Bring Your Mat, and Man's Best Friend

The latest fitness craze for dog lovers is called 'doga.'

April 1, 2008, 5:03 PM

April 1, 2008— -- For thousands of years, the ancient practice of yoga has led to peace and enlightenment for people wishing to unite their body and mind. While some techniques have changed over time, chances are the early gurus did not anticipate the newest set of devotees: dogs.

"We're going to Om, but I want you to actually Om towards the dog," said instructor Kari Harendorf in front of a yoga class for dogs and their owners. "Inhale, Ommmm, Ommmm," she continued.

The latest fitness craze for dog lovers is called "doga" and it's coming to a mat near you. In a typical doga class, owners help their pups facilitate different poses, and they also do their own poses using the animals as helpful props. Owners also perform doggy massage and acupressure to help soothe and relax their pets.

"This is about you and your dog, and time with your dog," said Harendorf as she began the class and instructed the owners on how to gently stretch their dogs' legs and paws.

Speaking of stretches, this whole concept may seem like one to many people. But it's not to Harendorf, who is a yoga instructor, dog trainer and former veterinary technician.

"When I tell people that I teach yoga for dogs, they say, 'Oh, my dog would never be able to do yoga. He's too hyper or too this, too that,'" she said. "I'll say, 'Well, try a couple of poses with him.'"

That's how Harendorf started doing doga with her dog Charlie five years ago. "Every time I would get my mat out, Charlie would come lay on top of it," she explained. "I would go into [downward facing] dog and he would just lie under me and look up at me. He put his paw on my hand, and we started doing yoga together."

Now, Harendorf and Charlie lead monthly classes at Bideawee Animal Shelter in New York City. The tranquil ambiance is set with candles, incense, and calming music.

It turns out the quest for zen is not just for the hyper pups of the Big Apple. Doga has spread to Seattle, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Fla., Canada, and even Japan. Later this year, Suzi Teitelman and her dog Coali will debut the first doga exercise video for those who would like to practice their poses from the privacy and comfort of home.

Doga has also inspired clothing lines, books, and a plethora of pet accessories. At Trixie and Peanut, a pet boutique in New York City, dogis on the way to enlightenment can find stylish velour sweat suits. "It's just like a sweat suit you would get for yourself when you're going to do yoga," said store owner Susan Bing. "It stretches," she continued. "It keeps them warm."

For playful dogis, Bodhi makes a variety of chew toys inspired by Indian art and philosophy. Squeaky "Mendhi Balls" are decorated with lotuses and leaves in the style of Henna tattoo art, while "Shanti Sticks" are inscribed with the mantra "Om Shanti Shanti."

There's also the "Om Ball," which plays a recording of the mantra Om when bounced on the floor. "[It] was recorded by renowned yogi Bhagavan Das especially for this," said Bing.

Finally, the ultimate luxury gift for any doga dog is the custom-made "Lotus Bed," a suede lounge cushion with hand embroidering. "They feature a lotus bud," said Bing, "another sign of good luck and harmony in meditation."

While some people may roll their eyes and say these dogs are overindulged, pet trend expert Maggie Gallant says dogs and yoga are a natural combination. "It makes sense," she said. "Dogs come into our lives because they make us grounded, they remind us to play on a daily basis, and that's very often the kinds of principles you learn from doing yoga."

Gallant, who practices yoga with her beloved dachshund Dixie, says doga has the potential to be a very widespread trend. "There are 75 million homes in America that have dogs," she said, "and about 13 million people practicing yoga."

While the concept of doga may strike some people as over-the-top, Barbara Carnival says when she heard about the class, she enrolled with her dog George right away. "I was looking to do another yoga class for myself," she explained, "so, I said, 'Hey, I can bring him with me, great.'"

But the real question is, does doga really work? Before the class began, many of the dogs were barking, playing rambunctiously and, well — acting like dogs. By the end, most were practically asleep.

"I think it enriches his life, for sure," said Mame McCutchin about her dog, Mishka. "It's social, I think it feels good for him.

"He gets a little massage ... I get a fur coat," she joked "Everyone wins."

Harendorf says doga actually offers health benefits for dogs because the massage aids digestion and lowers blood pressure. She also says it can help socialize and calm dogs with behavioral problems, but most of all, it's about bonding.

"Doga is about paying attention to your animal," said Harendorf. "That's really [what] any of us want — attention from the one we love most."