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Finding balance with a little feline help

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Pepper, left, and Benson take a break while yoga students move through the sequence. (Star Gazette photos by Katrina Styx)2 / 10
Mr. Kelly explores the area as the women get ready for their yoga session.3 / 10
Benson takes advantage of a ground level pose to get some extra attention.4 / 10
Selena Eischens, one of the yoga instructors, drew cat whiskers on her face to lead the session.5 / 10
While the cats were the highlight of the session, yoga was still the main event. 6 / 10
Wire frames were set up to showcase several of the cats and dogs housed at the Animal Ark shelter.7 / 10
The cats were the center of attention during the session.8 / 10
During a final moment of reflection at the end of the session, instructors expressed gratitude for the cats and the joy they brought to the group.9 / 10
Mr. Kelly (the cat) gets a little attention from one of the yoga students during Animal Ark's first Yoga with Cats program. (Star Gazette photos by Katrina Styx)10 / 10

Late Sunday morning, Jan. 15, 25 women unrolled yoga mats on the upper floor at Rio Grooming just north of Hastings. They were there for a special yoga session that featured the kings and queens of relaxation and balance: cats.

Three cats roamed the session floor while yoga practitioners moved through their sequences. Sometimes they got in the way. Sometimes they lounged quietly, undisturbed by the warrior poses and downward facing dogs their human associates performed. Sometimes they simply wandered among the mats, pausing occasionally for a quick bit of attention from whomever was willing to spare a hand.

The event, Yoga with Cats, was the first of its kind locally and intended to bring more people in contact with the animals living at the Animal Ark shelter in Hastings. All three cats at the event — Benson, Mr. Kelly and Pepper — are residents of the shelter and available for adoption.

Lauren Erickson, volunteer and events coordinator for Animal Ark, said that Animal Ark was looking for new ways to engage with the community, and the new year provided a good opportunity.

"Most people want to get healthy and fit for the new year," Erickson said.

They decided to hold the yoga session as a way to incorporate animals and healthy living. The idea, she said, came from another shelter in California. That shelter is connected to a yoga studio, and the two frequently pair cats with yoga.

Animal Ark found a partner in Rio Grooming, which already volunteers time to groom and bathe shelter dogs. Animal Ark needed a space big enough for a full yoga class, and Rio Grooming was able to provide it.

"They have a nice facility and it's really close," Erickson said.

Two yoga instructors, Melissa Dix and Selena Eischens, led the class through a 45-minute session. A handful of volunteers from Animal Ark served as "cat bouncers," ensuring the three cats stayed in the area where the yoga was being done.

Erickson said the feline trio was selected for the class for their personalities.

"They're very fun, very outgoing cats," she said.

Despite that, they've been at the shelter for some time, a point that continues to confuse Animal Ark staff. They get along with other cats, have no trust issues or shyness and are very outgoing.

"We just kind of wanted to feature them," Erickson said.

The 1 1/2-year-old Pepper and Mr. Kelly, and 4-year-old Benson aren't the only animals who have been at the shelter for an extended time. A number of other cats and even dogs have become long-term residents. And while Animal Ark is a no-kill shelter and will continue to care for them, the staff there still hopes those animals will be able to find real homes of their own.

Yoga with Cats also had a series of posters featuring several of the other animals at the shelter, and shelter staff were available to talk to any session participants who were considering adopting a pet.

Animal Ark has two other community events coming up. First is Wine and Whiskers on Jan. 28. From 1-5 p.m., Animal Ark will invite the community to come to its facility to mingle with the animals and sample wine (featuring Barefoot Wines) and snacks. This is a family-friendly event, but those sampling wine must be 21 or older. Animal Ark is located at 2600 Industrial Court, Hastings.

On Feb. 9, Animal Ark will be at Bad Weather Brewing in St. Paul for the Pet Lovers Mixer for Animal Ark. This event runs from 6-8:30 p.m. at 414 W. Seventh St., St. Paul. Singles and couples are welcome to hang out for an evening of fun that includes light snacks, dessert and door prize drawings. A $10 donation is suggested.

Information about both events is available online at