In mid-September, I got a Facebook message asking if I wanted to do yoga with a bunch of cats.
"The event is exactly what you think — guests do yoga in a room full of cats," Kanchan Singh, who runs the DC cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers, wrote. "We expect it to be really fun and slightly dysfunctional (in the best way)."
Now, I was familiar with Singh's establishment, having tried and failed to get work done there back in June. And I was familiar with cat yoga. Like most things in life, cat yoga started in New York City before migrating down to DC, and I'd read a mostly positive review of the trend from New York mag's Jessica Roy. There isn't any real rationale behind the practice besides wanting to do yoga in the vicinity of cats, but that honestly sounds like enough.
But I was hesitant for the simple reason that I had never done yoga — of either the cat or non-cat variety — at all. Including a roving gang of difficult-to-wrangle animals in my first class didn't seem particularly wise.
But eventually that hesitance gave way to realization that this might make for good content for Vox dot com. And so it was that my first experience with yoga involved a dozen-odd cats.
Some cats were very mildly harmed in the making of this article
The first thing to know about cat yoga is that you will kick a cat in the face. Or, at the very least, you will come distressingly close to kicking a cat in the face. It's not a forceful kick — this is yoga, the movements are meant to be gradual and relaxed — but enough to startle them and fill you with guilt. This risk is probably attenuated if you're an experienced yoga practitioner and are generally capable of controlling where your limbs are at any given moment. Given that I have basically no idea what my limbs are doing even outside of the context of yoga, the situation was considerably more dire.
I had sort of expected the cats to disperse as soon as the roughly 10 students started flailing their arms and limbs about. My own cat, Fellini, runs away at any sudden movements, including totally predictable ones like getting out of bed, so I thought a similar exodus, at a much larger scale, was likely here. Nope. It turns out that living in a cat cafe, with customers constantly filing in and out, breeds a certain indifference on the part of cats to even really sweeping, dramatic movements into their personal space.
More than that, the cats went out of their way to be a part of the action, settling in on yoga mats and looping through people's legs mid-pose. I attended the second class of the day; Singh said that in the earlier session, one attendee was forced to give up her mat after two cats completely colonized it. The cats give no shits about your asana. They will sit wherever they want, and you just have to deal.
The instructor, who was visiting from the nearby studio Down Dog Yoga in Georgetown, patiently explained that the cats' participation was actually a benefit. The best yoga is "adaptive," she said, varying to match one's individual capabilities and circumstances. It just so happened that in this case, those circumstances involved cats.
And adapt I did. I only bopped some cats in the head with my heel very early on — and luckily it was light enough that they were barely even fazed. But the experience was enough to leave me in constant fear that I was going to kick more cat faces for the rest of the class. That probably didn't help keep my breathing deep and steady, but it did make me focus on getting positions right.
Cats will always be better at yoga than you are
Right, the positions. If you're going to be doing an activity requiring frequent movement around cats, it helps to change up your vantage point regularly. In that sense, yoga's kind of perfect. If you were, say, Jazzercising with cats, or ballroom dancing with cats, you wouldn't really have time to be glancing around, making sure cats weren't in your way. But if you're in downward facing dog, you can gather intelligence on the cats behind you, and then survey the cats in front of you during warrior pose.
Cats, however, are not the most reassuring animals to plant your face in front of while holding a pose. Cats are better at yoga than you. They are more flexible than you. Their spines can bend like a Twizzler. And worst of all, they'll show this off to you in the most offhand, passive-aggressive way. It's especially frustrating when the cat in question has planted himself in the corner of your mat, forcing you to move yourself off the mat slightly, making everything that much more difficult. To some extent this perception is a natural extension of the personality we've decided, as a culture, to anthropomorphize onto cats: They're aloof, indifferent, with very judgmental faces. Usually it's a charming persona and makes it all the more rewarding when a cat decides to grudgingly accept you. But in an exercise context, cats just become that jerk you know is watching you lift weights and you know is amused by how little you can arm-press.
Verdict: Pass on this one
I am an enthusiastic supporter of cat cafes, and although my experience is limited to one feline-infused session, yoga seems all right. Combining the two was a noble experiment. But ultimately it's not viable. When exercising, you shouldn't be worried about causing physical harm to animals, however irrational those worries may be. And it's definitely not helpful to have the world's judgiest household pet around when attempting, and mostly failing at, a new physical activity.