Washington cemetery hosts goat yoga among the headstones

WASHINGTON – A gentle breeze blew through the Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington, a more than two-century-old site whose weathered headstones stand in tribute to some of the District’s most notable residents, from John Philip Sousa to Marion Barry. It was a balmy Saturday morning and the atmosphere was solemn – except for the bleating of no fewer than 15 baby goats.

During a goat yoga session on May 18, 2019 at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, a baby goat joines Beth Horowicz in cat pose. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Orion Donovan-Smith

They were there, of course, for yoga.

It was Washington’s first foray into goat yoga, an activity that pairs meditative poses with what amounts to an all-ages petting zoo. The concept originated in 2016 in Oregon, at a birthday party. It was never meant to be a thing. But now it’s a thing.

For Paul Williams, the director of the Congressional Cemetery, goat yoga was a long time coming. Until recently, District law forbade the activity under a long-standing no-touching-goats policy.

“I tried everything I could for about a year to get goat yoga,” Williams said, “and the Health Department just put up every obstacle they possibly could.” He recalled meeting with a room full of lawyers who “had the law books all spread out on the table and said, ‘This is not happening.'”

The cemetery already hosted classes among the tombstones – “Yoga Mortis,” they call it – and found a loophole in D.C. regulations that allowed them to use goats to clear out invasive plants.

But the no-touch policy, based on the Animal Control Act of 1979, meant goat yoga was out of the question.

The city council’s Health Committee was already in the process of trimming regulations. The council expedited the issue by tacking a farm animal provision onto a bill that overhauled the District’s vital records system. The bill passed in October, allowing goats and sheep into Washington for the purposes of, among other things, “participating in yoga or similar activities.”

Williams learned of the change only after the church that owns the cemetery property sought a permit for a live-nativity scene – “a couple sheep, goats, a llama or something” – and was informed of the District’s new, pro-goat stance.

Goats are still considered a “prohibited species” and require a special permit and immunizations. They must be inspected by a veterinarian within 30 days of an event, according to Vito DelVento, executive director of the Health Department’s Board of Veterinary Medicine. This leaves a narrow window for goat yoga, when baby goats are old enough to be vaccinated but still small enough to comfortably climb atop a yogi.

Saturday evinced the fruit of the goat lobby’s labor.

“The karma of fighting for this class for the past two years is that the universe gave us this gorgeous day in this beautiful space,” said yoga instructor Kelly Carnes, standing in a clearing where the first 50 goat yoga participants sprawled out on mats. All five opening-weekend sessions sold out, with proceeds going to the nonprofit that runs the cemetery, Williams said.

Carnes led each group through what she said was a gentle sequence of poses inspired by the kids’ low center of gravity, not only to avoid injury to either species, “but also to give ample opportunities for the goats to crawl all over us, because that’s part of the fun, right?”

“It was a pretty easy sell,” said Carnes, who had already led the cemetery’s Yoga Mortis sessions. “‘Hey, resident yoga teacher, do you want to add baby goats into your practice?’ Hell yeah, I do.”

After the first session, the participants were similarly enthusiastic.

“I’m so blissed out,” said Rachel Holmes of D.C., who brought her mother, Susan Coursey. “I feel like you’re a little bit more inward usually with regular yoga, and this sort of opens you up to what’s going on in nature around you. Plus they’re soft and cuddly.”

Coursey, who was visiting from Long Island, N.Y., said she does yoga only occasionally but had no trouble following along. “It made it more of a personal experience for me. More free-form, less regimented, more spontaneous.”

Beth Horowicz of Chevy Chase summed up the appeal of the event. “I love cemeteries, I love yoga, I love animals, so I could not miss this,” she said.

But one person’s bliss is another’s bane, and critics say goat yoga is a bridge too far.

“Yoga needs lot of effort,” said Viswanatha Gupta, a postdoctoral researcher at SOAS University London’s Hatha Yoga Project. “It’s not doing some poses and playing with animals. It’s divine.”

David Gordon White, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, echoed that sentiment. “Yoga involves concentration, and I find it hard to fathom how you could be concentrated on anything when baby goats are running around.”

For Carnes, it’s simpler. “If it’s a thing that brings people joy, then why not?” she said. “Bring it on. That’s yoga.”

WASHINGTON, – MAY 18: Carnes encouraged participants to break from their yoga poses to spend quality time with the kids. It was the first-ever goat yoga session in the District, held at the Congressional Cemetery. (Photo by Orion Donovan-Smith/The Washington Post)

The goats belong to Mary Bowen, whose daughter also leads goat yoga sessions at their farm in Sunderland, Md. Bowen emphasized the therapeutic value of interacting with the animals.

“For children that have ADHD, or autistic children, it really helps them to connect and be in the present moment,” she said, referring to the research of Temple Grandin, an autism advocate and professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

“If you really notice,” Bowen said after the cemetery’s first session wrapped up, “it’s not about the yoga. These people really want the baby goats to hold.”

Anita Teel Dahnke, executive director of the American Goat Federation, said her organization has no official stance on the new practice, but she sees both pros and cons.

“If done right,” she said, “it’s a great way to get people who normally wouldn’t be around domesticated livestock to see what they’re like.”

But there is always some risk of disease transmission between animals and people, Teel Dahnke said, and the steps taken to prevent it may contribute to a larger problem of overuse of antibiotics in livestock leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

After the District’s inaugural weekend of goat yoga, the event’s organizers were effusive.

“Just watching them interact with the babies,” Carnes said, “I was like, ‘Okay, my heart’s filled with joy. I’m done. I can die happy now.'”

Williams said there were immediate calls to schedule another session, but he offered a reminder that he also has a cemetery to run.

“Working on a date,” he wrote in an email, “but not sure we’ll have the staff to pull off another weekend – lots of funerals coming up.”

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