The lights were dim and the music was soothing as the yogis unfurled their mats to start practicing breathing deeply and moving their bodies mindfully into classic poses such as downward facing dog, cat and cow.
But quiet, focused mindfulness was certainly not what one special participant had in mind. Mango, a pumpkin-colored kitten, was a fireball of energy who careened through the yoga class, investigating the people plunked down on their mats and causing waves of giggles to ripple throughout the classroom. Still, the cute distraction was just fine with the yoga practitioners. In fact, it was why they came.
The monthly “Yoga with Cats” class at the P.A.W.S. Animal Adoption Center on John Street in Camden has been a big hit with people who like both yoga and cats.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how well received Yoga with Cats is,” Shelley Butler, the executive director of P.A.W.S., said. “The therapeutic benefits of both petting the cats and yoga — well, it’s win-win.”
She said that the inspiration for the special class came last fall, after the president of the board of the no-kill, non-profit animal shelter saw a report on how yoga classes with cats have become popular in shelters in other states that are seeking new ways to raise funds and increase adoptions. They figured it could work in Maine, too, and when yoga instructor Marylou Cook brought her 11-year-old son to visit the animals at the shelter, Butler pounced. Cook, who owns and teaches at Coastal Maine Yoga in Camden, said she was glad to offer up her services.
“I think yoga with cats is a fun combo,” Cook said. “And it can provide an opportunity for more people to participate in yoga.”
The classes are free, although participants are asked to bring either a donation of cat food or non-clumping cat litter with them. They began in January with a full house of both yogis and cats. And although the classes, held on the third Wednesday of the month, have been disrupted this winter by the snowstorms that have pummeled Maine, they’ve still remained popular, Butler said, adding that so far all of the cats that have been guests at the yoga sessions have been adopted.
Last week, though, just a few people braved the freezing temperatures and blowing snow to get to Yoga with Cats. And in part because the shelter has an unusually small number of cats right now — just 20, down from their usual 80 or so — there were not many cats to play and investigate among the yogis. Just two were there, the unstoppable Mango and a second cat, Molly, who spent most of the time hiding from all the people in the room.
One attendee was first-timer Natalie St. Pierre of Waldo, who has Cerebral palsy and did the yoga moves from her wheelchair.
“You want to stay active, but you’re limited. This was a new thing to try,” she said. “I love animals, and this was a really cool way to have a new experience. Mango is awesome, and if I could, I would take Mango home.”
Another yoga student, Jala Tooley of Camden, was also a first-time participant at Yoga with Cats.
“I loved it,” she said. “At first I thought this is going to be distracting — but it was still relaxing.”
According to Cook, having a kitten zooming through the room of yoga students is definitely fun, and can even help with mindfulness, one of the tenets of the yoga tradition. She said she didn’t mind having students break out in laughter or get distracted by petting Mango in the middle of a movement.
“Yoga is about breathing and taking time for yourself. It’s not about standing poses,” she said. “I think in life we still need to find those moments to be calm or have humor. And watching the cat gets you out of your head.”