I drew the line at goat yoga.
I'm in downward dog on a tarp laid over the dirt floor of a barn, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is blaring, a baby is crying, there's a goat in a Superman costume, and I'm almost positive there's some sort of animal shit smeared on my yoga mat. This is a far cry from my usual yoga studio: a clean, quiet sanctuary that doesn't smell of goat pee.
But right now I'm at Full Circle Ranch, located in a small southern Ontario town, and I've never been more distracted or less relaxed in a yoga class in my life. The atmosphere is pure chaos. The ranch, owned by Morrigan Reilly-Ansons, offers a variety of animal-assisted therapies and, as of spring 2017, a Wednesday evening goat yoga class.
Tonight is the last public class of the season and it's a Halloween special, so all the goats are dressed in costumes. I can't help but smile as a pygmy goat dressed as a dinosaur nudges me with curiosity. Reilly-Ansons started goat yoga after hearing about a similar class in the States. She was also going through a stressful time and found that yoga, and animals, really helped her cope.
"It was a really natural fit," she says. The class is taught by a yoga instructor named Iybola andis very popular, attracting upwards of 60 people. Tonight is no different, the barn is packed and buzzing with excitement. Goat yoga, which has only been around for about a year after starting on a farm in Oregon, has quickly gained popularity with studios steadily popping up around the world. At least four studios have opened in Toronto, where I live, since this summer.
And it's not just goats; animals inserted into various workout classes is a fad that keeps reaching new heights of absurdity. A quick Google search returns results of bunny yoga, cat yoga, alpaca dance classes, and more. These classes can set you back up to $90. In comparison, most yoga classes sans furry four-legged friends are about $15 near me.
The lofty price tag seems to be justified by the novelty as well as "therapeutic" benefits cited by the organizers. Goat yoga enthusiasts even claim it helps with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and autism. They also tout such benefits as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and reduced pain. Some go as far as saying a goat in yoga class is a form of animal-assisted therapy, although Reilly-Ansons is careful not to call it that.
"It has therapeutic benefits but it's not therapy," she says.
But claims that goat yoga or any of these animal-human workout classes offer any "therapeutic benefits" over and above what regular exercise offers is complete bullshit. There's little to no scientific evidence that backs up any of the benefits that have been widely associated with animal interactions and animal-assisted therapy.
According to Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University, the studies that have looked at the benefits of animal-human interaction are flawed. "Most of [the studies] have very small sample sizes, don't have appropriate controls, and don't disentangle the effect of the animal to the other things that are happening," he says.
For example, research on the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy published in 2014 couldn't find a single randomized controlled trial, a gold standard in scientific research, which was of high-enough quality to perform the analysis. "We could not perform meta-analysis because of heterogeneity," the authors wrote.
Netzin Steklis, a primatologist from the University of Arizona, explains the less-than-ideal quality of research is in part due to how new the field is. "It's very young and recent field and it's going through these early developmental stages," she says. "The research is only about 10 to 15 years old."
While research has begun to improve over the years there are still glaring methodological problems with most of the studies. Research on the effects of interactions with animals on human stress, published in 2016 by Yale doctoral candidate Molly Crossman cites a still "murky body of evidence" and while the researchers say there's a "small-to-medium effect on distress," she says it's unclear if the animals are responsible for that effect.
Furthermore, the research makes an assumption that everyone will respond to animals in a certain way. "In all of these animal therapy [studies] the assumption is that all humans will benefit from it but research shows that some people are more amenable to animal intervention than others, which might explain the mixed results," Steklis says.
Crossman also points out in a phone interview that most animal-human interaction studies are done with dogs or horses, so whether the benefits that have been observed in studies translate to other animals (like goats) is hard to say. In addition to the poor evidence behind the benefits there is also the animal welfare to consider. As with the highly controversial dolphin-assisted therapy, which was found to be nothing more than a fad, dolphins were kept in small confined spaces causing them undue distress.
Humane Society spokesperson Katie Lisnik does point out that there is a big difference between entrapping a wild animal and having animals that are used to humans wandering around a yoga class. "We encourage the human-animal bond but we need to make sure it's not causing stress for the animals. As long as that's kept in mind then I think is a really wonderful idea," Lisnik says.
At the Full Circle Ranch, most people were respectful and only interacted with the goats if the animals came to them. But there were a number of people who would wrangle the four-legged creatures as they tried to get selfies, holding them tightly and preventing them from escaping like they desperately wanted to do.
"[People] think about what we would like but what's beneficial or stressful to animals is very different from what's beneficial to humans," Crossman says. "Without training, people aren't great at recognizing signs of stress in animals…and that can result in harm to the animals and the people. Herzog adds that while there are few studies that look at the animal welfare side of animal-assisted therapy, he says there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of therapy animals experiencing burnout.
Despite all of this, I get the draw: Small animals with big eyes are cute. But there's no need to claim "therapeutic benefits" or masquerade it as animal-assisted-therapy. It shouldn't even really be called an exercise class for that matter; there is virtually no exercise happening. Just call it what it is: a chance to take selfies with [insert adorable animal here].
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