Yoga with dogs? How barking is that? It’s the latest daft fitness craze. JILLY JOHNSON tries ‘doga’ – with her 14st Great Dane Hugo
Well, this is awkward. I’m arranging myself into what my yoga instructor calls the ‘downward facing dog pose’. I place my hands on the floor, stretch out my arms and legs and lift my pelvis.
So far so good. I close my eyes and try to follow orders to relax — until I feel a paw swipe my face.
When a big sticky lick follows it, I lose my inner calm completely, and collapse — right on top of my Great Dane, Hugo, who looks at me as if I am, well, barking mad.
Perhaps I am. I’ve always been guilty of spoiling Hugo, and forgetting that he is a dog. He is one (but already the size of a small house), has pigs’ ears to eat as treats every day, and I recently spent a small fortune on a Swarovski crystal collar for him. I’ve bought a buffalo hide sofa for him to lie on because his giant claws scratch through everything else, and I do like having him snuggling up watching TV with me.
Taking him to yoga, though, is off-the-scale, even for me. When I told my husband Ashley I was going to do it, he told me I was nuts. This isn’t any old yoga class, though, it is doga — yoga for dogs.
The latest exercise craze to cross the Atlantic to the UK, it was first taught in 2002 after yoga teacher Suzi Teitelman found that her cocker spaniel loved to sit on her yoga mat while she was doing her routine. She slowly began lifting him into poses and incorporated him into classes.
Soon everyone who was anyone in New York was taking their poodles or pugs to yoga.
My class in West London is run by 40-year-old Mahny Djahanguiri, who taught her first doga class in the Harrods’ Pet Spa last year and teaches classes in studios across the capital.
Other doga fans she’s teaching are Niki Roe, with her miniature pinscher Diddi; Nicole Ettinger, with a Highland Maltese called Roxy; Emma Simmons, with her miniature poodle Wesley; and Petrina Cutchey, with a Staffordshire bull terrier named Brooke.
Most of the stuff I read about doga makes reference to the fact that dogs can be used as weights. There is no better way to get biceps of steel, apparently, that to lift a little pooch up and down while breathing calmly.
Hmm. Did I mention that Hugo is a Great Dane who is 3½ft tall and weighs nearly 14st? I haven’t tried to lift Hugo since he was a few months old. If I do, I fear we will have to factor in a trip to A&E after the class.
Mercifully, Mahny assures me that big dogs can be useful in different ways. They can be used as bolsters to rest your arms and head on.
When they lie under you, you can synchronise your breathing with theirs, and be united in a little bubble of calm. Is she serious?
Hugo finds it hard to lie still for two minutes.
Still, we are here now and while I put down my mat, he charges off to explore the room.
‘Leave him,’ says Mahny, explaining there are no ‘rules’ to doga, and that her approach is ‘organic’ — the dogs are allowed to do what they want, and eventually they will come and join in.
She tells me she has up to 100 requests a week for classes, which cost £20 and last 90 minutes, and that Hugo will love it. (Next year she is publishing a doga book, so fans of the craze can practise at home.)
By now Hugo is on the other side of the room, sniffing at the walls
. I’m trying to listen to Mahny but although he’s house-trained, he’s still young and excitable.
And I’ve only brought one towel. I’m so stressed about what could happen that my blood pressure is through the roof.
Mahny tells me to ignore Hugo for the time being, so I try to concentrate on my own body.
I get into the warrior position, with legs spread wide apart and arms lifted above my head, but I can feel every muscle burn and my joints swell under the strain.
I haven’t done yoga since the Eighties. These days, my exercise is walking Hugo. Where is he, by the way?
Mahny offers me her little dog Robbie, a white Maltese terrier who is obviously an old hand at this yoga malarkey. Robbie is in Britain’s Got Talent Pudsey’s league when it comes to working as one with his owner.
Mahny demonstrates how to swing him onto her hip and then bend into the triangle pose. She breathes deeply as they hold the pose, as one. Robbie breathes deeply, too.
It is my turn with Robbie. ‘Stand with your feet wide apart, then reach sideways down one of your legs to your ankles,’ she says. I try, but there is nothing natural about bending over while there is a dog attached to your hip. I feel more than a little daft. I hope that there is no one looking in through the windows.
‘Try to mentally connect with the dog,’ encourages Mahny. ‘Breathe deeply, expanding the breath so Robbie can feel it.’
She starts to talk about how dogs have ‘parasympathetic’ nervous systems and can feel what we feel. In some lessons, the dogs get so zenned out you can hear them sigh.
Robbie is switched to my other hip and I have almost started to enjoy this when there is a commotion and a familiar sound of scrabbling paws on the floor.
Suddenly 86kg of lolloping Great Dane is in front of us. I can see by his expression that Hugo has sprung into action because of jealousy rather than any desire to participate. He stares at Robbie, still on my hip, as if he is a delicious fluffy canape.
Mahny whisks Robbie back and I try to get Hugo to settle on my mat. He’s quite interested in the mat, and I have visions of it being ripped into 1,000 pieces. I meekly hold onto his tail in an effort to encourage the ‘symbiotic experience’ Mahny mentioned should be occurring.
Ten minutes later, and there is still no sign of the symbiotic experience, but Mahny explains that it can take between four and six weeks of classes before dog and owner get into the swing of it.
Hugo licks me as I try to balance over the top of him, and I collapse into fits of giggles. On the third or fourth attempt, though, we get somewhere. Mahny continues to give instructions in a calm voice, and I move about the mat, stretching over him as he lies beneath me.
Then, still hovering in mid-air, I lower my body and press my nose into his side, rubbing his stomach with one hand. OK, it is weird. Even I can see it is odd. But it is also strangely bonding, and — guess what? — Hugo is definitely relaxing, too.
He lies on the floor like this at home with one eye open, watching me because he is so protective. Now both eyes are shut, and his breath deepens. Bingo! I have a zenned out dog.
Doga certainly isn’t what I expected. It is more about breathing and bonding with your dog than twisting them into weird contortions, although I certainly felt dog-tired by the end.
Surprisingly, Hugo seemed to love it. In the car on the way home, I hear him sigh loudly. Has he arrived at a doga-inspired plane of bliss, or is he just bored? The big question is whether we will do it again.
The jury is still out on that one, but if we do venture back, there will have to be one amendment. I think we will need a bigger yoga mat.