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August 01, 2018

Why everyone should try yoga with cats

Farm-animal yoga fusions might seem fun and Instagrammable, but felines have innate ability

Fitness Yoga
07042018_cat_yoga1_EL Photo courtesy/Katharine Livingston

A cat joins yoga class at Le Cat Café in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia.

Each time I roll out my yoga mat, I find a freshly shed claw sheath stuck in its soft, worn rubber. My domestic cats, who are gentle, loving, and cling to me like needy toddlers, are descendants of wild animals who’d avoid me, at best.

But since modern house cats most likely domesticated themselves, it makes sense that mine like living with me and doing the things I do. We love doing yoga most. At least two or three times a day, we twist, plank, and backbend. Yoga is the first thing we do when we wake up and it’s the last thing we do before we go to sleep.

Animal yoga is a hot fitness trend, with horse yoga and goat yoga competing to take the novelty cake. But as a rather pragmatic yoga student, I’m wary of goat hooves anywhere near my tiny toes and especially adverse to them perched on my vertebrae. I’ve been practicing backbends since I was a kid, but I will never feel safe enough to perform one on horseback. While these yoga/farm animal fusions might seem fun and Instagrammable for some, I see a real need for cat yoga, for people and cats, too.

My youngest cat, Udon, a Kitten Lady rescue and social media darling, is particularly yoga obsessed. Since I’ve started filming cat yoga flows for her 16,400 Instagram followers, hundreds of people have sent me messages about how relaxing they find it to watch cats interact with humans in yoga poses. Many people say they spend the best quality time with their own cats doing yoga. Others, including myself, have come to see their cats as sort of spiritual gurus, imparting gentle lessons in patience, humor and humility.

The experience of doing yoga with cats is a stark contrast to cats’ reputation as aloof and unsociable animals. This negative stereotype is harmful to shy shelter cats struggling to find homes, as well as cats with families who may not realize their cats crave attention. Pet playtime is essential to cats’ overall health and beneficial to preventing physical and emotional distress in humans, too.

Cats might surprise you with their innate yoga ability. That’s because, compared to humans and other mammals, cats have extra thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, which compose their tails and help them maintain superior balance. 

“Unfortunately, since cats are usually so independent, it’s easy to fall into the habit of not giving them enough attention,” says Dr. Lisa Lippman, known as “NYC’s Celebrity Veterinarian” because she works with high-profile clients and has more than 121,000 followers on Instagram. “It’s important to make a conscious effort to spend time playing with or petting your cat each day, both for their physical and emotional health.”

Lippman believes daily yoga sessions with your cat are a great way to fulfill their exercise needs. One caveat, she says, is that the less pressure you put on your pet (and yourself), the better.

“Trying to teach your cat to do yoga poses right along with you may be an exercise in futility," she says. "However, encouraging your cat to hang out and stretch with you on your yoga mat is a great way to bond.”

I’ve learned there is a fine art to practicing yoga with cats. Cats will claw the hell out of your yoga mat. You must make peace with the fact that everything about your cat yoga practice, like your mat, will be messy and imperfect. Cats laugh in the face of expensive yoga pants, which rip, pill and magnetically attract cat hair just as well as their cheaper alternatives. People with long hair should wear a ponytail at their own risk; they are irresistible to young cats and kittens. Beginner cat yogis should opt for a tidy bun.

However silly and easily distracted your cat may be, they might surprise you with their innate yoga ability. That’s because, compared to humans and other mammals, cats have extra thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, as well as 22 to 23 caudal vertebrae, which compose their tails and help them maintain superior balance. Lippman says that cats’ spines are so flexible, they beat even dogs at downward dog any day.

'CATS AND MATS' IN PHILLY

Thanks to some animal shelters and cat cafés, you can now practice cat yoga, even if you don’t have a cat.

Katharine Livingston, who’s been teaching yoga for more than 25 years and rescuing stray cats for almost as long, offers cat yoga classes once a week at Le Cat Café in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia. She says cats and yoga are a perfect fit and cat yoga helps many foster animals find permanent homes. Le Cat Café, an adoption platform for Green Street Rescue, has substantially boosted the organization’s adoption rate, because it’s a uniquely sociable and relaxed environment where rescue cats’ personalities can shine.

“Cats, especially the ones at the cat café, are friendly and curious about people. As soon as we put the mats out, they immediately want to get on them. They really do want to participate,” Livingston said.

NonePhoto courtesy/Katharine Livingston

Cats join yoga class at Le Cat Café.

In her experience, the best way to practice yoga with cats, at home or in a class, is to let the cat be your guide.

“I always tell people to let the cats lead the relationship. Let them come to your mat and see how they react. Once you start to establish a rapport with any one cat, you can reach out and try to engage them a little bit more.”

She says it’s also important to be extra vigilant.

“In yoga, you often jump your feet back or step back without looking. But with a cat, you have to make sure you look, because cats change positions quickly.”

Le Cat Café’s “Cats and Mats” yoga class offers a full yoga practice, so students reap the benefits of playing with cats while getting a restorative mind-body workout. There are plenty of photo opportunities, so Livingston invites yogis to bring their phones. At the end of class, while students lie flat on their backs in savasana, Livingston places an especially zen cat on each student’s belly, to enhance relaxation.

My cats often place their paws on me as I lie in savasana at the end of my yoga practice, forgetting the world for a few moments before I resume my day. It is a truly beautiful experience, for an animal to offer solidarity and sit still with you in this moment. Because, no matter why you practice yoga, animals always know.