“Now an accomplished Yogi good at sitting still
He ponders ancient mysteries on the window-sill,
Now stretches, bares his claws and saunters off to find
the thrills of love and hunting, cunningly combined.
Acrobat, diplomat, and simple tabby cat,
He conjures tangled forests in a furnished flat.”
– Michael Hamburger, London Tom-cat
It’s been ten years since I first stepped on a yoga mat. And with ten years of practice and some six years as a teacher, I’ve never thought of even referring to myself as a yogi. The word for me connotes a notion of “mastery” somehow, like the experience of samadhi (union of spirit, with the universe) – a kind of elusive concept, something fleeting that you lose it the very moment you think you have it. Meanwhile, I identify more with being a sadhaka, a student, a seeker, someone who’s on a path. And that path, I think started way before my very first yoga class. Having been a cat person for as long as I can remember, I felt that it was these fascinating creatures who were my first gurus.
It’s hard not to watch them – I’ve lived with my own cats for about 16 years now, but I am always captivated by any random cat I meet anywhere, even the mangiest ones on the street, even those who scowl and won’t give me the time of day. And like any other cat person I know, I would endlessly scroll through an electronic screen just looking at cats on the interwebz. They are graceful, self-assured, contemplative and unperturbed – deserving to be called yogis!
So as the yoga practice became part of my daily life, it became natural for me to give yoga-inspired (i.e., Sanskrit) names for the cats who “adopted me” from then on. Gur (short for Guruji, or “esteemed teacher”) was a very appropriate name, as I found him right outside the studio where I practiced. A year later, Dharma (“cosmic path” or “duty”) came to my life, literally crossing my path and following me home (she walked a block with me and followed me inside my building, all the way to the elevator, and to my unit). Dharma, that time I met her, happened to be pregnant, and her kittens were named after the Surya Namaskar counting numbers, Ekam, Dwi and Trini (i.e., “one”, “two” and “three”). I kept Ekam – while the others got adopted out to loving families – and he later became more popularly known as Yekkers, a name that just rolled off my tongue from various silly nicknames that preceded it. Guyito, a neonatal kitten I found another year later, however, was not officially given a yoga name, as he was intended to be a foster cat to be adopted out like Yekkers’ brothers. He kept that name (which was from a news publication’s carabao mascot) when I decided to keep him, as it stuck – and it seemed like a perfect reminder of the strength he has shown while growing up. Had I given him a yoga name, though, it would have been Arjuna, from the brave warrior character of the Bhagavad Gita.
All the other cats I’ve met, whether the strays I feed or the fosters I temporarily give shelter to en route to their forever homes, may not have been given yoga names – but they have, all the same, collectively taught me yogic lessons, as much as my “hooman” teachers have.
For one, everyone knows their natural proficiency in asana is something to aspire for. They are also good at giving manual adjustments, as I have learned during my home practice. One time, in Prasarita Padottanasana C, Gur (as a kitten) jumped and hung on to my clasped hands, pulling them closer to my head to deepen my forward bend. But more than these, living with, or even merely observing, cats – give such rich insight on life which we may otherwise take for granted:
Ekagrata and Dharana (One-Pointed Focus and Concentration). We live in a world where multi-tasking is equivalent to productivity and success, where everything has been made convenient to encourage moving on to the next activity at lightning speed. Cats are fast, no doubt, whether to run away from something or to run after their prey (think, a piece of crumpled paper on the floor). But before they bolt, they would sit very still in intense concentration, pupils dilated, cute butts wiggling, ignoring everything in the periphery in order to perfect their aim. And think about how they groom themselves with their sandpaper-like tongues – ever so intently without skipping a spot (which is yet another lesson we can learn from them – Saucha or “cleanliness”). As our “yoga teachers” I know they keep teaching me to develop this kind of concentration when they attempt to paw at my face in Urdvha Mukha Svanasana, when they slink around my elbows in Sirsasana, start scratching my mat and foam blocks in Adho Mukha Svanasana, play with the loose end of the yoga belt in whatever pose, or just use the litterbox at a very inopportune time during Savasana. Obviously, I have yet to master this skill.
Guyito is determined to use the singing bowl, despite his lack of thumbs.
Curiosity, Santosha (Contentment) and Living in the Present Moment. Every cat guardian I’ve met know that cats won’t care much for the expensive toys you buy for them. You get them expensive cat towers and they will choose to use the box it came in. Get them all sorts of fish-shaped toys when they can have the greatest fun playing soccer using a crumpled paper receipt. Even a solitary kitten can instinctively find ways to entertain himself. There is value in simple pleasures, there is joy in wonderment. One just needs to be curious and take notice.
Yekkers ponders about what’s beyond the sun and moon.
Svadhyaya (Self-Study). Knowing oneself – in the cats’ case, the knowledge that they are godlike beings that were not created to serve humans (thus, cat guardians taking pride in calling themselves “cat slaves”) – is what gives them the air of confidence that they can get what they want just by being their authentic selves.
My foster cat Kimmy quietly chants a mantra.
Sattva (Balance), Dhyana (Meditation) and the Value of Silence and Relaxation. Cats do go crazy zooming across the room chasing each other, refining their hunting methods, jumping Spiderman-like heights, using their strength to break things – but there is always a time to rest, two-thirds of their day to be exact. There are times when it’s a deep sleep that even vigorous tummy rubs by an annoying hooman can’t interrupt. But they also have a kind of shallow sleep where their bodies are totally relaxed and yet they are so aware of their surroundings that their ears still turn in response to faint sounds (like can of food being opened). Eat, play, sleep, repeat. Such is the life we dream to live. And if you notice their very interesting sleeping positions, you know they really are the inventors of Restorative Yoga.
For Guruji, the benevolent alpha cat, every pose should feel like Savasana.
Cats (tough teachers they may be) have so much wisdom to impart, and you, too, can enjoy their quiet (sometimes crazy) company by adopting one (or more)! The best lesson that you can learn from them is that anything around you – animals, people, nature, random things – can be your teacher, just by always having the open mind of a student.
Dharma and me. “The yoga concept of svadharma means ‘your own dharma’ or ‘your own way’. The guru helps you find your own dharma.” – T.K.V. Desikachar
Nameowste! For more photos of The Ginger White Quartet and their foster siblings, check out @guyitocat on Instagram.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glady teaches FNR, Gentle Flow and Restoratives at Urban Ashram. She is a self-proclaimed cat whisperer and a full-time slave of The Ginger White Quartet (all rescued cats), animal welfare advocate and an eternal dabbler in various artistic pursuits.