Shortly after Saturday’s yoga session began at Sanger’s Dream Big Ranch, a rooster found its way into the practice. Instructor Amber Herzog Lyman remained unfazed as she led the class in a series of gentle yoga poses. But then, wandering roosters are par for the course in a yoga class that includes baby goats.
Goat yoga, in case you haven’t heard, is a thing. From San Luis Obispo to New Hampshire, classes that allow goats to roam amongst the yogis are a hot ticket. The Central Valley hasn’t been left out. Dream Big Ranch began offering the classes earlier this summer.
It’s something that has to be experienced to be believed. I know this because when I told people about it, the most common reaction was “why?” Followed by some variation of, “I wouldn’t have believed this was real if you hadn’t posted a picture.”
Because, oh yeah, in goat yoga you’re encouraged to take pictures. Go ahead and search the #goatyoga tag on Instagram. You’ll see.
At Dream Big Ranch, goat yoga isn’t a gimmick. Yes, you’re encouraged to interact with the goats (and other animals who wander through) and even take selfies during the gentle yoga session. But both Herzog Lyman and ranch owner Tracy Jensen believe in the healing power of animals.
A former education specialist at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Herzog Lyman has been practicing yoga for 14 years and became a certified instructor three years ago.
Jensen, who didn’t grow up with animals, says she nevertheless felt a deep connection with those that belonged to friends. She’s made animals part of her life’s work, operating a mobile petting zoo out of Dream Big Ranch. She travels to birthday parties and schools, but animal therapy is also part of the business.
“I go to memory care facilities and residents there will hold a little bunny and instantly it will trigger a whole different emotion,” she says. “Their affect changes. Kids who don’t have a whole lot of confidence, around animals they just soar and they’re so excited. It’s like a whole new kid. Foster kids, for instance, who have traumatic backgrounds and are unable to attach with people … you engage them with animals — particularly goats, for whatever reason — and it just kind of triggers their healing process. Watching that unfold is just really amazing to me.
“When I saw this goat yoga opportunity,” she continues, “it was just an extension of that, where we could offer it to everyday people.”
Herzog Lyman approached Jensen about the collaboration after hearing similar classes were being offered elsewhere. Jensen’s barn, with its Nigerian dwarf goats (“super mellow, super affectionate”) turned out to be a perfect venue.
As class begins, Herzog Lyman introduces herself and tells our class of 16 what to expect. “This is a very loose, open form of practice,” she says. “At any time, stop, take a breath, take pictures. Have fun with it. This is your hour with the animals.”
As she leads us in some gentle warmup stretches, Jensen moves through the room, placing handfuls of goat feed near each yoga mat. Then she opens the gate separating the goats from the barn. Drawn to the food, the animals integrate themselves into the practice.
There’s a lot of pausing, a lot of chatter, as my fellow students and I pet the goats and reach for our phones to take pictures. Herzog Lyman continues to teach throughout. She sticks to traditional yoga poses, explaining how to perform each one and offering modifications.
Meanwhile the goats … act like goats. They walk over our yoga mats, get up in our faces, look for food. There’s a fair amount of goat poop. We are, after all, in a barn.
(It’s fine, it doesn’t smell. That was the other big question I got. The barn is clean — for a barn — and Jensen keeps a supply of hand sanitizer in a corner.)
During the final blessing, Herzog Lyman and Jensen take chickens that have, until this point, been quietly sitting in a coop in the corner of the room. They hand one to each of us and tell us to close our eyes, hold the chicken to our chests.
“Connect with its life force,” Herzog Lyman exhorts, and reminds us that the life force within the chickens is the same one that runs through us, the life force that connects all living creatures.
Later, Herzog Lyman elaborates on this connection she and Jensen are helping to foster. “Tracy, in her history in working with animals, sees the benefit of people connecting more deeply with animals,” she explains. “Even when we’re connecting with another human, we’re always in our own headspace. With animals, we’re able to get out of that verbal narrative and sense what’s going on. That helps take our body into the physical being rather than the mental.
“People are leaving feeling really gratified and energized.”
And it’s true. At the end of class — even with so many distractions and interruptions — I somehow feel as energized as I do after a hot vinyasa class.
Granted, it’s not as physical as a hot vinyasa class. But there’s something about being outside, practicing yoga in nature instead of in a gleaming studio, that’s invigorating. As it should be, given yoga’s origins. I suspect that after the initial session, it gets easier to tune out the distractions presented by the cameras and the novelty of the situation and focus on the practice itself.
“The goats allow for a certain kind of presence,” Jensen says. “It’s really hard to be focused on the rest of your stressors when the goats are around, or when you can hear the roosters crowing through the background or running through our sessions. Sometimes we have little bunnies cruise through. We try to keep it as open range as possible.”
Dream Big Ranch plans to continue offering both regular and Mama and Me goat yoga sessions. Follow the ranch on Facebook for the schedule of upcoming classes.