When Jessie Ryan drove from Portland to Oregon’s mid-valley region to participate in a session of goat yoga, she didn’t know what to expect.
But as she prepared to move out of her Warrior II pose, she felt a nudge on the back of her leg. Turning around, she couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Quincy, a 1-year-old mini-goat, staring back up at her.
That was the moment she discovered the appeal of the latest nation-sweeping fitness craze.
“How can you not connect with this face?” Ryan asked as Quincy bleated back to her. “You’re in the middle of doing a pose, thinking about how terrible everything is, when a goat comes up and kisses you or steps on your fingers and all that stress goes away. It sounds like something a modern-day Lewis Carroll would write.”
Ryan went back, joining 15 other people for one of the first goat yoga classes of the new year at Corvallis’ Hanson Country Inn.
But they aren’t the only ones who have signed up for founder Lainey Morse’s sessions — the waitlist for the class grew to 2,400 people over the winter.
Goat yoga combines a one-hour yoga session with the animal-therapy of social mini-goats that wander around and interact with the class. When Morse first combined the words “goat” and “yoga” for a simple event last July, she inadvertently created a media whirlwind. Since then, her life has been anything but simple.
GOAT YOGA FEVER
In the last eight months, stories have appeared in hundreds of media outlets around the world, including the Washington Post, Time magazine, The New York Times, CNN, NPR, ESPN, National Geographic, Vogue, BBC and hundreds of blogs.
Last September, the Post’s Karin Brulliard wrote, “Well, it’s about time: Someone has finally launched a yoga class with goats. … magic was made.”
Two months later, under the headline “Bring a Yoga Mat and an Open Mind. Goats Are Provided,” New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson wrote, “As you smell that grass on a yoga mat, you realize that you have entered the goats’ world, not the other way around.”
There is now a “Goat Yoga” page on Wikipedia, too.
Even Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon covered goat yoga in a September 2016 opening monologue.
“Apparently, there’s a farm in Oregon that offers a yoga class that you can take with goats roaming around you,” he said. “They even have a special position called the downward facing (soundbite of goat bleating).”
Morse, who lives at Albany’s No Regrets Farm with her 11 Nigerian dwarf goats, had hosted several goat-centered events previously, including Goat Therapy (spending relaxing time with goats) and Goat Happy Hour (spending relaxing time with goats and wine). They were well-attended, locally popular and helped supplement her income. But Morse had no idea goat yoga would hit like it did.
“Nothing prepares you for that; it’s just absolutely mind-blowing” Morse said while preparing for a class at the Hanson Country Inn. “You always hear about something going viral but you don’t know what it means until you experience it. It’s intense. It’s like a roller coaster you can’t get off. It’s the most crazy thing you could ever do.”
The media blitz started last summer after Heather Davis, a yoga instructor at Corvallis’ Live Well Studio, suggested to Morse the farm as a fun place to host a yoga class. To drum up publicity, Morse posted photos and videos on social media featuring Davis doing a yoga pose with one of Morse’s mini-goats on her back.
“I really like yoga and I really like goats. I guess other people do too,” Davis said. “I told Lainey this felt like the most Oregonian thing ever. But neither of us expected this.”
In less than a day, the photos and videos gathered hundreds of social media “likes” and shares, attracting local and national media attention. And the more media attention the story got, the more calls Morse received for interviews and from people asking to sign up for a session.
“It got to the point where I was doing nothing but answering phone calls,” she said. “I lost 20 pounds when it all started happening. I would be so busy during the day I’d forget to eat. I just wasn’t thinking about myself.”
Morse had also been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder similar to lupus.
“I think that played a part too. It just got to be a lot. Everything was going 1,000 mph,” she said. “I mean, who do you go to for advice when something goes viral? You almost feel lonely because there’s no one to go to when something hits like that.”
Morse is no stranger to marketing — it was her full-time job at Corvallis’ Henderer Design + Build in Corvallis for more than 10 years. Last November, when she was getting 30 to 40 calls each day, she realized she had to make a choice: Quit a job she loved to focus on what could be a flash-in-the-pan, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fad; or keep her job and ignore a potentially life-changing new business idea. Morse, who came up with the name “No Regrets” for her Albany farm, said the potential was too enticing to ignore.
“I loved my job, but I love goats too. And as much as I loved what I did, when you hit the media lottery, you don’t walk away from that,” she said. “And I already had debt from medical bills and from my divorce. At that point I thought, ‘I’m going to be in debt for the rest of my life anyway.’ Now I have a glimmer of hope.”
Morse said she decided to go all in on the idea and borrowed “a big chunk of money” to start the business. In addition to previous projects and Goat Therapy and Goat Happy Hour events, she established a website (www.goatyoga.net), made deals with local businesses and farms to host goat yoga events, and bought a van (complete with goat yoga decals, pictures and a “Caution: Mini goats on board” sign) to transport her animals.
“I have a vehicle that people are constantly stopping to take pictures of and tell people about,” Morse said. “What other vehicles get attention like that other than the Batmobile or the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile? That’s pretty cool.”
Since making her decision to start the business, she’s noticed many strange side effects. She trademarked the name “Goat Yoga” and has started selling licensing agreements, but numerous copycats have also sprung up around the country.
“I heard of one place that’s trying to do yoga with bunnies now,” she said. “It’s exciting that so many people are loving this idea, but it is still weird to see businesses across the country starting because of what’s happened here.”
THE RIGHT TIME, THE RIGHT PLACE
Morse said her Goat Therapy and Goat Happy Hour events showed her that she wasn’t alone in her love of the therapeutic and calming effects of spending time with goats. And she hoped “goat yoga would resonate like those previous events did.
“When I was first diagnosed, I would come out every day and sit here with my goats and I would feel better. It’s not healing diseases but it’s really hard to be sad when a goat comes up to snuggle you,” she said. “It’s such a simple thing, but it makes so many people so happy.”
Morse also hears the same questions every day from others trying to determine why people have responded to these sessions: Why goats? Why not dogs or cats or bunnies?
“People use horses and dogs for therapy animals, but to me goats seemed like perfect therapy animals,” she said. “They’re not as intimidating and big as horses. And dogs, what if you’re allergic or if they don’t bond with you or if they’re too shy? Goats don’t care; they just want you to pet them. They have this sense of calm and they kind of go into a meditative state. Maybe that’s why they work so well with yoga.”
Fermin Perez, of Portland, said during a Corvallis session this week that the idea of combining goats and yoga made sense.
“The goats are peaceful and it just helps you de-stress,” he said. “They’re hanging around you or doing their own thing and that’s calming, which is what the whole point of yoga is.”
Everyone who has taken part in a session has come away with positive feelings, Morse said. But, like many others, she’s still trying to piece together exactly why goat yoga’s become such a phenomenon. One possibility she suggested: an overload of negativity around the world needed to be counterbalanced with some positivity.
“I think people are so sick of that negativity,” she said. “I think the political climate especially is so insane that people are grasping for anything that’s positive and happy. And that’s hard to find nowadays.”
As with anything new and popular, however, goat yoga’s generated some negative reactions. Morse has received emails and messages critical of her business. Animal rights activists in other parts of the country have attacked her for the way she handles her goats.
“For the most part, people are supportive,” she said. “But everyone has a right to believe what they want and if they want to be unhappy they will be. I think unhappy people are going to gravitate in the direction of being negative and they’re going to continue being negative no matter what you do. You can’t fight that.”
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
With all of the attention, Morse said it’s sometimes difficult and stressful. Luckily, she has a business that’s all about addressing that stress.
“I know that everyone is going to have a different reaction, and for a lot of people, when they see the words ‘Goat Yoga,’ it might sound silly,” she said. “But when you see it happening and you experience it, you quickly realize it’s anything but silly.”
One of the participants in Morse’s latest classes was a woman battling breast cancer. Morse said seeing the look on the woman’s face when a goat approached her brought tears to Morse’s eyes.
“One of our babies went up to her and nuzzled her face and it made her so happy,” Morse said. “It was very powerful. I had no idea it would get this big and help someone fighting cancer and make them feel better. It’s not curing her disease, but it made her really happy. And she’s still tweeting about it. I think that’s not silly at all.”
Morse continues to receive more than 30 calls every day. Lately, many have come from other parts of the world, which means she sometimes gets calls from India or England at 3 a.m. While she could sleep through it and ignore the media buzz or let someone else handle it, Morse said she almost never passes up an opportunity to tell someone about her business.
“Everyone wants to do something they love and makes them happy. It’s a double bonus when you can see first-hand how happy it’s making so many people,” she said. “I think when you catch lightning in a bottle like that, you don’t’ ignore it or walk away from it.”
But she knows that at some point, the international media spotlight will be gone.
“It’s got to die down sometime, right? Maybe in November it did a little bit, but then another story went big and weeks later I had 1,000 people on the waitlist,” she said.
Note: This is an AP member exchange story.
PHOTO: Dharmesh Gohil