There are very few things in life that give me as much comfort and joy as my dogs. The same could be said for my practice of yoga. The growing popularity of Doga (a word that combines “dog” and “yoga”) comes as no surprise to anyone who has a dog and enjoys yoga. Like yoga, the experience of loving a four-legged friend opens the heart and stretches the soul. It invites you to be vulnerable and demands that you be present. Most importantly, it makes you a better person, with more compassion for yourself and the many beings who call this big, beautiful, blue marble their home.
On a purely practical level, the benefits of yoga and dog ownership are remarkably similar: both improve heart health, encourage fitness, help you lose weight, reduce stress, bring a sense of purpose and can stave off depression. Given this broad and overlapping range of benefits, it’s no wonder that Doga has moved from a small, coastal niche activity to something with broad appeal that’s quickly making inroads in big cities and small towns across America.
The Origins of Doga
Despite what you may think, Doga isn’t a brand new phenomenon. Dogs have been welcomed into some yoga studios for years, and many of us have unconsciously been practicing Doga at home when curious furry friends decide to join us on our mats.
But the offering of studio (or park) classes specifically and intentionally for pet owners and their pooches is a rather recent development in the history of the yoga movement. Although opinions differ on exactly who offered the first Doga class, many sources point to Mahny Djahanguiri, a yoga instructor from London, who began inviting her students to bring their dogs to class in 2012. According to Mahny, the main point of Doga is to strengthen the bond between people and their pets. She also says that there is an immediate benefit for both participants. A dog will benefit from having a really calm owner and as anyone who has practiced Doga will attest, the reverse is also true: The owner will benefit from having a really calm dog.
Doga Sweeping The Country
Wherever it started, it’s clear the practice of Doga is flourishing all across America. Practitioners include Kristyn Caliendo of Chicago who completes forward-bends with her Jack Russell terrier draped around her neck and Grace Yang of Manhattan to moves into a warrior pose with her Shih Tzu balanced on her thigh. Chantale Stiller-Anderson from Seattle works her asana practice while contorting around her 52-pound Vizsla. What these yogis demonstrate is that in contrast to popular forms of yoga like Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram and Vinyasa, the practice of Doga demands that we practice openness and flexibility at a whole new level. Because while the aforementioned styles call for very specific sequences and alignment, practicing yoga with a pooch demands real flexibility of spirit and a patient willingness to work with the size, disposition, and inclinations of your furry best friend.
Brenda Bryan, Doga instructor and author of Barking Buddha: Simple Soul Stretches for Yogi and Dogi epitomizes the friendly and flexible spirit of a healthy Doga practice. Her classes are loosely structured and filled with acceptance and humor. She recognizes the importance of an open mind and a light heart saying, “There can be confusion about what Doga is and isn’t. Who cares if everybody’s facing the same direction and doing exactly the same thing? Besides, laughing is spiritual!”
Mindfulness, Trust & Respect
When practicing Doga, it’s crucial to remember that like people, each dog is an individual with his or her own preferences and abilities. As we invite our dogs into our practice, it is vital to treat them respectfully and never push them beyond their ability or comfort level. Be aware and mindful of their reactions and read their body language for signs of discomfort or pain. Trust and compassion are paramount. And always remember: the main objective of a good Doga class or practice is a deepening of the human/canine bond.
Before beginning any form of yoga, it’s important to understand body types, personality, and expectations. This is especially true when it comes to the practice of Doga. If you already practice yoga, you likely have a pretty good sense of your own body’s strengths and limitations as well as your own temperament and ability to focus. When practicing Doga, you are practicing with a partner and should not place unrealistic expectations on her. Below are some important factors to consider.
Not all poses are possible with all breeds of dogs. To state the obvious: if you have a Great Dane, it’s not advisable to try to lift him over your head in a modified tree pose! And if you have a Pomeranian, leaning up against her for support will not yield good results! They key to working with dogs of all sizes is to be mindful of modifications to basic poses.
Like people, dogs seem to mellow with age as the frenetic energy of youth becomes more balanced in adulthood. If you have a puppy or young dog who is not yet well trained, Doga will likely be a bit more of a challenge but can be a great way to build trust between you and help reinforce the training process. Working with older dogs can pose other challenges. If you have an older/elderly dog (north of 7 years for most breeds), please be mindful of their restricted range of motion. As arthritis may have settled in, it is vital that you don’t force them in ways that are uncomfortable and taxing to them as this will cause them to fear Doga practice – the exact opposite of what we are aiming for!
One of the most common concerns expressed by fist-time Doga practitioners is, “My dog isn’t mellow enough for Doga!” A fair enough concern given the varied personalities of canines but the real problem may be with you and not your dog. Although Doga is an offshoot of yoga, it’s essential to remember that first and foremost, it’s an activity with your dog. If your expectations are of a blissed-out, zen-like experience every time you’re together on the mat, then you’re setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. Although most dogs will adjust beautifully over time, some take longer than others to relax into the practice.
Basic Doga For Beginners
If you’re ready to take to the mat with your beloved mutt, the key to beginning is to start slow and easy. The next time you roll out your mat, invite your dog to spend some time with you there. Don’t worry about positions or asanas in the beginning. Simply allow your pet to just enjoy time with you on your mat with some cuddling and belly rubs. This will help him get used to your yoga mat and associate it with happy time with you.
Allow things to unfold naturally with a mindset of acceptance and loving kindness. Your dog will pick up on your vibes and if you come to the mat with a stern attitude and too many expectations, you will turn him off before you even get started. Once you are able to comfortably and calmly relax on the mat together, you can move on to some basic Doga positions.
Mudras are hand position used in both yoga and meditation to harness prana (life force) in the body. In Doga practice, you use your hands to gently connect with your dog and engage with his prana. This allows you to create trust and receptivity while sending positive energy and receiving it back. The following practices will provide a feeling of deep connection with your dog.
Option One: With your dog lying on your mat, extend over him in a modified Child’s Pose and gently place your hands over your dog’s front paws. Breathe.
Option Two: Sitting cross-legged on your mat with your dog lying in front of you or sitting facing you, place your hand on her heart or chest area and experience the love you have for her as you try to feel her heartbeat. Breathe.
Option Three: Sitting facing your dog on your mat, gently cup his head between your hands and rest your forehead against his. In this Mudra, the intention is to connect with your dog’s consciousness with mindfulness and presence. Breathe.
- Invite your pooch to lie on your yoga mat.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees with your dog underneath you.
- Spread your fingers wide and press firmly through your palms.
- Exhale as you tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor.
- Press away from the floor as you lift from your pelvis and straighten your legs (but don’t over-extend them).
- Kiss your pooch on the top of his adorable head and hold for a count of five.
Forward Lean & Love
- Sit comfortably with your legs tucked underneath you and your dog on the mat facing you.
- Clasp your hands behind your back and lean forward until your forehead rests on top of your dog’s head.
- Connect with the energy of your pup and breathe deeply for a count of five.
Woof To The Warrior
- Stand with your dog at your side.
- Step one foot back and extend your hands above your head for Warrior One Pose.
- Extend hands in front and back as you move into Warrior Two Pose.
- Use your forward-facing hand to stretch slightly and pet the top of your dog’s head.
- Switch sides and repeat.
- Lie on your back and place your dog gently on your torso (if your dog is small enough).
- If you have a larger breed, have him lie next to you with your hand lightly touching his side.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
- Pet your dog gently as you relax into this pose.
A Sacred Union of Souls
Practitioners of traditional yoga know that its goal is union – of the mind, body and spirit. In the practice of Doga, we seek to expand this union to our pets, and in doing so, connect to the Divinity of all living beings. The reason Doga has resonated so greatly with people is that our connection with our canines tends to be quite profound. In practicing Doga, we can descend more deeply into this bond and share a feeling of loving-kindness with the greater world.
Bow to the Wow
These days it’s fairly common to hear people exchange salutations of “Namaste” in yoga class. It’s the Indian equivalent of “hello,” but with an element of respect. Interestingly, the root word nama means “bow.” DownDog Customizable Yoga Mats for pet lovers were created to give passionate pet-lovers the experience of “wow” with inspiring pictures of their own pets right on their yoga mat. Put the two together and the result is something that might just open your heart and stretch your soul.
About the Author
Moira Lynch is a passionate pet parent of two 14-yer-old dogs named Otis and Emma and the founder of DownDog Customizable Yoga Mats for pet lovers. Her dogs have enriched her life immeasurably and inspired a deep commitment to animal justice and well-being. DownDog is proud to be a recognized business ambassador for the ASPCA, a national leader in animal rescue, justice, and advocacy.