About 20 years ago, I adopted two kittens. The first one ran away to the family next door. The second fell in love with my Australian flatmate, and ended up on a plane to Adelaide. It was a painful and humiliating experience – quite like yoga, now I come to think of it.
With that in mind, forgive me if I was a little sceptical of “cat yoga”; a concept developed by Santa Barbara’s newly-opened cat cafe, Cat Therapy.
To me, it sounded like a feline fiasco; a cataclysmic catastrophe. Also, something that could only take place in California. But I was willing to give it a try.
I was anxious, the morning of my class, and also a little cynical. What next, I wondered – hamster jiu-jitsu? Terrapin triathlon? According to the website, it was “totally scientifically proven impossible [sic] to be in a bad mood inside Cat Therapy”. That, I snarled under my breath, remained to be seen.
Thankfully, my mood improved immeasurably after meeting the company’s founder, Catalina Esteves. All the animals who attend the classes are brought in from local shelters, she told me, and her clients often adopt them on the spot. After just five months in business, Catalina had found homes for 56 cats.
“Sometimes it’s love at first sight,” she says. “It’s beautiful to watch.”
“A lot of the cats are very nervous to begin with,” she adds. “But after a month or so, most of them are at the centre of the room, loving every minute of it.”
It was a heart-warming story, and looking around the room, I couldn’t spot a single po-faced yoga freak. Everyone was smiling. Some of them were actually laughing. Had I been too quick to judge?
Aneta, our instructor, was faultless as a yoga teacher, her voice soothing yet commanding, her directions clear and concise. Just as well, really, because I was having trouble making notes on my phone while engaging my abs in downward dog. Aneta smiled kindly. I was genuinely grateful.
Thirty minutes into the class, I noticed a ginger tom curled up in my camera case. He purred loudly, regarding me with sleepy-eyed indifference. Laying my phone aside for a moment, I was shocked to find myself stroking the little bugger under the chin. “Surely I’m the victim of some catty Jedi mind trick,” I thought, segueing into warrior pose two, and scanning the floor for more fur.
I counted at least 12 cats of varying sizes and colours, all beguiling me with relentless cuteness. Some lay on their backs like stoned astronauts, some curled up in little daybeds shaped like NYC taxis. One of them – as white and fluffy as Blofeld’s pet sidekick – licked my toe with his sandpaper tongue. The feeling was not altogether disagreeable.
After an hour-long yoga class, it was time for a 30-minute session of cat cuddling. Before too long, I was up to my neck in feline fuzz, avidly engaged in conversation with Maria, a real estate agent from Los Angeles.
“You should really try goat yoga,” she said, nuzzling three cats simultaneously. “Sometimes they dress them up in pyjamas.”
“Why do they do that?” I asked.
“I guess because people like seeing goats in pyjamas,” she said.
And why not? What harm could possibly come from it? Californian sunshine was streaming through the windows; birdsong was filtering through the speakers; and a huddle of grinning humans was connecting with a huddle of furry animals, all exchanging warmth and energy in this bizarre, quasi-mystical, 90-minute ritual. I felt like Captain Spock at Woodstock; self-conscious, out-of-place, but ever-so-slightly groovy.
“How did you find it?” Catalina asked, when it was all over.
“Great,” I said, realising that I actually meant it.
“So glad you enjoyed yourself,” she said. “There’s something about hanging out with these happy little creatures that really relaxes you. It can totally change your mood.”
Annoyingly, she was right.
The recently opened Hotel Californian has doubles from $388 (£295), room only. It’s also a pet-friendly hotel, if you fall in love with one of your yoga comrades.
Yoga classes take place every Wednesday at 7pm and Sunday at 9am at Cat Therapy. Lessons take 90 minutes and cost $25 (£19) per person.
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