Are you a dog person or a cat person? It seems safe to say that Japan, the land of cat cafes, Hello Kitty, and Maneki-Neko, is a country full of cat people. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Japan you can now do Cat Pose alongside real cuddly cats.
The idea for Cat Yoga, though, actually started out as yoga with dogs; Noriko Onuma founded the Japan Dog Yoga Association in 2006 to raise awareness against animal cruelty.
When she saw the popularity of neko-working (a play on networking, since neko means cat in Japanese), an office concept in which employees work side-by-side with cats, she realized that Cat Yoga could be a wild success. Since 2013, Onuma has been organizing sold-out yoga classes in cat shelters around Japan and training other instructors in cat and dog yoga.
I spoke with Onuma and fellow Cat Yoga instructor Mika Ikesako (also the author of a guidebook to stretching with cats) about the preciousness of animal life, what we can learn from cats, and why they feel that Cat Yoga is ideal for Japanese society.
How did you get the idea to start Cat Yoga?
Onuma: I was working for an animal protection group and teaching yoga, and I wanted to prevent the killing of animals caused by human experiments and the human ego. I wanted to share the message that all lives are equal, and to do that, I felt strongly that human minds need to be calm. I came up with the idea of Dog Yoga first, to help people find peace of mind and deepen our bond with animals.
The Japan Dog Yoga Association aims for a society where the hearts of people and their pets are one, our mutual ties are deepened through yoga, and we care for all lives. We promote yoga with animals so that both human beings and animals can be happy and healthy. Our mission is: “By contributing to small lives, we create a friendly society.”
Ikesako: At first, I started yoga for my health, and as I continued I began to notice changes in my body and, at the same time, in my spirit. It transformed my way of life, and because of that experience, I thought that yoga might also be able to change our way of thinking about animals.
The central aim of Cat Yoga is to reduce the number of cats being killed and connect people with rescued cats. The same sense of life is present in cats living together as it is in a human family. I hope that being in the same space with cats, doing yoga while really feeling the presence of cats all around you, and sincerely facing the importance and preciousness of that life, will bring about the transformation of human consciousness.
How is Cat Yoga different from other types of yoga?
Ikesako: Because we do Cat Yoga in a space where cats are moving about freely, there are lots of cute interruptions, and I think that being able to feel happy and enjoy those is the best feature of Cat Yoga. From the moment you see the cats, smiles are born, and a ring of communication spreads among the relaxed cat-lovers.
Onuma: There’s a significant animal therapy component, too. The cats serve as a model; just like the cats, you don’t overdo it, you can be yourself.
Ikesako: By doing yoga while watching ‘Professor Cat’s’ form, you can quickly see how our tired bodies and minds start to loosen up, the breath deepens, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and the autonomic nervous system is balanced. Another feature of Cat Yoga is that the cats are really aware of you, which in turn allows you reflect upon yourself more.
Who comes to Cat Yoga?
Ikesako: From children to elderly people, young and old participate — but especially working women in their thirties and forties. It’s about half-and-half between people who have cats at home and people who don’t. There’s a variety of people who are experienced in yoga, and who aren’t. Cat Yoga is easy for beginners. Those who have lost their cats and those with disabilities also participate.
How do the cats react to Cat Yoga?
Onuma: The kittens run around and climb right up on you!
Ikesako: The kittens really get into the yoga. As for the adult cats, it depends on their personality, their mood that day, the time of day, the situation, etc. Whether they’re participating in the yoga or just sleeping, we still enjoy their calmness. In any case, they’re carefree.
Onuma: The cats who really like people will hop up on your knees and never move.
Ikesako: Lots of cats like yoga mats, and they’ll start scratching the yoga mats as soon as they’re laid out, hiding under the yoga mats, playing with each other excitedly, using a yoga mat as their bed, and just showing off their cuteness.
Are there any yoga poses that are especially good to do with cats?
- Cat pose, of course. You get on all fours, and since it’s a pose that cats are especially good at, they will proudly help you by hopping on your back or going into the space under your stomach to guide you.
- Shavasana: When you lie on your back, they get on your stomach, check your breath, and warm up your stomach and chest. They’ll also get in between your legs and arms and adjust the width. Kissing your head and face, they’ll loosen up your body and mind, even more, making you smile.
How do you create a welcoming atmosphere for both the yoga students and the cats?
Onuma: We do yoga with the awareness that we’re disturbing the cats’ space, a humble feeling of borrowing their place. We don’t do intense exercise, we don’t force anything, we do poses while breathing softly. We respect one another just the way we are.
Ikesako: Even without intentionally trying to create one, just by having cats there it naturally becomes a friendly atmosphere for humans and cats, so I don’t really have to do anything in particular. I try to keep in mind not to forcibly hold or touch the cats, not to talk in a loud voice, making sure I’m not doing anything that cats don’t like so that they don’t come to hate humans.
There are affectionate cats who approach you naturally even at the beginning, cats who gradually approach and touch you and become friendly, cats who won’t even glance at you the whole time; since the cats’ characters vary, we try to match our approach to their character. For that reason, the students’ compassion for the cats always fills us with affection during Cat Yoga and organically creates a welcoming atmosphere in harmony with the cats.
We feel one another’s presence like the air, you know?
What has the response been from students?
Ikesako: The most common comment we get is that doing yoga with cats is fun and makes students happy. Beyond that, people have told us that:
- The cats help them cultivate awareness
- Cat Yoga helped them to face their own cat’s death
- They stretched their body just like a cat
- Now they want to have a cat at home
- They want to start volunteering with cat shelters
- They were happy — even though they couldn’t concentrate because of the cat’s cute distractions
- “Being in contact with cats and moving my body —what a luxury! It’s like two birds with one stone!”
Onuma: I’ve also gotten the comment that, like a cat, the student came to see that they’re OK just the way they are.
Can anyone do Cat Yoga at home with their cat?
Onuma: Of course, just don’t force your cat.
Ikesako: Yes! Anyone with a cat at home can take a look at my book, Nobi-Neko Stretch.
Do you think Japan is particularly well-suited to Cat Yoga?
Onuma: Cat Yoga fits perfectly with Japan’s culture of cuteness. Also, Japan is crowded, so it’s a healing time for people who like cats but can’t have one at home because of their housing situation.
And maybe the strain of the particularly Japanese mindset of wa (harmony) has something to do with it. For a lot of people, it’s tiring to read the moods of the people around you continually. Many people aren’t good at expressing themselves; it’s hard to conform… but doing yoga like a footloose and fancy-free cat is a valuable time to get back to your true self.
Really, we’re matching the popularity of cats with the rising health consciousness of modern Japan.
Japan has a declining birthrate, and it’s said that the number of pets is now higher than the number of children under fifteen years old. Since our pets are becoming like our children, Cat Yoga also raises awareness for the protection and care of rescued cats.
Also, since we don’t have many stray cats anymore in Japan, we have fewer opportunities to interact with cats. Also, we lose the chance to come in contact with another living being — so this is an opportunity to feel the warmth of life.
Originally, Japan was a cat-loving culture, so I think being surrounded by cats will make us happy and healthy.
What do you like most about cats?
Ikesako: Their human-like traits. Without dressing themselves up, they show off just the way they are: honest, pure, direct, and free. The stylish way they walk, their autonomy, and their dignity. The way they always focus 100 percent on the thing in front of them. Their balanced lifestyle. Anyway, their way of life is cool — and they’re adorable.
Why do you think being around cats is so relaxing?
Ikesako: First of all, I think their round and lovely shape, and the way their cuddly, soft, fluffy fur feels so nice relaxes our bodies and minds. Although they’ve all got different voices, compared to dogs, cat’s voices are high and thin, and it’s thought that their sound has a relaxing effect on human ears.
And I imagine that the way they act is relaxing too. For example, their flexible bodies can do acrobatic poses that humans would never think of doing — like even though she’s a girl, she’s not afraid to show her stomach and spread her legs wide. When we see them doing these unexpected poses one after another, we say “Wow! Ooh! Ah!” and we breathe deeply, and that seems to lead us to a relaxed state.
Also, they’re not afraid of failure.
Onuma: We humans don’t really live as our true selves. But cats can only be themselves. Don’t people want to be like those cats, to enjoy life freely?
Through a cat’s way of life, we can learn about existence, living. We grow more and more fond of cats, and love springs up from ourselves like a fountain. I think that anyone can receive the gift of life from Cat Yoga. I think that cats and Cat Yoga might save the world!