passions together: doga. Yoga classes for dogs and their owners are sprouting all around the United States, combining massage and meditation techniques with gentle canine and human stretching. Ludicrous or blissfully relaxing?
Doga aficionados are adamant: there's nothing like balancing your cocker spaniel on your belly as you stretch to create a bond between you and your canine companion. The practice stems from an unsaid philosophy shared by many yogis: because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga's emphasis on connection with other living creatures.
Created eight years ago by Florida-born yoga instructor Suzi Teitleman, the popularity of doga classes has skyrocketed in the US, drawing attention from major media outlets like the New York Times and CNN.
But not all yoga afficionados are comfortable with this new development. They fear that doga brings a trivial, fad-like approach to a 2,500 year-old spiritual practice. Teaching doga requires no official certification, so the quality and content of classes vary from veterinary-approved stretches and massages aimed at improving dog's digestion and heart function, to more dubious courses where dogs are trained into executing poses in exchange for treats.
Instructors vary in their approach to doga - some say it requires the same physical effort and concentration as traditional yoga, while others adopt a more laid-back approach. Brenda Bryan, a Seattle-based yoga and doga instructor who has recently written a book on the subject, told the New York Times her classes are loosely-structured and filled with humour, the essential being that humans and dogs alike leave with a smile.
Doga class at Lululemon in Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Suzi Teitleman.
The "Downward facing dog" position... for dogs and humans
"My first dog came to yoga naturally"
Suzi Teitleman is a Florida-based yoga instructor and owner of three dogs. She began practicing Doga in 2001 and founded the first doga classes in 2002.
Practicing and teaching Doga wasn't part of a plan, it was just the organic expression of my lifestyle after I adopted my first dog, Coali, right after the 9/11 attacks (I was living in New York City at the time). I have practiced yoga all my life and did yoga movements at my home every day, and Coali would come lie under me or next to me on the mat, he felt my calmness and wanted to participate. So I began doing some movements with him, and gradually developed what is now called doga. I started giving doga classes in addition to yoga in New York City in 2002, then continued in Jacksonville, Florida after I moved back there four years ago.
Each dog reacts to doga in a different way. My first dog came to it naturally. Other dogs may need more training. I've tought classes where a dog won't stop barking: in those cases his owner will calm him down or just leave the class, there's no use in forcing a dog to participate. Like for humans, it's a lifelong practice - some of my dogs weren't comfortable with all the poses or stretches at first, now they spontaneously follow me when I go to my yoga room, they love it.
I certainly never expected Doga to spread the way it did. I did many teacher training courses, but now there are more doga teachers and classes around the US than I can keep track of. For me, doga is very much an extension of traditional yoga: you flow from pose to pose, work on breathing and concentration, except that your dog is with you and you include him in the exercise. I never use treats to train dogs to do yoga poses: just a lot of love, praise and patience. I know some people don't quite practice it in that way, but that's OK - every yoga teacher is different.
I think more and more people realise that dogs are natural yoga partners: they love to stretch, to be in contact with their owners, to participate in whatever their owners are doing. Doing movements together also makes yoga fun for both the dog and the owner - and yoga should be fun.