Gentle Yoga for Gentle Dog Trainers
Dog training is hard, mentally and physically taxing work for the dog as well as for their human trainers. In essence, dog training is stressful. Successful dog trainers require both patience and calmness, states that, I believe, can be more easily accessed through the regular practice of yoga, but not just any practice of yoga. In my experience as a yogi, I have found that gentle styles of yoga help me to tap my inner calmness and to be a better, more gentle dog trainer. What, exactly, is a gentle trainer? Gentle trainers are those trainers, consultants, clinicians, and pet parents, following the path forged by Karen Pryor and others, and who adhere to Steven Lindsay’s least intrusive, minimally aversive (LIMA) principle in their training practices.1 Gentle trainers are already well-versed in the many benefits of using clicker training. The process of using a mechanical clicker or other sound to mark wanted behavior then following with a reward increases the likelihood that the rewarded behaviors will be repeated while the unwanted behaviors will fade and eventually extinguish (Pryor, 2009).2 The technique has been shown to improve the human-animal bond and facilitate two-way communication between animal and trainer, making the achievement of desirable behaviors more likely, a win-win for human and dog. Another possible win-win is the application of gentle yoga to LIMA-based dog training. To be clear, this is not yoga with your dog. Rather, it is gentle yoga for gentle trainers.
Benefits of gentle yoga practice
The practice of yoga in the U.S. is widespread and increasing. Not new to the U.S., yoga practice can be traced back to the 1800s.3 In the 20th century, academic interest in the practice of yoga has shifted away from the practice as a vehicle for personal freedom to a means to increase health and well-being.3 However, the roots of yoga are in the ancient history of India, and its concepts cannot be mastered quickly. Swami Satchidananda, translator of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali recommends that yoga be studied slowly and with meditation.4 But whether or not one chooses to formally study it, yoga is growing in popularity. By 2016, 36 million Americans had practiced some form of yoga (Wei, 2016)5 Even more recently, yoga’s popularity has increased, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic temporarily impacted the practice of yoga in-studio, home practice and demand for remote access to yoga classes burgeoned (Globe News, 2023).6 Post-COVID, it is predicted that the demand for yoga classes (in person and remotely delivered) will be so high, the yoga studio market will rise by 10% between 2021 and 2028.
Furthermore, the effects of yoga on human health and well-being have been shown to be therapeutic and beneficial (Woodyard, 2011, Hunt et al. 2017).7,8 For example, there is some evidence that the regular practice of yoga improves balance (Jeter et al. 2014), a definite plus for dog trainers.9 I currently own a big, beautiful, almost 3-year old German Shepherd Dog. My gentle yoga training has enabled me to engage my core strength and keep my balance when out walking my sweet girl, even when, early-on, she would be triggered by squirrels and want to pull me down the street. She has gotten better with gentle training including behavior modification, patience, practice, and love and rarely pulls me anymore. Removing some of the stress related to worrying about losing one’s balance and falling, frees up the mind. It allows the trainer to concentrate on other aspects of gentle dog training such as the mechanics of treat delivery, or more quickly recognizing when a client’s dog is close to going over threshold and needs to be redirected. It is these split-second decisions dog trainers are called upon to make that can help the dog and their handler to become a successful team.
Older adults may particularly benefit from the regular practice of yoga. Loudin (2023) reported that some studies had shown the regular practice of yoga by older adults showed improvement in the metrics used to track cellular aging and improved cognitive ability.10 Loudin (2023) went on to suggest that older adults look for a style of yoga that fits and pointed to gentle styles of yoga as an option because those classes tend to move at a slower pace, incorporate breath work, and do not require as much physicality as the more intense styles of yoga.
More about gentle styles of yoga
Just as there are many varieties of teaching settings for dogs, each with its own pace, yoga comes in many styles from gentle to power and everything in between. Some dog trainers prefer to teach in group settings, others prefer private, or virtual consultations. The pace of the classes also vary according to the trainer’s teaching style. Some prefer slow and methodical, others keep it brisk, quickly moving from one skill to the next. There are benefits to both, but a fast-paced class may not be the best fit for everyone. Before I was introduced to the clicker training universe, I remember taking a puppy class at a big box pet store. The teacher was friendly, introducing many new skills at each of the eight weekly sessions. My dog and I “graduated” but I realized I had never even learned how to properly hold a leash! Clearly, the pace had been too fast for my pup and me. The bottom line is, pace matters in dog training. The same is true for yoga. If one looks at yoga as a continuum, gentle styles tend to be slower-moving, with less intense poses that may or may not be held for longer periods of time. On the other hand, more intense styles of yoga may include challenging poses that change with every breath, as in Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. Gentler styles may be called Gentle, Chair, Yin, and Hatha, to name a few. Restorative yoga also moves at a slow pace, but the poses may be intense. It has been my experience that gentle styles of yoga classes also tend to have more seated and reclining poses than standing poses and allow more time to transition from one pose to the next.
I encourage shopping for a yoga class the way one would shop for a new dog trainer. Do your research. Ask for recommendations from friends and family. Check references and if possible, observe a class before you participate. Once you decide on a class, but before you show up on the first day, interview the teacher. Ask what style of class they have planned and ask whether they will suggest modifications to poses you may find challenging. Ask what equipment (in addition to a yoga mat) will be needed or at least available, or whether you should bring your own. When I began practicing again as an older adult, I was introduced to the concept of modifications. Simply put, yoga poses can be modified to be more accessible with the use of assistive equipment such as bolsters, blocks, straps, and folded blankets. Good yoga teachers can and should offer to show their students how to modify poses to help the student to assume the best version of the pose of which the student is capable, today. Tomorrow, the same student doing the same pose may need a different set of modifications, or none at all, depending on that student’s presence on the mat. In a pinch, I have found that sofa cushions, bed pillows, a wall, or even a calm and willing pet can offer support and help render an otherwise impossible pose within reach. Most importantly, do not assume that just because a class is advertised as suitable for beginners that the class is a gentle style class. I recently observed a beginner yoga class for adults during which the teacher cued a Wild Thing (camatkarasana) pose five minutes in, with no offered modifications. I watched, alarmed but not surprised, as several students toppled over and collapsed. Luckily, no one was injured. The bottom line is, if one is looking for a gentle style of yoga practice, there are many options from which to choose, but one must make informed choices.
Gentle training and gentle yoga: My practice
I came to dog training and the practice of yoga later in life. As a younger person I had taken a few dog training classes in the old-school method (i.e., trainer gives command, dog complies). I had never achieved any success and quickly reverted to living with untrained dogs. Similarly, I had tried yoga classes from time to time as a young adult, but the poses hurt and left me dizzy, sore, and frustrated. I dropped out, for decades. Fast forward to my early retirement. Suddenly with time on my hands and a new generation of untrained dogs at home I decided to give dog training another shot. A little later I also decided to try yoga again. I stumbled upon gentle yoga when a young friend invited me to accompany her to a beginning yoga class. I went. I made it through, but had flashbacks of why I had given up on yoga in the past. The class was fast paced, strenuous, and seemingly filled with young people who had side hustles as contortionists. On the ride home, I complained about being dizzy and sore. The young woman turned to me and said, “Everyone gets dizzy and sore.” I thought then that yoga and I would “never, ever, ever, get back together” (to quote Taylor Swift!). However, the next day, I received an email from the yoga studio offering me a menu of classes, both in person and virtual. In addition to eight to ten other classes offered I saw “Gentle Yoga, In-Studio and Virtual.” This class was offered several times a week, both during the day and in the evening. Intrigued, and taking a leap of faith, I purchased a package of classes. The teacher, short and stocky (someone who did not look like a runway model) with a contagious smile had me at “Hello.” She explained what gentle yoga entailed and listed exactly what pieces of equipment would be needed. She took her time with each pose, laughed at herself when her body did not cooperate, and always made sure to explain how to modify a pose to make it more accessible. My love affair with gentle yoga started that day and continues. Ultimately, like with dog training, success with yoga will come only if one falls in love with the practice. Choose wisely.
My experiences with both have led me to conclude that gentle training and gentle yoga are a perfect pairing. Both allow the practitioner time to communicate — trainer with dog and client, and yoga practitioner with their own body. While it is true that the practice of yoga (any style) promotes health and well-being, it is also true that more gentle styles of yoga allow the practitioner time to explore the entire world of yoga and create a practice that suits their personal needs and goals in a way that the more fast-paced or traditional styles, in which certain poses must be done in a certain order, do not. The exploration might involve choosing poses, modifying poses, or maybe even choosing not to do poses. Yoga is quite diverse and practitioners many choose to include poses or skip them, choosing to focus on the many lesser-known facets of yoga including breath work, meditation, yamas, and niyamas. However, a practitioner who chooses to include poses but approaches them gently and slowly may find that they are having fun while reaping yoga’s many benefits. My gentle yoga practice has enhanced my gentle dog training. It has allowed me to grow physically stronger, remain mentally sharp, and keep my balance, all major issues of importance for me as an older person. The goal is to embrace a practice of yoga that suits the individual, rather than simply reacting. In this way, both gentle yoga and gentle dog training free the participants from constraints and motivate them to create a practice that is all their own.
A review of the literature regarding the benefits of a gentle dog training practice and a review of the literature on the benefits of gentle styles of yoga practice revealed that the two may be compatible. The regular practice of yoga has been shown to reduce unwanted stress, improve executive functioning, improve balance, help sharpen mental focus and delay the effects of aging, benefits that may help dog trainers to perform better even as they grow older. Because gentle styles of yoga are themselves least intrusive and minimally aversive, it is hypothesized that when adopted by gentle dog trainers, these yoga practices may help improve their effectiveness as trainers. Indeed, it is suggested that gentle dog trainers may find the gentle practices of yoga a perfect pairing. However, more study is needed to determine the benefits of the regular practice of gentle styles of yoga on the population of gentle dog trainers.
- Pryor, K. (2009). Reaching the animal mind: Clicker training and what it teaches us about animals. NY: Scribner.
- Lindsay, S. R. (2005). Handbook of applied dog behavior and training vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols. Ames,Blackwell Publishing. https://worldcat.org/en/title/889159630
- Douglass, L. (2007). The yoga tradition how did we get here? A history of yoga in America, 1800-1970. International Journal of Yoga Therapy 17, 35-43.
- Patanjali (2012) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (S. Satchidananda, Trans. and Commentary). Integral Yoga Publications.
- Wei, M. (2016) New survey reveals the rapid rise of yoga — and why some people still haven’t tried it. Harvard Health Publishing: Exercise and Fitness [online]. Last accessed 9/13/2023.
- Globe News (2023, January 10). Global Pilates and yoga studios market expected to garner $269,301.8 million in the 2021-2028 timeframe, growing at 10.0% CACR. Last accessed 9/13/23
- Woodyard, C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4:2, 49-54.
- Hunt, M. Al-Braiki, F., Dailey, S., Russell, R., & Simon, K. (2017). Mindfulness training, yoga, or both? Dismantling the active components of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention. Mindfulness, (2018) 9, 512-520.
- Jeter, P.E., Nkodo, A., Moonaz, S. H., Dagnelie, G. (2014). A systematic review of Yoga for balance in a healthy population. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 20:4.
- Loudin, A. (2023). You’re never too old for yoga. The New York Times, 1/25/23.
When not writing, Eve, a retired judge, enjoys practicing yoga, playing violin and harp, and hanging out with her husband, their three dogs, seven cats, and colonies of honey bees. Empty nesters, the couple lives in St. Louis, Missouri.