Reindeer Yoga

Valerie Forde-Galvin

© Copyright 2022 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Photo by the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Yes, I am a yoga teacher and, no, I am not promoting some weird new style of yoga. It just happens that, while I was teaching at a community college in Illinois, something called “goat yoga” had become the latest fad and was a source of amusement to my students. We were approaching the Christmas season and in the spirit of fun one of the students, lacking an actual goat, brought in a stuffed reindeer. After class we clowned around a bit, posing her toy reindeer for photographs to imitate those cute posts on social media -- baby goats frolicking about in yoga classes where teachers encouraged goats to interact with students. In theory, a goat walking on your back would be therapeutic. I guess the assumption here is that the goat is a licensed chiropractor.

As a yoga teacher and practitioner, I found the idea a bit strange. First of all, I know what it feels like to be adjusted in a posture. It can only be helpful if the teacher is extremely perceptive and has a solid chiropractic background. Otherwise, when a clueless and overconfident teacher puts hands on and applies pressure, the effect is not only painful but potentially harmful.

Now, although a goat might be cuter than a yoga teacher, it probably has even less qualifications in bodywork. I would not set a goat upon one of my students nor would I feel confident letting a goat amble along my own back. I am a yogi; I weigh one hundred pounds. If a goat were to tread on my spine, only one of us would survive that experience.

Not only did I see a potential for injury in goat-yoga classes, I was also concerned about hygiene. Were these goats house trained? I assume the floor would be layered in sawdust or hay to absorb goat residue. Did the students wear barn shoes? Gloves? Just how much liability insurance were goat-yoga teachers required to carry?

Prior to the current fascination with goats, yoga has its own interesting history. The discipline of yoga has come a long way from its origins five thousand years ago. It began with folks who were pretty much like us in their desire to live well. People of any time period and of any culture have that one thing in common: they basically want a good life, to be healthy and live in harmony with their surroundings and with others. The meditative practices developed by Indo-Aryans were the forerunners of today's yoga. These practices were designed to increase physical and emotional awareness. In order to suit all different personalities, yoga offered many paths: bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, raja yoga, mantra yoga, tantra yoga. What we know as hatha yoga arose from the latter. Its emphasis was on strengthening the body to prepare for the enlightenment gained through meditation. Although the birthplace of yoga was an agrarian country, I don't think goats were involved. . . or camels or reindeer.

The practice of yoga had been limited to India until the mid nineteenth century when an interest in physical culture blossomed throughout western civilization and a yogi was invited to the Chicago World's Fair. At the time, there was little understanding about yoga. It was looked upon either as a system of weird contortions performed by semi-nude ascetics or as the obscure mystical practices of holy men.

Because yoga originated in a Hindu culture, it incorporated eastern philosophies. These humanistic schools of thought had previously been considered strange and exotic to the western mind. However the nineteen-sixties ushered in a time of change when eastern philosophies were eagerly embraced. At California's Esalen Institute, Buddhist and Hindu concepts fostered vibrant new ideas in psychology focused on exploring human potential. The stage was set for the Beatles and their Maharishi to come on the scene; yoga became the “in” thing. Even then, the emphasis was on its spiritual or mindfulness aspect.

Around that time, I was attending retreats at various ashrams. Some were pleasant little oases of Indian culture while others were austere communities with a pseudo religious flavor. Such ashrams were staffed by disciples dressed in white who had given away all their worldly possessions and now lived only to serve the guru. It occurred to me that these places pointed out the difficulties in trying to impose one culture upon another. I'm not sure that yoga will ever be fully understood by westerners. Perhaps the closest thing to authentic yoga could be found in earlier hippie communes where idealistic folks lived off the land and, from their yoga and meditation practices, experienced the kind of high that was safe, healthy, and legal.

Fast forward to the present time. Yoga has become Americanized, practiced in health clubs and gyms instead of outside in natural settings. Plastic and spandex has replaced bamboo mats and loose cotton clothing. A certain competitiveness has entered the arena. How long can you hold the pose? How far can you twist? Are you wearing the acceptable designer yoga clothing? Is your water bottle recyclable? These seem to be the primary concerns of the yuppie yogi of today.

Yoga's rise in popularity worked very well for me. I found plenty of classes to teach and began to make a modest living by following my bliss. During the nineteen-nineties, while yoga was enjoying its heyday, I attended international yoga conferences, taught yoga on cruises, and even led annual retreats on a tropical island. I feel fortunate to have been able to ride out the fads and stay as close as possible to the essential nature of yoga which is simply to live your life with awareness.

I constantly remind myself that this philosophy of mindfulness allows for having fun. Yet I wouldn't consider bringing livestock into an ashram where, failing to display proper reverence for the guru, a goat might mistake his mala beads for a snack of pinto beans. Goats might however be welcomed in any school. . . but as playmates and not as yoga students. Animals, like children, tend to live their yoga; they don't need to be instructed in it. Live free, baby goats.

In conclusion,  later my student with the stuffed animal obsession positioned her toy reindeer in what she called “relaxed reindeer pose” where it was lying on its side on the mat.  Remember, it was winter in Illinois; it was cold and dark. Maybe we all needed to get in touch with our inner reindeer.

Please note that no animals have been harmed in the crafting of this narrative.

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