Zen Dog Doga teaches poses for your pooch

Sit. Stay. Center your chi… good dog.

Doga — yoga performed with your dog — is coming to Bellingham. And with positions such as the “fire hydrant” and “double dog down dog,” complete with visions of tranquil yoga studios populated with furry friends, it’s hard not to chuckle at the thought. Unlike traditional yoga, however, giggling during a doga session is completely acceptable.

“It’s OK to laugh,” said Chelsea Johnson, the 22-year-old owner of Zen Dog Doga. “It’s just supposed to be a fun experience with you and your dogi.”

Classes will be held weekly at Tails-a-Wagging starting September 11, but Johnson will be putting on a free trial session on August 21 to let dogs and owners decide if doga right for them.

While stretching the centuries-old practice of meditative movement to accommodate canine counterparts may seem like a gimmick to some, doga is gaining momentum across the United States and beyond. Studios are entrenched in Seattle, New York and Florida, and are popping up as far away as Hong Kong and Japan.

The way Johnson understands it, doga and yoga are two separate things. Instead of alarming yoga purists, she said doga is meant to be a healthy bonding opportunity for you and your four-legged companion, a time to calmly interact while still providing light exercise to both yogi and dogi.

For Johnson, a long-time yoga student and obedience trainer at Tails-a-Wagging, the path to creating a doga class was a natural one to follow. Johnson lives in Lynden and works in Bellingham, sometimes on split shifts, leaving her little time to bond with her miniature dachshund Apple.

She began practicing yoga at home, instead of in Bellingham studios, to be closer to her dog. Apple, however, started taking her own interest in Johnson’s sessions.

“She always had this fascination with me when I was on my mat,” Johnson said. “She’d come up to me and lick my face and want to sit with me.”

Then Johnson remembered a show she’d seen weeks earlier on Animal Planet, K9 Karma, where the host practiced doga and generally spread good doggy karma around New York City.

“I thought, ‘Wow. Where can I find a doga studio in my town?'” Johnson said. After initial research showed just a few dedicated studios in the nation, Johnson began to wonder why Bellingham shouldn’t have its own location.

She contacted Brenda Bryan, who founded Barking Buddha Doga in Seattle in 2006, for advice on how to get started. Bryan, who offers instructor training classes, accepted her application and Johnson spent three days in Seattle learning doga poses and training methods. Bryan also offered advice on how to deal with critics of the unconventional discipline.

“She said to keep yourself positive because not everyone agrees with doga,” Johnson said. “There’s always going to be somebody in this world that disagrees with something you do.”

So far, however, Johnson said that reactions have been positive, if inquisitive. The most common question asked is, “Can big dogs do doga?” The answer is yes, with modifications of poses. And no, your Great Dane won’t balance on your shins in the “canine crunch” position.

In order to keep a relative peace in the studio, Johnson will give participants with a handout to help the dogs acclimate to doga at home. Positive reinforcement obedience techniques will also be employed during the class, but through her training Johnson learned that even rambunctious dogs can eventually become peaceful — with practice. Just don’t be flustered if an errant bark interrupts your focused breathing.

“People always ask me, ‘What if my dog barks in class?’” Johnson said. “They’re dogs! They’re just expressing that they’re confused or unsure. The more consistent they are in coming, the more they will learn to settle down.”

Like anyone starting a business in this economic climate, Johnson is justifiably a little nervous about her upcoming venture, but scores of yoga classes available in the area attest to the practice’s popularity. The fact that her sessions mix yoga with dogs makes things a little more interesting, but not unthinkable.

“I’m on fairly shaky ground here, because nothing like this has been done here before,” Johnson said. “But a lot of people in Whatcom County like their dogs, and a lot of people in Whatcom County like their yoga, so I don’t see why this would have a problem here.”

If Zen Dog takes off, Johnson said she hopes to expand to Ferndale and Lynden, eventually opening her own dog training facility and doga studio.

To sign up for classes, contact Tails-a-Wagging at (360) 733-7387. Johnson can be reached at zendogdoga@gmail.com.

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