Why practicing yoga with herd animals makes more sense than you might think. By Fiona Lines
These days it seems like each time you look on social media, or indeed read the national newspapers, there is a new yoga craze: beer yoga, naked yoga, alien yoga…the list goes on.
It’s easy to be cynical. Indeed, there is an increasing undercurrent of discontent at a perceived lack of authenticity and the trivialisation of an ancient practice. Yoga is big business and something novel that grabs the headlines is a fast track to making sales.
Yet, advocates of novelty trends argue that they have genuine benefits over and above being a bit of fun.
Goat yoga is a good example. Originally offered by Lainey Morse in Oregan in 2016, it quickly racked up a waiting list in the thousands and spread throughout the US, landing on European shores in 2017 with events in Amsterdam and the UK. Cute pictures of friendly goats scampering delightfully around – and on top of – practicing yogis captivated our imagination and the resultant media storm created a new yoga trend.
Giving yoga a go… with sheep
Day-to-day, I run a retreat company that brings people opportunities to reconnect with nature and, through this, feel happier and less stressed. Attaining a sense of connection with the natural world is also an important part of my personal yoga practice; so as soon as I heard about goat yoga I knew I had to give it a try!
I keep a few sheep at home and often sit among them, finding their peaceful presence very calming, yet until recently I had never actually practiced yoga asana among them. Considering there were no goats to hand, I thought I would try ‘sheep yoga’ instead…and I loved it!
Realistically, I know it will never replace my indoor practice. Being constantly vigilant of toggles being chewed off and whether poo pellets were imminent was a distraction, to be honest. I also found it difficult to synchronise my mind with my breath and movement, so I lost that sense of focus and moving meditation that I seek in my Vinyasa practice. Nonetheless, there were benefits that, in my opinion, could genuinely complement an existing yoga practice.
Why does it work
Animal assisted therapy is nothing new. In particular, there are plenty of similarities to be drawn between equine therapy, practiced through spending time with horses, and goat yoga. Both horses and goats are herd animals and, despite being a different size, they share many characteristics that lend themselves to being part of a meaningful yoga practice.
A mirror of our emotions: Herd animals are naturally distrustful. As prey animals, they have evolved to be vigilant against predators and can instinctively read the intentions of others. They can tell what we are feeling and provide feedback through their behaviour. If we are angry or anxious, for example, and allow the background chatter of our minds to dominate our emotions the animals will keep their distance. When we are present in the moment we are peaceful and the animals relax, rewarding us with their trust.
Unconditional acceptance: It is a wonderful feeling when an animal accepts you, especially if that animal has evolved to be naturally distrustful. Unlike humans, animals judge based on the present moment; they do not consider your back story or what you look like. Their acceptance can promote a sense of self-confidence and self-worth as we are taken for who we truly are and not who we are perceived to be.
Body awareness: Herd animals startle easily and, once one animal moves, the rest of the herd will likely follow. Whilst practicing yoga among herd animals there is a need to move slowly and carefully to maintain a sense of calm. This builds strength as transitioning between poses gracefully requires a surprising amount of power. There may also be a need to modify poses to avoid touching nearby animals, which provides further physical challenge.
Oxytocin: In 2012 a study by the University of Rostock showed that levels of oxytocin in humans increased when they interacted with animals. Oxytocin is perhaps most commonly associated with childbirth, helping a mother during labour and then afterwards to bond with her baby. It is also known more generally as the ‘love hormone’, encouraging us to trust, feel empathy, lower anxiety and enjoy cuddles.
Distraction: Often we come to the mat with a racing mind and sometimes it can be difficult to turn off those external thoughts. Those new to yoga, or who are dealing with anxiety, stress, grief or depression may find this particularly hard. Animals can offer a distraction from reality in these situations, providing focus for an active mind and allowing us to feel present in our surroundings during challenging times.
Yoga has been evolving over thousands of years. Even our most traditional styles of yoga asana are relatively modern compared to the history of yoga, which is ultimately a total life philosophy on how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. Yoga means ‘yoke’, or to unite, and through it we hope to connect to our true selves. Yoga asana is just one step on this path and there are many different approaches to it; surely, we need to be open minded about new developments, giving them a chance before deciding whether they work for us? Perhaps goat (or even sheep) yoga has its place. It might not work for everyone and it might not fill the same role as a more standard asana practice, but there are benefits. Spending time among herd animals provides us with an opportunity to live, love and connect with the world in the present moment. After all, from goats to handstands, stand up paddleboards to birthday suits, it’s not what you do, it’s what it does to you that matters.
Fiona Lines is the founder of yoga retreats company Cowdance