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Getting a leg up

Yoga classes offer a special kind of enlightenment

“Should I take off my shoes?” I whispered to a probably exasperated but nonetheless very Zen-like Jess Pierno, co-owner of Yoga Heights studio in Washington, D.C. Pierno was leading the day’s yoga class and her students—including me—were decidedly uninformed. What was I, an elliptical devotee with a shocking inability to bend over and reach my toes, doing at a yoga class?

I was there for the kittens. The Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL), which recently merged with the Washington Humane Society (WHS), works with Pierno’s studio to hold an almost-monthly yoga class, “Kitten Cuddle Yoga Playtime!” Conducted in a WHS-WARL-owned warehouse in Northeast D.C., the sessions incorporate adoptable kittens (and sometimes puppies).

I had signed up for the class with both excitement and trepidation. I like cats, but I’ve been caught in their needle-sharp claws one too many times to trust them near me in yoga leggings. My cat-loving co-worker had recently taken in a litter of stray kittens and described them, and I quote, as “hooligans.” Her shredded ankles had me fearful of the kittens mistaking me for a scratching pole during the downward-facing dog.

As it turned out, kittens are a force to be reckoned with, but only because we are all powerless in the face of frolicking fluff balls. Once a member of WHS-WARL’s animal care team released eight softly mewling felines into our enclosed yoga space, a bunch of grown men and women turned into cooing idiots. A tiny gray kitten tentatively sniffed toes, and a comparatively large black-and-white kitten sprinted in circles while all 20 of us giggled like little girls.

“Pretend for a few moments to care about the yoga and stay with me as much as you can,” said Pierno, ever-professional as we went googly-eyed over the feline bounty. In the name of journalistic integrity, I attempted to record audio of the session, but all I recorded after the kittens arrived is gibbering baby talk (and, yes, Pierno calmly calling for paper towels after one of our teeny tiny guest stars had a teeny tiny accident).

Most people focused on taking selfies with the kittens, while others incorporated them into their yoga routines. One lucky woman spent the class lying on the floor (I’m sorry, I meant “practicing the corpse pose”) with a kitten gently snoring on her tummy.

Pierno reminded us not to accidentally lie down or step on any of our new friends during pose changes, but there was no need to worry: We all had our heads on swivels, vigilant for incoming kittens while half-heartedly waving our arms and legs in the air. I spent the class triumphantly holding “my” tabby like a newborn baby, whispering sweet nothings between inexpert poses. For one brief shining hour, I was a cat person and a yogi.

Afterward, I headed into WHS-WARL’s main building. Class attendees gathered around the cat enclosures. One pointed enthusiastically. “There’s one of the cats from the class!” she said, like we’d spotted Brad Pitt at LAX.

She and her friends couldn’t adopt him, she said—they were students at American University, living in the dorms. Another woman commented that she’d love to adopt one, but she already had two at home, and her partner would be displeased if she went off to an exercise class and came back an hour later with another cat.

So the class isn’t necessarily getting kittens out the door—but kittens and puppies usually get adopted “very quickly” anyway, says Rachel Thaler, special events planner at WHS-WARL.

“It’s a great way to reach out to our community and have people get engaged with our animals,” she says. “We see a lot of the [yoga participants] go into the shelter afterward and take a look at the animals we have besides just the kittens and puppies. … They get to see animals they probably wouldn’t have looked into if they didn’t visit the shelter, [like] our older animals, the ones that don’t get as much attention.”

The real boon is that the often-sold-out sessions raise about $500 per class and bring up to 50 potential future adopters, fosters and donors through WHS-WARL’s doors. Many companies try to generate warm feelings in their customers, whether it’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or Budweiser’s golden retrievers. But when it comes to engaging customers, WHS-WARL has a leg up (pun intended) on the corporate giants—they’re offering the pretense of exercise, the good karma that comes from supporting a great cause, and literal, hands-on warm and fuzzies. Nirvana, indeed.

About the Author

Bethany Wynn Adams is an editor at Animal Sheltering, a quarterly magazine for anyone who cares about the health and happiness of animals and their people, and animalsheltering.org. From tales of shelter mascots to guidance on backyard chickens, Bethany works with experts from across the country and within the Humane Society of the United States to bring wide-ranging, engaging print and web news to the animal welfare community. Winner of the Cat Writers' Association's MUSE Medallion, she lives in Maryland with her husband and two naughty rescue dogs.