From ‘rewilding yourself’ with wolves to yoga with goats, these upstate New York retreats use animals to help us connect with ourselves
In 2017, Sharon Boustani and her husband received a gift from their children: two baby Nigerian dwarf goats. One week later, they already knew that two wasn’t enough. They filled their upstate New York farm with even more of the animals, and decided to train their new four-legged friends to be a part of the wellness sensation of Goat Yoga.
Originally created by Oregon entrepreneur Lainey Morse, Goat Yoga unites the ancient physical and mental practice with the cutest of snuggling companions. “They’re so sweet and therapeutic,” says Vanessa Pellegrino, a yoga instructor at the couple’s hugely popular NY Goat Yoga farm, which counts even smizer-in-chief Tyra Banks as a convert. For 45 minutes, participants run through basic yoga poses (staying close to the floor and sometimes holding animal crackers, which the goats can nibble at during a downward-facing dog). For the final 15 minutes it’s cuddle-o’-clock. Guests are encouraged to take photos and get to know the farm’s inhabitants.
“I would describe goat yoga as a mixture of animal therapy and laughing yoga,” Pellegrino says. For her, this makes it attractive to new yogis, who might be feeling self-conscious about trying something new. “These goats are your best support system if you’re feeling nervous. They walk in, and no one’s looking at you.”
While goat yoga is well known, the Boustanis’ farm is just one of several in upstate New York that offer animal interaction as a way to add to wellness experiences. But the local appetite for cuddling animals goes beyond goats. Suzanne Vullers, of the Mountain Horse Farm in the Finger Lakes region, began offering cuddling sessions with horses in 2016. Two years ago, they added their cows, Bella and Bonnie, to the mix.
The sanctuary’s goal for these sessions is to encourage a spiritual experience, rather than just letting guests stroke the animals. “It gives you this opportunity to practice mindfulness, because the animals capture your attention,” Vullers explains. “You don’t have to think about the other things that are going on in your life.”
In our always-on culture, Vullers explains, travellers are increasingly looking for ways to connect offline, through unique and authentic experiences. “It’s a lot of fun to watch animal videos on your phone, but it’s so much more rewarding if you’re actually there in person,” she says.
From rescue animal to cuddle companion
At the Mountain Horse farm, many of the horses and cows are rescues, which means that the healing workshops can be as therapeutic for the animals as they are for the humans. There’s a similar focus at Tevaland Farm, close to Harriman State park, which originally started as a refuge. Taly Ron, who founded the sanctuary farm with her husband, D, believes in allowing all her rescue animals to roam free.
“When you rescue an animal, it appreciates what you have done,” says Ron, noting that their flock is mostly made up of farm animals who were originally bought as domestic pets. “It’s really a hands-on experience of loving and nurturing animals that want to be loved and who approach you, not the other way round,” adds her husband.
While many of the people offering these unconventional experiences are certain that their animal-focused offerings aid wellbeing, there currently is not much scientific research to back it up.
“We have done several studies looking at people interacting with unfamiliar dogs, and it’s certainly been found to reduce anxiety and stress,” says Dr. Sandra Barker, professor at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University. “But we just don’t have evidence that hugging a goat, for example, will result in any benefit.” She does note, however, that animals can help us get out of our comfort zone.
The call of the wild
So if hugging and feeding animals sounds a bit tame to you, Vanessa Chakour has just the medicine: spending the night with wolves. She runs several Sacred Warrior workshops per year, in conjunction with the Wolves Conservation Center in South Salem. Its 20-acre nature reserve provides a wide-open home for 50 endangered wolves, who are separated by species to ensure their survival.
The weekend kicks off with howling (of course) – calling out to the ‘ambassador wolves’ that were raised in captivity and are more used to humans. Chakour aims to connect participants to the more uncontrollable parts of nature, based on her own experience of ‘rewilding herself’ through plant medicine and martial arts. “For me, boxing was really important connecting to my primal, predator nature,” she says.
Several of her workshops are female only – a nod to the folkloric connection between women and wolves, in true Salem style. Chakour believes her retreats offer a way to build a sense of empowerment among the women who take part. “It’s an especially powerful component for women, because we often have to tone ourselves down,” she says.
And like many other wellbeing practitioners in upstate New York, Chakour hopes her work with animals brings participants a greater understanding of the natural world, too: “the underlying mission for all of my retreats is to deepen people’s relationship with themselves and with nature, so that they will take better care of it.”