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'Cat yoga' the 'purrfect' way to chill for a good cause

Women practice cat yoga behind a relaxed feline at "Neco Republic" in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on Jan. 24, 2018. (Mainichi)

It may be the year of the dog, but the "cat boom" in Japan is showing no signs of slowing down. Riding this wave of popularity is "cat yoga," meeting the health and beauty needs of feline fans.

When a yoga mat is rolled out on the floor of the shelter and cat cafe "Neco Republic" in Tokyo's Ikebukuro Ward, three cats line up to sit as though they have found their rightful places -- and proceed to lie down. Even when four women sit cross-legged or stretch their legs, 2-year-old female "Miinyan" just lies there, unmoving. Spreading out on the middle of the mat seems to suit her just fine.

"After exhaling completely from your nose, let's inhale and expand our lower abdomen like a balloon," says 46-year-old instructor Mika Ikesako as nearby 1-year-old male feline "Arai-kun" meows. Smiles spread across the faces of the four students naturally. "When we hear the kitties meow, our minds and bodies relax," continues Ikesako, happily.

The motivation of the cafe's 11 furry inhabitants to participate is varied. Some nap in the corner, while some sharpen their claws. But it isn't just the cats that are free to do as they wish. During the yoga session, pausing to snap photos of the cats with a cellphone or talking to the furry creatures is OK. You're not required to close your eyes and are free to just look at the felines instead. The idea is "to connect with the cats through feeling their presence beside you."

Ikesako came up with yoga poses specifically modeled on the movements of real cats, because "cats are very knowledgeable when it comes to methods for not injuring themselves." In one animal-like pose, yogis extend their arms forward while kneeling on all-fours until their chins and chests touch the floor and breathe deeply. The pose is said to loosen tight shoulders and boost the activity of the stomach and intestines. Another pose has participants repeat the motion of spreading their fingers widely and then clenching them into a fist. Stimulating the brain, this movement is said to increase blood flow through the entire body.

During the yoga sessions, Ikesako gives out instructions such as, "think of how a cat cleans their face," or "imagine a cat in a cute pose." Ikesako says, "If you move your body as if you are a cat, you will be able to understand them better." The 70-minute class ends by giving thanks to cats and all other living creatures. Afterward, the four students enjoy playing with their furry classmates for about 30 minutes.

Tamami Zaitsu, 37, a resident of Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, and a class regular, took a paid holiday to attend class that day, lingering around the cafe to spend time with the felines even after the other participants left. "I have two cats at home, and they do nothing but soothe me," she says. "I also like activities like yoga where I can move my body, so it's really like hitting two birds with one stone."

The cat yoga classroom is operated by a dog yoga association's cat division -- headed by Ikesako, of course. After meeting her beloved cat "Umi" in 2008, Ikesako's concern over the euthanasia of healthy shelter animals grew and she began participating in animal protection activities. Using her certification as a yoga instructor, she established the cat yoga division in 2014. In dog yoga, there is more physical contact with the animal, but actually embodying a feline in the movements and poses is the key to cat yoga.

Ikesako's classes are concentrated in the larger Tokyo metropolitan area on weekends and weekday evenings. The venues are often cat cafes doubling as shelters for animals that were abandoned or separated from their owners and looking for new homes or cat shelters that keep ownerless cats temporarily while regularly holding adoption events. Tuition is 3,900 per class, a portion of which goes to supporting the feline protection facilities. Among the participants are those that end up adopting or volunteering.

"Even if humans and cats have different forms, both have lives to live," explains Ikesako. "In Sanskrit, the word 'yoga' means 'to connect and become one.' Along with feeling harmonization that goes beyond species, I would also like others to understand the value of life through cat yoga."

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