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Hong Kong's pampered pooches take yoga classes
  • | AFP | October 20, 2011 11:06 AM

Hong Kong\'s pampered canines may have their own spas complete with jacuzzis and massage, but it can still be difficult for a dog to find inner peace. Help is now at hand in the shape of yoga instructor Suzette Ackermann and her yoga class -- for dogs.

Yoga instructor Suzette Ackermann (L) assists Pauline Kang (C) and \'Kopi\' during a "doga" class, a yoga class for dogs, at a studio in Hong Kong.

Each Saturday morning in the city\'s Sheung Wan district, owners massage their pets before bringing them into postures such as the cobra pose, in which the hind legs are stretched out to the rear, as soothing music plays.

"You want to try and calm the dog down, so just touch along either side of the spine, then the rib cage, then the belly," Ackermann -- a South African dance and yoga teacher who started the sessions a year ago -- tells the class.

She leads the class in tandem with her seven-year-old Pekinese, Snowball, who, Ackermann told AFP, has been her inspiration.

The one-eyed, utterly relaxed animal with fluffy white fur has become a local celebrity through dog yoga, and is often recognised in the street from her TV appearances.

"Snowball\'s like a Zen Buddha," Ackermann says. "She goes into all the poses... She just doesn\'t care, which is perfect in the yoga sense that she has no ego, no attachment, she\'s just present.

"When I practise (yoga) at home, she will just come up to the mat with me. She does it naturally.

"You can lie her down on her back to do shavasana (corpse pose), and she\'ll stay there."

Ackermann and Snowball have been doing yoga together at home for years, but the idea of teaching classes in dog yoga, or "doga", was suggested by a Japanese groomer at Pawette, the "deluxe pet boutique, salon and spa" that organises the classes with Ackermann.

Doga has made inroads in pet-loving Japan, as well as in the United States, where teachers Suzi Teitelman and Amy Stevens have both issued doga DVDs. But Ackermann has developed her own routine to suit her clients and their canine friends.

"I think for owners to bring their dogs in, they have to really love them," Ackermann said. "It\'s spending extra money to bond."

The class is sometimes interrupted by dogs getting into a fight, yapping loudly or running off into a corner. One Yorkshire terrier/Pomeranian cross, Kopi -- aged one -- seems as though he would rather be running around a field than working to align his chakras.

But other dogs are keener to take part, and lie calmly as their paws are moved into different positions by owners who are themselves in seated yoga poses. Both can adopt a twisting pose in unison for shared spine stretches.

The downward dog is, of course, also included.

In standing stances such as the warrior pose, the owner holds the dog with one arm. "The smaller the dog, the easier," says Ackermann, whose class is aimed mainly at the toy dogs popular in overcrowded Hong Kong.

For other poses the dog is placed on top of the human: for instance, the "cat-cow flow", in which the owner is on all fours and arches their back first upwards, then downwards, is performed with the dog on its owner’s back, provided it is prepared to stay there.

"Place the belly of the dog on your spine, so it’s a two-in-one belly massage," instructs Ackermann.

"Now, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale," she tells her students, human and canine.

Some of the dogs even yap obediently when Ackermann concludes the class by saying, "Let’s all say \'Namaste\'."

The owner of rebellious Kopi, Malaysian chemical company employee Pauline Kang, says he has become more peaceful since starting the classes. "He\'s made progress from the very beginning," she said.

"He was just like a kangaroo the first time, bouncing, jumping everywhere," Ackermann recalled.

In addition to its calming properties, doga can benefit dogs with hip and knee problems, Ackermann says, and help those with asthma -- one canine participant is regularly brought along with his own inhaler.

The classes have attracted poodles, corgis, Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas and dachshunds, among others.

"Sausage dogs are good to work with because they have long bodies, so you can really stretch them out," Ackermann said.

She was originally trained in the more vigorous form of ashtanga yoga, but keeps her doga routines gentle.

"You can’t do ashtanga with the dogs, because it\'s all vinyasa (dynamic), so I just do basic, I just do hatha (slower yoga)," she said. "Otherwise it would be up, down, down, up, dog in the way, everything in the way."

Ackermann has sought advice from a dog acupuncturist and is taking classes in dog massage, while a friend has been inspired by doga to work towards the launch of a dog physiotherapy programme.

Meanwhile, on the suggestion of her brother, a writer, Ackermann is putting together a book about Snowball and doga -- an illustrated children\'s story with basic postures for the family and their dog to try at home.

There are no immediate plans to extend the concept of doga to other animals, but she said that cats might be a possibility.

"Cats have minds of their own, so they\'re not very sociable, but they could probably do it," she said.

Of her clients, she says: "I think half the time, they just want to bond with the animals.

"I\'ve had responses from people going, \'Are you serious, dogs doing yoga?\'" she added. "I said, \'Well, it\'s more the owner doing it. But we do the massage and stretching with the dogs and I think that helps them, calms them down.\'

"In one class I ended up with a client\'s baby in one hand and a dog in the other. I\'m like, \'What am I doing?\' It’s good fun. We have a lot of laughs," she said.

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