In an open field of Burlington’s Hidden Valley Park, Melina Morsch sits on a mat with her spine straight, shoulders back and both knees folded under her. Before her, there is a class of about thirty people — most of them white twenty-somethings — all trying their best to mimic Morsch’s movements as she extends one leg before her, grasps it and begins to lift it without bending the knee. Her back still straight, Morsch now has both hands clasped around the ankle of a foot which hovers high above her head. She holds the pose for the length of a few deep breaths before allowing her leg to fall, but it never meets the ground. Instead, the pit of Morsch’s knee comes down to a gentle perch on the back of a baby goat who has sauntered onto her mat.
“If you haven’t already guessed,” Morsch says through a chuckle, “it’s not really about the yoga. It’s more about the animals.”
Goat yoga — or, Caprine Vinyasa in the adopted Sanskrit — is a yogic offshoot that was invented by Oregon farm owner, Lainey Morse, back in 2016. The basic principles of the practice are simple: light to intermediate level yoga is performed, with varying degrees of concentration, while in the company of baby goats. If one of the goats gets in the way of a pose, maneuver around it. If one of them urinates or defecates on a yoga mat, wipe it away with an old towel. And, if a goat yoga practitioner would rather cuddle a baby billy than salute the sun, there’s no rule against it.
Since Morse’s invention of goat yogic practice, the trend has managed to spread from Oregon into Colorado, Los Angeles, Washington state and even into provinces like Ontario, where Melina Morsch of Fox Den Yoga conducts her classes. Despite goat yoga’s rather sudden and extensive popularity, it remains a concept that emerged in the West and is only practiced in the West.
On the website of Triple C Farms (the animal sanctuary that supplies Morsch with her billies and does), goat yoga is described as the “practice of traditional yoga with the playful antics of goats.”
However, that faithfulness to the Indian traditions of yoga remains elusive for those born into the culture. When asked how she feels about the general concept of goat yoga, Mumbai native and diversity studies student, Sim Thomas says, “I really don’t see the connection between goats and yoga. It kind of makes me cringe. You’re essentially turning this age-old tradition into another weird thing.” Hatha yoga is a thousand-year-old tradition that has already been distilled down into a Western conception of the practice, and now it’s being further transformed in order to facilitate the inclusion of small farm animals. To some degree, yogic practice and principles are incorporated into goat yoga, but there is also the added quality of fun that stems from the sheer ridiculousness of the goat and yoga combination. That aspect of frivolous fun can come off as disparaging to an Eastern cultural practice that has already been co-opted by the West. Goat yoga runs the risk of trivializing an emblematic aspect of Indian culture.
“It’s like when you see white girls who were born [in North America], Thomas explains, “with bindis on their foreheads, or with malas” (Hindu prayer beads), “or saying Namaste.” Thomas’s eyes wince as she conjures the images. “Like, do they even know what all that means to the culture? If not, then it just comes off as this sort of parody.” Goat yoga might not be as overt as the Western adoption of Indian iconography, but the practice is still a Western remodelling of Eastern traditions that, at first glance, comes off as farcical.
At a certain point in Morsch’s classes, she stops guiding her students through poses and gives them some free time to continue the yoga on their own, talk amongst each other or play with the goats. Some of the students take this opportunity to speak to Morsch and learn more about the logic, if any, behind goat yoga.
In response to the suggestion that goat yoga may bastardize Indian traditions, Morsch gestures to a group of practitioners in her class and says, “What gets me through is the fact that people are having fun and getting to the mat. Some people who would never go to a yoga class can come here and enjoy it and walk away thinking, Now I’m interested in going to a studio.” Morsch glances over at a young man on his hands and knees, getting his picture taken as a white doe stands still on his back. “There’s a place for this in the yoga world,” she says. “For this type of animal therapy; this type of yogic experience.”
The disagreement over goat yoga’s interplay with older Indian traditions is rooted in differing ideas concerning cross-cultural interaction. Either a culture appropriates and trivializes elements of other traditions, as Thomas suggests; or it evolves through interactions with other traditions, as Morsch suggests. The former smacks of Edward Said’s Orientalism.
Thomas’s eyes flicker with recognition at the mention of Said. “Yeah,” she says, “I’ve read him before. It’s all about rationalizing imperialism. You make another culture look ‘less than’ and then you can do anything [to its people].” This process of cultural disparagement is often accomplished through the Western media’s portrayal of the East. Imagine European paintings that depict Arab sheiks in harems filled with hundreds of concubines, or adventure films that show Indian Rajas dining on monkey brains. These Western representations make Eastern cultures seem alien, brutish and sometimes comical.
Thomas then makes mention of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a writer who documented her time living abroad in 18th century Constantinople. Thomas continues: “Montagu wrote letters about Turkey that really went into detail about everyday life there. She pretty much showed everyone back in Britain that life in Turkey isn’t as brutal or different as everyone thinks. It kind of proves Said’s point.” The conception of the East that was propagated through European art was a trivializing force; one that justified colonial endeavour in what would have been considered divergent cultures and nations.
However, goat yoga practitioners don’t seem to hold onto any imperialistic agendas; at least not in a conscious way. One of Morsch’s students is an experienced yogi who can scratch behind her ear with her big toe without so much as a grunt of effort. She isn’t new to yoga in the park, but the Hidden Valley session is her first time trying it in the company of baby goats. “It’s just so fun,” she explains. “Does there have to be another reason [to try it]?”
Through much of Morsch’s lesson, she and her students have laughed whenever a goat hopped onto someone’s back or pooped on someone’s yoga mat. While goat yoga may be fun, that light-heartedness is seen as part of the problem by its skeptics. “Fun doesn’t justify the cultural appropriation here,” Thomas says. “It’s the fact that people just do it for fun and don’t think about the culture behind it that makes me cringe. Yoga is a pretty normal thing for a lot of people, but other people change it and treat it like it’s a joke.”
Thomas doesn’t even mind the ubiquity of modern yoga in the West. “Normal yoga’s fine because it’s actually healthy; there’s a point to doing it.” But the thought of goat yoga has her looking away, a brow raised as if she might find some reasoning behind the practice somewhere off in the distance. “Is it because white people think goats relate to India?” she says. “Like India’s a big barnyard?” If there is a logic to goat yoga, then it’s difficult to see beyond the silliness of the activity.
Yet Morsch insists that the goat and yoga combination is far from arbitrary. In every one of her goat yoga sessions, Morsch instructs her class to lay flat on their backs, let their limbs go limp and focus on their breaths. All together, the goat yoga practitioners inhale with a count of two and exhale with a count of two. “This breathing is so important in yoga,” Morsch whispers into a microphone headset, “especially in goat yoga.”
Morsch asks the class to consider Africa, where herds of wild goats can be found in the continent’s savannas. There, goats are low on the food-chain — easy prey because of their lack of any obvious defence. They do not even have a set of top teeth, and the small horns that billies grow offer little defence against lions. All goats have to defend themselves from predators is their herd instinct. Goats are social creatures that cluster together, reading each other’s levels of relaxation and anxiety and multiplying that temperament throughout the entire herd. If a single goat is spooked by a predator, the whole herd flees. Likewise, if there is a prevailing sense of calm through the herd, then each billy, doe and kid knows there is no danger if they relax and let their guard down.
As her class remains flat on the ground, Morsch challenges the group, “as a new, cohesive pygmy herd,” to slip into a relaxed headspace and, in turn, bring some relaxation to the goats. She tells her class that if they are successful, the more than a dozen goats among them should all lay down to laze about. In the Hidden Valley session, after a few long moments of silence and steady breathing, all but one of the goats sit down in the grass.
The traditional yogic principles of mindfulness and relaxation find a place to thrive within goat yoga. As silly as they may seem, Morsch insists that the goats are “a natural group of yogis.” Their connection to the Indian practice begins to make more sense once their herd mentality is taken into consideration.
The idea that goat yoga is an instance of cultural appropriation and a trivialization of Indian tradition gives way to a more harmonious understanding of cross-cultural interaction. At least within the context of goat yoga, Said’s opposing cultures by way of Orientalism are not as applicable as Vijay Prashad’s concept of cultural evolution through cultural interaction.
Prashad is an Indian historian and author of Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. In his book, Prashad suggests culture is a social construct that is ever-changing rather than static, and subject to the influence of other traditions rather than isolated. He calls this cross-cultural influence, “polyculturalism.”
This pattern of culture-to-culture influence can be seen in the formation of rock & roll, when African-Americans and White-Americans combined their respective R&B and folk/country genres to create a new sound. Another culture merged and mutated with the creation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when Japanese expat Mitsuo Maeda taught Helio Gracie the discipline, which the young Brazilian then refined so he could overtake opponents despite his diminutive frame. Moreover, polyculturalism can be seen in the love of baseball in Japan, where an American university teacher introduced the game in 1872 and, ever since, it has flourished into the nation’s most popular sport.
Though there may be little hope for goat-yoga in becoming as culturally significant as rock & roll to America, Gracie jiu-jitsu to Brazil or baseball to Japan, these polycultural transformations lend some justification to the combination of animal therapy and yogic practice.
Saboor Aamir, a first-time goat yoga practitioner, noticed that she felt different after Morsch’s herding exercise. “You feel warm and cozy,” Aamir says, cupping the sides of her face in both hands. “It’s in your cheeks and your chest.”
That warmth is the rush of blood to the surface of the skin, and it’s one of the natural highs that come with goat yogic practice. “Endorphins flood your system because of the exercise of the yoga,” Morsch explains, her first finger raised. “That’s the drug that’s naturally released by the brain whenever you stretch out a tense muscle or do some serious cardio.” She lifts a second finger. “Because of the giggles, you’ve got serotonin running through your veins. That’s the happy drug.” Then, the ring finger. “And oxytocin is the cuddle hormone. Mothers feel it when they see their children, but it’s also induced around animals; especially animals that are as peaceful as goats.”
Oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. “It’s like a magical cocktail,” Morsch says.
But it’s more than a pleasant neurochemical buzz. That burst of hormones is also the reason why animal-assisted therapy works, and why it interacts so well with yogic practice. Exposure to small and sociable animals gets the endorphins pumping just as well as any good stretch. Animal therapy and yogic practice have a similar effect on the brain and body.
The science behind goat yoga seems to satisfy Sim Thomas’s search for the logic of the practice. “If that’s the case,” she says, “Then I can see why people would do it. I mean, I still think it’s weird — I wouldn’t do it. But the science in it makes it easier to understand. It’s less insulting.”
The process of polyculturalism shows itself again when considering the Western roots of animal-assisted therapy. It was in the late 1800s that Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, first noticed the relaxing effect small pets had on adult psychiatric patients. Since then, the practice of animal therapy has been utilized by such European psychotherapists as Sigmund Freud, who used his dog, Jofi, to facilitate more open conversations with patients. Likewise, Lithuanian-American child psychotherapist, Boris Levinson, noted that traumatized, nonverbal boys and girls would easily communicate with his dog during sessions. The thousand-year-old principles of mindfulness and tranquillity through yogic practice seem to have found and merged with a Western equivalent.
In all her goat yoga sessions, Morsch ends the instructional component of the class by having her students close their eyes and sit cross-legged. In the Hidden Valley lesson, she urges everyone to continue to breathe deep for a time. All the while, Morsch whispers into her headset: “Be mindful of the full extension of the spine. Draw the shoulder blades closer together. Relax the shoulders, and stretch and rotate the neck in whatever way feels right to you.” Then, another long moment without any speech. The only sound to break the silence is the rustling of grass and fallen leaves as the goats amble around.
“Folks,” Morsch says, “maybe during today’s class, your brains stopped planning, judging, organizing and prioritizing and regretting. Maybe, just maybe, our goat friends helped you drop into the present and feel joy.”