An unusual fitness practice whose adherents believe strengthens the bond between dog and owner has taken hold among devotees of the two- and four-legged variety.
“Dog yoga” — which, as the name suggests, incorporates dogs with aspects of the ancient exercise discipline — lets owners spend quality time with their pets while enjoying exercise, its practitioners say.
“Take a deep breath, and feel the warmth of your dog.” Ayu, who teaches dog yoga in the Kichijoji area in Tokyo, says as she begins a class. Held in her arms is her buddy Candy, a 6-year-old female Pekingese.
Ayu says dog yoga is not about bending dogs into yoga poses, as some might imagine.
“It’s about sharing a sense of unity with dogs through yoga breathing and learning how to embrace your dog as it is.”
While the dog doesn’t assume a yoga pose, it does play a part in completing each posture. The human performs leg stretches while holding the dog in their arms, or they lay on the floor and relax with their dog on their belly.
As the class begins, the dogs tend to wander away or bark at each other, and it seems almost impossible for them not to be distracted. But as their owners begin to concentrate on breathing, the canines start to respond to the silence and calm.
Noriko Onuma, founder of the Yokohama-based Dog Yoga Society, has contributed to the growing popularity of the activity. After opening classes for people and their dogs in 2004, Onuma, 48, now also offers courses to train instructors like Ayu.
Dog yoga is believed to have started in the United States and has gained recognition in Britain and elsewhere. Onuma says that although the number of practitioners in Japan is still low, around 40 people have taken her instructional courses since 2006 and run lessons in and outside Tokyo.
Onuma, who gives a class once a month in the Ginza district, teaches some 20 original yoga poses incorporating dogs that she created on her own based on classic-style Indian yoga.
Among the poses is a standing posture called “tree,” which is completed by holding a dog over one’s head, and one named “boat” that requires the human to sit with their feet off the floor, while putting the dog on their thighs.
“It’s important that we never force dogs to do what they don’t want to do,” says Onuma. “It’s about focusing your attention on your dog. Then you’ll be able to strengthen bonds with your dog, as dogs can really sympathize with your state of mind.”
Makiko Nagai, 40, who tried dog yoga for the first time in December with Elmo, her 7-month-old toy poodle, said she found it a great activity for health-conscious dog owners.
“I wanted to go to the gym on weekends, but I also wanted to spend as much time as I could with my dog, as I’m usually too busy during weekdays,” Nagai says.
“It was so much fun and it seems a perfect way of spending weekends for me.”
But are the dogs benefiting from the activity?
Some believe it helps their dogs “socialize” with other dogs and humans, and reduce undesirable behavior such as barking.
Natsue Tanaka said that her dog, Alice, a 4-year-old Chihuahua, was not very good at building smooth relationships with other dogs and humans. But Tanaka believes Alice has changed since they started to participate in a dog yoga class.
“She can now show a sense of fellowship toward other dogs, and is on better terms with humans as well . . . I think she has also become emotionally stabilized.”
Onuma, who used to be engaged in volunteer work for animal protection and animal rights activities, hopes dog yoga will help dogs suffering from the trauma of abuse and change the way people treat animals.
“I believe that if we humans can rid ourselves of negative emotions like anger through yoga and communicate calmly with dogs, it will definitely help create a new relationship between people and dogs.”