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Turning dogs into cobras in one pose

September 22, 2003|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Just when yoga enthusiasts thought they'd seen it all -- yoga with Spinning, yoga with Sinatra music -- comes this: yoga with your schnauzer.

Crunch gym in West Hollywood launched Ruff Yoga this month at Runyon Canyon, home of the dog park, where yoga instructor Heather Stevens led a class of seven humans and seven canines through several poses, some barking and only occasional slobbering.

Yoga for dogs is evidence that humans are so passionate about yoga that we want to share it with our pets, and that we love our pets so much we want to share our favorite fitness regime with them. Perhaps it also speaks to the fact that we'll try almost anything that inspires us to work out. But dogs and yoga do have a link -- canines have been the influence, after all, for standard poses such as downward facing dog and upward facing dog.

Those who gathered at the park didn't quite know what to expect when they arrived with yoga mats and pets in tow. The class was making its West Coast debut after Crunch rolled it out in May in Madison Square Park in New York. That class, which started with about 10 people, now has about 20.

The L.A. class appealed to television writer Catherine Lieuwen because it combined two of her favorite things. "I don't do yoga a lot," she says, "but I like it, and I love my dog."

Said dog was Harriet, an energetic 4-year-old pit bull-German shepherd mix. Before class began, Lieuwen was a bit nervous about how Harriet, whose favorite fitness routine is bounding after tennis balls, would handle the quiet, sustained poses of yoga. But, said Lieuwen, "she needs a new hobby, so we're going to try this."

Stevens led the class -- six women, one man and dogs that included a standard black poodle, a miniature dachshund and a German shorthaired pointer -- to a clearing where mats were placed in two rows on the dirt. This first class would be brief -- about 20 minutes -- so the dogs could get used to the new activity.

With a full sun beating down, Stevens, working with a friend's 13-year-old whippet named Diva, encouraged the group to "be really accepting of what your dog can and cannot do. What they need today are lots of kisses and hugs and love from us." The class happily obliged and the affection flowed.

To avoid any dog having to be rushed to the emergency vet after a failed inverted pose, Stevens asked if any of the dogs had preexisting injuries or conditions. Modify any of the moves to suit your pet, she advised. As the students rested their chests on their dogs' backs (to feel the animals' vibrations), Stevens began with three "om" chants.

Stevens then went into shoulder rolls, accompanied by belly rubs, then sun salutations, in which owners lifted their pets' front paws into the air. Most dogs went along with this, except Delilah, the standard poodle, who preferred sitting splayed on the ground.

Downward facing dog was achieved by lifting the dogs' hips. For the flying dog pose, owners got on their backs and hoisted their hounds in the air with feet and hands.

Most of the canines went with the flow, occasionally fussing or refusing to hold a pose. In the middle of a leg twist, West Hollywood screenwriter Hilary Galanoy exclaimed, "Oh God, she's drooling on my stomach!" referring to 2-year-old boxer Sadie, for whom she was pet sitting.

"It's clear to me what special relationships you have with your dogs," said the blond, affable Stevens, a yoga instructor at Crunch whose dog, an 80-pound Shar-Pei-Rottweiler mix named Shaq, was home ill. "Doing yoga will enhance those special bonds."

But will they? Suzi Teitelman, Crunch's national yoga director who developed the class, thinks so: "Coali has changed completely," she said of her 2-year-old cocker spaniel who inspired the course. When she was doing yoga at home, Coali wouldn't budge from the mat, so Teitelman put him in a few poses, which, she said, he loved.

"He's so well-behaved now," she says. "He's so calm and relaxed and smart and he listens."

Placing Fido into the cobra pose because it makes us feel good may not necessarily make him a happier, healthier dog, some veterinarians say. Throwing a Frisbee or taking your dog on a nice long walk is just fine for maintaining canine well-being and fitness, they say.

Nina Patterson, co-owner of Sol Companion, a physical rehabilitation center for dogs in Oakland, said: "It's a little bit risky if a dog has an injury or the breed is predisposed to spinal injuries. It's easy to overstretch the dog, since they don't have much control over what's going on."

Yet using relaxation and massage techniques on dogs is nothing new, said Pamela Reid, director of the ASPCA Animal Behavior Center in New York, and having a dog nearby while practicing yoga may not be a bad idea. "I think it's quite viable," she said. "They do respond to stroking movements and calming behavior. To some extent, yoga is not that different. You're both kind of chilling together."

Further proof that the dog yoga trend is growing is the publication of two books: "Doga: Yoga for Dogs" (Chronicle Books, 2003) and "Bow Wow Yoga: 10,000 Years of Posturing" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003). Both show dogs in various "yoga" poses and are meant to be humorous, not encourage owners to pose their dogs.

"They've been doing this for 10,000 years," said Gerry Olin Greengrass, author and illustrator of "Bow Wow Yoga." "Relating to them in any way is helpful to us humans."

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