Meditations on man’s best friend

Yoga is littered with all sorts of dog memes inspired by asanas named after man’s best friend  – puppy pose, downward- and upward facing dog being the obvious ones. I suspect that the yoga gurus who named these asanas probably lived in close proximity to dogs and might even have gone through their practice of asanas, pranayama of meditation with furry companions by their sides.

 

It’s widely accepted – and proven – that our pets have a positive impact on our emotional well-being. Being with them triggers off mood boosting hormones, reduces stress levels, calms our minds and also helps us to recalibrate ourselves to be more in the present. These therapeutic mind-body benefits are similarly espoused across the yoga sutras and the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.

 

While not a pet parent, I adore animals and am happy to dog sit for friends from time to time. Most recently my sister had her two dogs over as she was renovating her home and wanted them to be in a safe place. At that time, I had just started to commit towards daily pranayama and meditation, and wanted to observe whether Yoyo and Gemmi could complement my practice and/or reinforce its therapeutic effects. 

Wi are the guruji
  • Pranayama with your pet

My daily pranayama practice includes Nadi shodana and Kapalabhati in the morning, and Nadi shodana or Anulom villom in the evening. These would be one of the first and last things I would do when I wake up or go to bed. Often the dogs would be in my room, at times sound asleep.

I noticed that listening to the ebb and fall of their rhythmic breathing actually allowed me to focus better on my own breath. Without this, my mind seemed very prone to wander/ wonder such that I would often lose count of the number of rounds, or whether my exhale was longer than my inhale.

I also noticed that while playing the six-second Om track helped me to stay focused, it seemed to work better when I was with others (dogs or humans). Being on my own, with or without the Om track, was less effective at helping me focus, compared with being in the group pranayama or hearing the dogs breathe. A table of factors could look somewhat like this:

Presence of others

Sensory stimuli

Number of rounds of alternate nostril breathing (out of 10 rounds) where I could maintain my focus on breath count and length of inhale/ exhale/ holds

Group class

Om track

9

Group class

None

6

Dogs

Om track

10

Dogs

Aromatherapy

8

Dogs

None

7

Alone

Om track

5

Alone

None

3

With or without any external stimuli, being alone somehow caused my mind to wander more during pranayama. Just like how I much prefer practicing yoga asanas in a class with others, sensing the rhythm of communal breathing, especially that of the dogs, seemed the most effective way for me to tune into my own breath.

  • Being in the present

Bonding with your pet has been linked to lower levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, while boosting the level of feel good hormones like oxytocin, prolactin and even dopamine. Research has pinned this down to the ability of our pets to divert our thoughts away from the worries or concerns of the future or past, and bringing us back into the present.

 

One of the dogs, Yoyo, has a disarming way of walking into my room while I’m in the midst of a virtual meeting, sit by my desk and look up at me. I have to admit that I find that utterly charming and each time that happens, a little bit of stress seems to melt away. While work life does entail forward planning and projections of the future, we allow “vrittis” such as thoughts of “what ifs” or a past experience to affect our moods and current focus. That short moment bonding with your dog during work could help refocus attentions on simply being in and appreciating the present.

 

Almost all forms of pranayama are effective at lowering cortisol levels, while breath retention such as Murcha or stimulating forms of pranayama like Kapalabati and Bhastrika can sharpen your edge and focus. But unless it is in your habit to practice different forms of pranayama throughout the day for specific needs like improving focus (remember, I was just starting my pranayama discipline), having your dog come in for no reason but just to look at you seems to be a more delightful way to get that mid-day pick-me-up.

  • Walking meditation

Besides yoga, I can’t think of any other activity that is just as versatile as walking. It costs nothing, calms your mind, and can be done by almost anyone. Walking, like yoga, also allows you to enter into a meditative state where you start bringing your attention to the movement of walking itself and the feeling it creates, leaving aside all other thoughts and distractions.

 

Walking the dogs, however, was hardly a meditative experience for me. I had to be sure they were out of harms way with bicycles wheezing by. There was poop to pick up, interactions with other dogs and humans to manage, or an exciting scent they had just picked up which would break the momentum of the walk.

 

I thought to combine my evening walks by bringing the dogs to a nearby park and sitting in silent meditation. With the dogs to keep an eye on, this was practically impossible.

 

Note to self: Leave the dogs at home, or just forget about taking a walking meditation with them.

 

 

References:

https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/how-your-pets-can-help-you-meditate

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/get-healthy-get-a-dog#excerpt

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