The yoga class would take place in the middle of a scorching Washington afternoon, but in a cool basement, and in the presence of 10 furry kittens. Naturally, it sold out fast.
Twenty minutes before Kitten Yoga was to begin, some participants were already rolling out their rainbow-hued mats in spots they guessed might have the best access to fluff. One woman stood on the sidelines, hoping she’d get bumped off the waiting list and into the class, which was capped at 25 people. The kittens — some sleepy, some bewildered — waited in crates and carriers.
This odd mash-up — an ancient Indian discipline combined with animal bystanders — is so hot now that it’s almost getting old. Goat yoga has spread across the nation, from Oregon to Virginia. Doga, or dog yoga, has been around for several years. Even kitten yoga is not unique to Washington; people in Tennessee and Colorado do it, too. Proponents talk of the animals’ soothing nature, possible health benefits — for both two- and four-legged participants — and, of course, fun.
On this day, the felines’ job would be to wander cutely as practitioners stretched and folded. The practitioners’ job would be to help the kittens, all adoptable through the city’s Humane Rescue Alliance, grow more comfortable around people. Jennifer Fernandez’s job was to lead the class, as well as to help ensure the cats were stroked but not grabbed.
“We try to make sure everyone gets a kitten at least once,” said Fernandez, a teacher with Yoga Heights, a studio that periodically offers the classes and donates the $25 fees it collects to the alliance. But that did not mean kittens could be hoisted during sun salutations, she clarified: “There’s no Lion King.”
Shortly after 3 p.m., the students were sitting on their mats, expectantly and almost eerily silent. Abby Meltzer, a full-time lawyer and full-time kitten foster parent, opened a carrier, and out poked the head of Navel, a tiny orange feline in a yellow collar.
“Ohhhh,” went the room. At least three people immediately pulled out phones to take photos. Nine more kittens, in hues from orange to black to Creamsicle, gingerly stepped out of their carriers. A guy with a beard began slowly dragging a feather toy across the floor.
“So I know those kittens just stole all my thunder,” Fernandez said. “But this is a yoga class!”
Oh, yes, right. As the class moved into child’s pose, two orange kittens hid behind a purse at the edge of the room. There was lots of quiet giggling. One woman in a T-shirt that said “FOCUS” had completely lost hers; she was kneeling and cuddling a kitten. Shelter volunteers in red T-shirts stepped between the mats, moving kittens around in a bid to keep them all from huddling shyly against a low partition behind Fernandez.
By 3:25 p.m., a woman in the second row was snapping a selfie with a black kitty. The woman in front of her turned and offered to take the photo.
“Think of this as an exercise in mindfulness,” Fernandez was saying, urging class members to find their drishti, which means “focused gaze” in Sanskrit. “It’s going to be very hard to find your drishti with all these cats around.”
Ten minutes later, the bearded guy was entertaining two kittens with the feather toy. A young woman was placing a kitten on the back of her friend, who was doing downward dog. And over against the wall, Kendall Rosen, a gym manager visiting from Philadelphia, was subtly alerting volunteers that Navel had urinated on her mat. “It’s much better than bird poop!” she said cheerfully. (Later, Rosen would note that the mat is machine washable. “This was the best day of my life,” she said, acknowledging that she had not gotten much of a workout. “I tried, but I’m a crazy cat lady.”)
Soon the hour was almost up, and Fernandez was guiding her students to lie on their backs for the “corpse pose,” or shavasana. “In shavasana, we normally keep our eyes closed,” she said. “But since there are so many cats in the room, I won’t tell the yogi police if you open your eyes.”
At the edge of the room, Carlen Rowan was lying on her side. An orange and white kitten named Smith was curled into her waist, belly in the air like a dog, sound asleep.
After some inhaling and exhaling, the kittens were collected, and the students filed out quickly.
Rowan stuck around, however, to begin the paperwork that would allow her to adopt Smith.