Mahny Djahanguiri, the founder of DogaMahny, presses her hand to her heart as I thank her for the class I have just taken, a 90-minute "doga" beginners' session. “You have to experience doga to really get it,” she says, as she pulls me into a lovely big hug. “Really, there are no words.”
In Mahny’s book, she describes doga as “a symbiotic bonding exercise [between the dog and owner] using the ancient tradition of yoga”. The class I had just been to was a mixture of first-timers, journalists and regular enthusiasts. And that was just the humans. Also in attendance were about 15 dogs of all types and sizes.
I, like much of the population, am borderline-obsessed with dogs. I’m that person who stares at dogs on the Tube, like a deranged canine snatcher. I’m that person in the pub who makes everyone uncomfortable by approaching total strangers and going, “Awww, can I say hello to your dog?” I am on BorrowMyDoggy. I went to the pug café. However, for a variety of very practical and grown-up reasons, I don’t own a dog myself and this is a source of constant pain and regret. Luckily, for the purposes of dog yoga, my friend Steph was very happy to lend me her dog, Bramble. Bramble lives in the countryside and is a working cocker spaniel, more accustomed to fetching dead pheasants from across muddy farmland than taking part in a dog yoga class in Shoreditch. So going to doga would be a new experience for us both.
To kick things off, Mahny tells us to arrange our mats in a circle; this, she explains, will create a safe space for the dogs. “We’re a pack,” she says, casting her arms wide in a gesture of welcome to humans and dogs alike. We close our eyes and Mahny leads a chant. Bramble, meanwhile, is running around the room in a maniacal fashion, pursued by a corgi and a scruffy terrier. I half-open one eye just in time to see her career into the legs of a photographer, who stumbles slightly, looking alarmed. “Do not attempt to control your dog,” Mahny calls from the centre of the circle. “Let go.”
Afterwards, we begin a breathing exercise. Sitting cross-legged, we stick out our tongues, dog-like, and pant while Mahny admonishes us for our British reserve. “Don’t be shy! Really stick those tongues out!” Bramble, returning from her investigation of the shoe rack, stands squarely in front of me, staring in a way that I can’t help but interpret as mocking. “Expect licks in the face,” warns Mahny, “as your dogs start to engage with us and pick up on our energy. They will absorb our calm.” Sure enough, Bramble jumps up, pushing her face into mine, perhaps suspecting that I have lost my mind. Around the room, dogs return to their owners and slowly a spooky stillness descends.
As we go into downward-facing dog, I close my eyes and attempt to enter the moment, but my zen-like calm is disrupted by my friend Lisa, who despite being a far more experienced yoga practitioner than me, has nevertheless allowed herself to be distracted by something and has begun to giggle uncontrollably. I turn to see two small dogs enthusiastically humping, inches from Lisa’s face. Luckily for Lisa, everybody moving into boat pose proves adequately diverting and the canine couple, suddenly indifferent to one another, trot off in opposite directions.
“If your dog is near you, and if they want to join you, take your dog onto your lap as we hold boat pose,” instructs Mahny. Bramble has, in fact, been sitting at the end of my yoga mat for the past 10 minutes, looking back and forth from me to the rest of the room in complete bafflement. However, as other dogs hop onto their owners' laps, Bramble gets the picture and dutifully joins in, sitting on me quietly as I, woefully inflexible and severely lacking in core strength, struggle to hold the pose.
As the class ends, we lie on our backs and picture ourselves rooted to the Earth. Mahny says that she will sound a bell, signalling a moment of outer-body serenity. The dogs, evidently interpreting the bell differently, immediately start to bark en masse.
It takes about three or four sessions, Mahny says, for the dogs to become accustomed to doga. I did have fun, and I think Bramble did too, extreme confusion aside. Having dogs suddenly crash into you while you balance on one leg is distracting and if you’re a serious yogi looking to perfect your destroyer of the universe pose, doga might not be for you – but then that was probably already obvious.
What I love about dogs is their perfect mixture of uncanny intelligence and remarkable idiocy, their relentless ability to live in the moment (very zen) and their unwavering sincerity. Doga brought all that out, and then some. I felt quite silly, if I’m being truthful, but if Bramble thought as much, she definitely didn’t care.