Leta Koontz has been practicing yoga for a decade and teaching it for five years ... but only for the past few months to dogs. After conducting experimental classes with house pets and shelter dogs, she is in the midst of a four-week "doga" course at Animal Friends' new facility in the North Hills (412-847-7000). At her own studio in Point Breeze ... Schoolhouse Yoga ... 39-year-old Koontz watches as 3-year-old Toby the Golden Retriever alternately chases a plastic hanger and flops down to rest.
What did you learn from the experimental classes?
Whenever you get down on the floor, your dog gets wound up. You're at eye level. When I bring the mat out, I had to find a way to calm [the dog] down. There's even one position in yoga, downward-facing dog, that dogs get in when they want to play. I started doing little stretches [with the dog], little massages, using my own breath, not allowing myself to get agitated. When I first did doga in February, all the owners were yelling at their dogs: "Be quiet!" The first thing we did in the class was centering. It's really for the humans: Be OK with whatever your dog is doing. Don't allow yourself to become agitated. Hold on to the leash! But still keep yourself focused on your breath. By the end of the hour, all the dogs were lying on the floor.
Toby seems to be able to enter a state of calm at will ... when he feels like it, anyway.
An animal doesn't sit and stew. There's a lot we can teach our dogs. But there's a lot they can teach us.
Do you notice doga making a difference with the dogs?
It's not until halfway through class that you see some of the dogs start to sit. One of the things we're thinking of doing is asking people to come a little early, to get over some of that energy ... so the dogs can do all their sniffing. Our emotional state affects our dogs. As they're reading your body posture and your breathing, they can tell how you're feeling. They can also read when we feel safe and centered. They've done studies that have found that when you pet animals, it actually lowers your blood pressure, which is what we're trying to do in yoga. When you're calm, your dog senses, "They're at a place of peace; I can go there too." I don't think it's a class where the dogs are going to be transformed ... are going to end up standing on their noses.
But you still managed to do some doga exercises, from massage and walking to eye contact and postures.
In walking, I wanted to do something that might be a little meditative for the dog, and make it repetitious so the dogs aren't thinking, "What going to happen next? Who can I jump on?" The next exercise was eye contact. Wherever you look is where your mind goes. I wanted to have humans and dogs making eye contact. It's actually really sweet, where you're looking into your pet's eyes. It's this really loving connection. It can be a sign of provocation, if you go up to a strange dog. But ... a dog or cat will naturally want to look into your eyes.
When we got the dogs calmed down, we started with some leg rotation-type stretches. Then we came to the fun part. There are dog postures humans can do. But our bone structures are very different ... their spines and hips are very different.
At the end, we did a meditation. Some people put one hand on their heart and one hand on their dog's heart, just trying to send a loving message to their pet. It's a Buddhist meditation, just to send loving and compassion to your pet ... and to all pets outside the shelter and everywhere.
Has doga changed Toby?
We have another dog that we just got in April from the Animal Rescue League. He probably needs it more than Toby. We've been cleaning up a lot of urine around the house. He needs a calm, reassuring voice. I took him to the classes. It helped a little. He was lying on the floor by the end of the class. We saw a difference in all the dogs ... it was just a matter of where they started.