Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Yoga's roots date back thousands of years, but more recently, a slew of new expressions have emerged across the United States and in San Antonio: SUP Yoga has yogis balancing on stand-up paddle boards, Doga includes furry friends, farm yoga takes place on pastures among farm animals, and bunny yoga – you guessed it – has yogis sharing their mats with rabbits.
What do these new styles have in common with the ancient practice? That depends on who you ask.
Cassandra Fauss is at the forefront of San Antonio's modernized approach to yoga. Her business, Mobile Om, has local yogis practicing in spaces all over town, from her flagship class on the Hays Street Bridge to offerings at the Chapel at Southwest School of Art, Mission Concépcion, several local breweries, coffee shops, and Lake Dunlap.
"I was trying to find a way to create community around yoga, and I wanted to strip away all the hurdles that might keep people from trying yoga," she said. "By taking it somewhere outside of a traditional studio I thought it might make it more accessible.
"At the same time, I think place-setting is a huge thing, being able to show places that are really unique to our city. ... It's blossomed into this whole idea of community, of our community, and our city."
Many of her classes come with a fair share of distractions, such as passing trains and cyclists on the Hays Street Bridge, she said, but she sees that as a learning tool.
"It's just like [in] life: How can you be with whatever's distracting you and then come back to your center?" she said. "Use the rabbits or whatever is distracting [you] as a point of meditation to come back [to your focus]."
Fauss' latest endeavor: bunny yoga. She collaborated with Alamo City House Rabbits, a group of pet rabbit enthusiasts that promotes rabbit adoption, to offer "a meditative slow flow, where you can enjoy if [the bunnies] come join you on your mat. We will be moving mindfully to ensure we don't step on them."
The goal of the event, Fauss said, is for the bunnies to be adopted. The 25 spots available for the class filled within two weeks. All proceeds went to Alamo City House Rabbits.
On Saturday, about eight bunnies hopped and skidded among and atop 25 giggling yogis practicing "all the poses in the animal kingdom" – cat, cow, gorilla, up-dog, down-dog, and of course, rabbit.
"I enjoyed learning more about rabbits while getting in a relaxing practice," said attendee Greta McFarling. "It was a fun and different way to spend Saturday morning, and the bunnies were adorable."
(In case you were wondering – Yes, some bunnies left little "souvenirs" on select yogi's mats.)
Fauss said some people have criticized her approach, saying that incorporating non-traditional components, such as eclectic locations, animals, or after-practice-beers at her brewery classes, implies that it's "not real yoga."
"My response to that is that judgment isn't part of yoga," she said. "I almost think of [my classes] as a gateway drug, meaning if I can introduce people to yoga, and they establish a practice ... I'm just trying to start the conversation."
Directly adjacent to Fauss' OM Base is Hamsa Yoga School, a studio that focuses on the Ashtanga yoga practice and Ayurveda, a holistic health care approach. Studio co-owner Courtney Miller recently traveled to Mysore, India, to study under Ashtanga founder Pattabhi Jois' grandson Sharath.
"Ashtanga, first and foremost, is a spiritual practice," Miller said. "It allows you to peek into what's going on in the emotional and spiritual body."
Most Ashtangis use the practice to become more aware of who they are as human beings and to cultivate positive qualities, Miller said.
Being a traditional practice rooted in lineage, Ashtanga discourages distractions, including the use of yoga props, such as blocks, straps, or blankets that many beginners rely on to work their way toward certain postures.
"This practice is about getting us back to the mobility we had as children, so it stops the process when you rely on props," Miller said. "A lot of people use props as a crutch, and they often cause a distraction."
Asked whether animals would fit into the Ashtanga practice, Miller replied simply: "I would not recommend that."
Emilie Rogers has been practicing another traditional style of yoga, Iyengar, since the early 1980s. Alongside beloved "mother of yoga" Esther Vexler, Rogers founded San Antonio's first registered yoga school in 2007.
Following the lineage of B.K.S Iyengar, this style is taught with attention to alignment, and beginners particularly are encouraged to use supportive props. "[Props] enable people to learn and hold poses, but they are used with discrimination," Rogers explained.
The practice space must be quiet, free of insects, and extreme heat or cold, Rogers said. "None of this very conducive to yoga practice. You want to minimize external distractions."
Rogers had never heard of doing yoga with animals.
"Yoga is meant to advance human consciousness," she said. "I wonder if [yoga with an animal] would do that."
Despite the views of more traditional practitioners, yoga with "live props" – cats, dogs, bunnies, and beer – is becoming more commonplace.
Last year, Mary Payne, who teaches at MBS Yoga, collaborated with San Antonio Pets Alive on "Kitty Cats and Yoga Mats." Payne led approximately 15 participants through three vinyasa flow classes at the Paul Jolly Pet Adoption Center while four or five adoptable cats roamed the room.
"It was a whole new experience for all of us," Payne said. "We stayed low to the ground, went slow, and often wiggled our fingers to encourage [the cats] to come play, so people could get to know their personalities."
The free classes ceased when SA Pets Alive had to vacate the Paul Jolly Center in September 2016.
"The classes were lighthearted and full of laughter," Payne said. "We got amazing feedback. Some people had never practiced yoga before – they just came for the cats."
Meanwhile, not one but two Doga classes have emerged around town. While they bear the same name, they offer distinctly different experiences.
Vanessa Gonzalez, a power yoga and elementary school teacher, partnered with Julia González of local pet food delivery service Pet Wants to introduce their rendition of Doga to the community after taking a similar class in Austin.
Their classes focus on the dog rather than the yogi. The result is more like holistic dog therapy than typical yoga: The dog owner stretches on the floor while including the dog in a calming way – through massage techniques, for example.
"It's not about you, it's about creating relaxation and that bond between you and your dog," Gonzalez said. "It's really cool to see when a really hyper dog calms down."
Dogs of all breeds and sizes are welcome. However, they must be vaccinated, among other safety requirements. Half of the proceeds of the class fees go to the San Antonio Humane Society. Thus far, there have been around six classes, Gonzalez said, with a maximum of five to six participants each time.
The yoga part of her class is "being present with your breath," focusing more on meditation and introspection than the physical practice, Gonzalez said.
"There's no tree pose with an Australian shepherd," she added.
The "other" Doga, organized by Transcend SA, takes place monthly at various locations. Saturday's three-hour event at the wellness company's Five Points location started with an hour of socialization, which included a few "accidents" and scuffles, as well as beer for dog owners.
"Yoga is about releasing energy," said Amaury Nora, who attended as a participant, but also helps out at Transcend and teaches Doga himself. He is a certified yoga teacher, but didn't complete specialized training to teach Doga.
"There was fun energy when we did doggie handstands and when people lifted their dogs up in tree pose [at the last event], but also this zen energy that created trust between dog and owner."
The practice Saturday included exercises for both the dogi and the yogi. Dog and human legs were lifted for strength and circulation as instructor Ellen Wise McMahon prompted owners to find gratitude for their pets' companionship and loyalty.
Part of Transcend's last Doga event's proceeds went to the Helotes Humane Society, but Saturday's take-in would not benefit a nonprofit, Nora said.
Gonzalez was skeptical when I told her about" the other Doga."
"That sounds like the dog [is being used] for the benefit of the yogi," Gonzalez said. "You can't predict what an animal is gonna do."
Life in general is unpredictable, said Carlos Gomez, founder of the nonprofit Yoga Day.
"The only thing you can really control in life is how you feel and how you react, and that's what yoga teaches," he said.
His organization brings yoga to children, the elderly, and underprivileged populations. Gomez's greatest emphasis is on children, because "thats where we can make the biggest impact. The hope is that they will teach the things they learn to people around them and create a positive ripple effect."
The nonprofit, founded in 2011, recently organized the International Day of Yoga (iDoYoga) event in honor of World Yoga Day. Keynote speaker Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and associate neuroscientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, explained the importance of integrating yoga into medical therapy to combat the global mental health crisis.
"His message was that where we are in mental health now is where we were in physical health 100 years ago," Gomez said.
All yoga is good yoga, in his eyes.
"Yoga encompasses thousands of years of history and culture, it's malleable and ever-changing, so to define it is a difficult task. People should explore and figure out what works for them, but they should educate themselves. Rather than focusing on the style, they should focus on the teacher and why they are teaching what they're teaching," Gomez said.
Whether these new styles persist remains to be seen.
"This materialization of yoga suits people who are curious, it gives them an idea of what they are getting into," Rogers said.
Yoga may be an ancient practice, but it is also a business and for many, a means for making a living.
"You have to create a brand if you wanna make a buck," Rogers said. "That has led to people making something noncommercial commercial. It's branding – You brand so you can sell."
In the end, it seems, yogis, both novice and experienced, must decide for themselves which direction they want to go and what level of practice they want to pursue.