SOUTH BEAVER TWP. — A group of yoga devotees unrolled their mats in preparation for a class Saturday morning.
“Are there any animals that you might be afraid of? Anybody afraid of chickens or turkeys, goats, sheep?” asked Lisa Marie Sopko.
It’s not the usual introduction to a yoga class, but this wasn’t a usual class.
In fact, most of the people who attended the nearly 45-minute “Yoga With the Animals” session came not only for exercise, but to interact with animals that grazed in a bucolic pasture at Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch.
Sopko, with husband John, owns the 20-acre, nonprofit farm that’s been a sanctuary for neglected, abused, or abandoned animals for more than a year.
Proceeds from the first-time event will go toward building a multi-use barn to serve as temporary emergency shelter for humane officers statewide to house hoarded or neglected animals or as a pop-up shelter for animals needing housing due to natural disasters.
Animals were introduced gradually with Kevin, a Zebu steer; Zoe, a miniature horse; Saylor, a Nigerian dwarf goat; Scout, a donkey; Bluebell, a Nubian goat; and Pepper, a turkey among the first.
“I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to go,” Sopko told participants. “I expect that they’re (animals) going to be very interactive.”
And she offered cautionary advice, especially when yogis engaged in downward and upward dog poses: “Keep your eyes out for the animals that have horns” as they could interpret those positions as a “challenge.”
“If you see something running toward you, just stand up,” she said.
Not to worry. The animals were respectful and decorous. As more were introduced — mostly goats — they were more interested in nibbling weeds, grass and low-hanging tree leaves on the pasture’s perimeter.
But Kevin was curious and sidled next to Marcy Rudolph of Baden.
“It was pretty awesome,” she said, as the cow, rescued last year at a horse auction, bent its head toward her.
She and niece, Sarah Westover of South Beaver Township, both practice yoga and love animals.
“We don’t really get farm life very much so it’s just nice to do something that’s really unique and seemed really fun,” Rudolph said.
Westover said she knew it was the right decision as soon as they arrived: Several animals in an enclosure ran to the fence to greet them.
“This was great,” Rudolph enthused. “I would totally do this again.”
“Would definitely do it again,” echoed Westover.
Natosha Durr of Chippewa Township came with her 10-year-old daughter Alianna. Both practice yoga.
Alianna has seen YouTube videos of yoga with goats.
“She’s been wanting to do a goat yoga so this is a good mix of the two, Natosha said.
“I’ll probably have a goat or animal on my back,” Alianna said hopefully.
The pair enrolled because “it’s a good cause,” said Natosha.
The event was a family outing for Brandy Woods of North Sewickley Township and her daughter, Maura, 4; mother Sherry Eiler of Darlington; and sister Candice Sprecker of Baden.
Maura loves animals, her mom said, and “exercises around the home with us.”
“I’m trying to support her,” Eiler said of Sopko’s animal rescue efforts. “She’s a neighbor and I try to support her.”
“It’s just a lot of fun watching them move about,” Woods said of the animals. “We’ll do as much as we can do to support what she (Sopko) does. It’s really a great thing.”
As yoga instructor Kristen Hannan of Pittsburgh guided participants through various poses, roosters crowed, horses whinnied, sheep bleated, and donkeys brayed.
“Outdoors, animals, yoga — all good things. That’s what we want,” said Jen Stratakis of Robinson Township, reflecting on the pastoral peacefulness.
“Yoga is moving your body in time with your breath. It’s physically healing, it’s mentally calming, and adding the animals to it is like pet therapy, if you’re an animal lover, of course. There’s soothing presence…It’s fun having them interact with us as we’re moving our bodies and enjoying this beautiful day.”
Leah Younkins of Moon Township thinks animals “can sense the benefits we get from yoga — the calming — and it helps to calm them.”
Elyse Mancini Ross of Brighton Township practices yoga but has never done so with animals.
“I love yoga, I do lots of yoga, but I wanted to connect with the animals,” she said, “just to have the feeling of peace come through you with the animals, just connected with nature and the universe. Yoga just sweetens the pot. It feels really good.”
Beth Newman of Mars was especially moved by the day’s event. She and Sopko have been friends since their middle school days. Newman’s 20-year-old daughter Gabby, who aspired to be an equine veterinarian, spent the summer as an intern at Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch.
On Aug. 5, three donkeys escaped a pen. In an attempt to herd them back, Gabby took an off-the-road vehicle in pursuit. Somehow the ATV rolled over on nearby Cole Road and Gabby was killed.
The days hence have not been easy for Newman, but she’s bolstered by Sopko’s plans to build the new barn and dedicate it to Gabby.
“Lisa and I, we’re both people of faith and we both think that there needs to be something positive about it (Gabby’s death).
“It has to be God’s idea and God’s timing, but something good is going to come out of it and we think it would be wonderful to build another barn so she can help more animals,” said Newman.
“This whole farm — she (Gabby) just loved it. I can just see her here. Everywhere I go is just an image of her so every time I come here it’s kind of like being with her,” said Newman, as tears welled in her eyes.
“I haven’t cried for a few days and when I say cry, this is just tearing up,” she said. “She loved every single animal. She knew all their names and their histories. She was the only one who could tell the difference between all the sheep.”
As for the new barn being dedicated to her daughter’s memory, Newman said “I can’t imagine anything Gabby could want more. She just loved animals.”
Sopko hopes to break ground this month on the new barn estimated to cost $62,000. So far, about $30,000 has been raised. She said 39 people registered for Saturday’s event that cost $25.
“I’m pleased with the turnout,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I had expected maybe 15 to 20 people.”
Sopko said she’d love to repeat the event — “again and again and again. I think it’s going to be something that’s so great for the people as well as the animals.”
HOW TO DONATE
Those interested in donating to the new multi-purpose barn to be built at Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch in South Beaver Township that will serve as temporary emergency shelter for humane officers statewide to house hoarded or neglected animals or as a pop-up shelter for animals needing housing due to natural disasters can do so via website, Facebook or check.
Visit the website at kindredspiritsrescueranch.com or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KindredSpiritsRescueRanch.
Checks, made payable to Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch, can be mailed to 500 Hodgson Road, Darlington, PA 16115.