With music softly playing in the background, the calm voice of yoga teacher Gwen Siciliano instructs five women, each with their beloved dog beside them, to settle into a pose.
But there’s no barking out instructions at what is Vancouver Island’s only yoga class for dogs and people – doga – where participants bond on the mat during one hour of heavy breathing and soft poses.
“It’s about tuning into yourself and settling into yourself so the dog will feel it,” says Ms. Siciliano, who teaches doga at the Fuller Lake Arena near Duncan, B.C. “You’re grooving to your breath, going into a twist, holding the pose and getting into this quietness. The dogs become totally relaxed,” said Ms. Siciliano, a yoga practitioner for 10 years and yoga teacher for two years.
When a fitness co-ordinator asked her if she’d like to lead a doga class. Ms. Siciliano, who owns four dogs, at first didn’t bite.
“I thought she was crazy. I thought it was a gimmick,” she said.
But once she tried it with her two golden retrievers, shepherd, and Shih Tzu-mix, Ms. Siciliano realized you can teach an old dog new tricks.
“You might judge this as flaky, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll really understand the quality of the bonding,” she said. “It’s like Mommy and Me yoga, where you bring your kid.”
At the one-hour class, dog owners bring their pet’s favourite blanket and toy and use the same spot each week. The dogs, who remain on leash, don’t socialize before or during class.
Even hyper Jack Russells or high-strung Chihuahuas can be brought under the calming spell of doga as long as the owner retains control, Ms. Siciliano said.
The yoga is a passive, no-standing style so the rather challenging downward dog pose only happens when one of the dogs (three pit bulls, one black Lab, one cocker spaniel) decides to stretch.
The five women massage their dogs while doing poses, have their dogs on their laps or let them just lie near them. The dogs don’t actually do yoga, rather they lap up the calm atmosphere.
“The dogs love it,” Ms. Siciliano said. “The pit bulls are the ones that settle the most. They’re really sweetie-pies. There’s something in that breed, so gentle.”
Shay Robertson, who owns one of the pit bulls, 10-year-old Scar, is a doga disciple.
While the yoga isn’t strenuous, she’s felt it in her muscles. For Scar, doga has delivered psychological benefits.
“Dogs are big on feeling other dogs’ and people’s energy. Dogs want to be in a calm state and want their leaders to be in the same state. When I’m in a pose, Scar will get up and come over and lick my face. She’s telling me she really likes it.”
Susan Marshall brings her two-year-old black Lab Cole, a skittish dog that had three owners by the time he was four months old.
At the first class, Cole, usually agitated around other dogs, was nervous. By the second class, calmer Cole went straight to his mat.
A dog-groomer for 10 years, Ms. Marshall knows the importance of dog-handling. “Doing doga is doubly calming. You touch and stroke your dog,” she says. “When I'm done, I could almost go to sleep.”
Erik Wirtanen, a veterinarian for 15 years, hadn’t heard of doga but thinks it’s an excellent idea.
Both owner and dog benefit from the relaxation while the dogs learn how to behave in a social setting, said the Sooke-based vet.
“It’s one more thing to get people into their dogs,” he said.
Doga got its start in 2002 in New York City when Suzi Teitelman unleashed Ruff Yoga.
At Fuller Lake, Ms. Siciliano will be leading a second doga session next month. And this summer she’s taking it outdoors. “Dogs are a big part of a family. This is a way to spend time with your dog and not be on the couch.”
Special to The Globe and Mail