Balance and bond - dog yoga draws HK fans
As Jos Lew does a 'cat stretch' on a pink yoga mattress, she succeeds in achieving a deeper pose than normal with a little help - from a Pekingese dog lying flat on her back.
When the early yoga gurus of India created the 'downward dog' pose by observing their four-legged friends, they probably never expected dogs to be taking such an active part in the practice years later.
Yoga with dogs has already achieved popularity in the US and Japan, and the trend for 'doga' is now catching on in Hong Kong.
Yoga instructor Suzette Ackermann designed the poses for the programme, run from a studio on the tenth floor of a block of flats in Sheung Wan. She has been teaching yoga - to humans, that is - for more than eight years, but had never considered involving her three dogs, until it was suggested to her during a visit to a salon with the pets.
'It was embarrassing at first,' Ackermann said. 'I was like, 'What? Yoga for dogs?''
Yet it all came naturally to her. When she practises yoga at home, the dogs join her. 'When you are practising it, the animals pick it up. They sense it,' she said.
She may well be right. After living with her owner cum yoga practitioner for seven years, pet dog Snowball appears calm and peaceful - almost Zen-like.
'When I get angry in my daily life, friends would say, 'Look at Snowball; you have to become like Snowball',' Ackermann said.
The one-hour class consists of two parts. First, the owners practise yoga accompanied by their dogs. When the pets have got used to the environment, their owners help them stretch their limbs gently.
The benefits are more about nurturing a closer bond between owner and pet than actual yoga practice. The stretches are mild and the massages longer. In one pose, the dogs' rear legs are lifted, but only briefly. That is because dogs have long horizontal spines and cannot spend too long on their forelegs alone.
It is not as easy as it sounds, although some participants, such as Snowball, show particular talent.
Laughter fills the classroom as the owners beckon their pets. Martinie, a two-year-old chihuahua, jumps up and down while four-year-old Yorkshire terrier Sambuka hides in a corner, before the pair start tussling with each other.
'The yoga classroom is like a playroom where the dogs can play with one another as with their owners,' said Wendy Chan, who runs the doga classes. 'In Hong Kong, dogs are usually not welcome in public spaces. We want to provide an indoor environment where the owner and the dog can share some time together.'
May Cheung, a physical therapist and dog yoga lover, has her own take on the significance of the practice. 'When you walk your dog, you get distracted and the dog gets distracted,' Cheung said, comparing outdoor activities to doga.
'You can see that when they are doing yoga, it's another state of mind. It's like they are trying to tell you another story; it's a deeper sort of bonding.'