At Chase Animal Rescue Sanctuary, having a lemur as a yoga companion is hardly a stretch.
Photos taken by Nicole Hamel.
Yoga class photos provided by Chase Animal Rescue and Sanctuary.
Irene Tsatiris truly enjoys the benefits of yoga and has been taking classes for years.
Still, she never had reason to imagine herself in a butterfly, swan or child’s pose with a lemur doing the perfect balancing act on her back, climbing along her outstretched arms or legs, sitting on her shoulders, or using her head to catapult itself into a nearby oak tree, that is, until last year when she heard it was actually a thing.
“One of my yoga instructors just casually said, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to go teach my lemur yoga class now,’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, what?’” Irene recalls, adding that when her teacher told her more about it, her response was: “I must do this!”
The class Irene attends periodically is offered at 10 a.m. every Saturday at the Chase Animal Rescue Sanctuary, a not-for-profit animal rescue facility and safe haven in Webster for critically endangered primates, and other rare and exotic rescues in need of care
Owners Nina and Donna Vassallo, who started Chase Rescue 14 years ago, say the facility runs solely on donations. Because donations are sometimes hard to come by, however, they began offering private tours and various types of classes involving unique animal encounters, including Lemur Yoga.
The class fees are used solely for operating expenses, and although the classes are intended to promote health and wellness, they are also utilized as a platform for raising awareness about the critically endangered state of ruffed lemurs and cotton-top tamarins, the illegal capture and pet trading of exotic animals, deforestation, slash and burn agriculture, etc., and what people can do to help.
At the same time, Nina says the classes benefit humans in more ways than one.
“We set up under the oak trees, out in nature, so that the lemurs will come eat, and so they can climb up in the trees and play, and it’s really a serene experience for everyone,” Nina says.
Irene appreciates the serenity, and says she’s really gotten a lot out of the class.
“When I came here and experienced it for the first time, a curious little lemur touched my hand, and it felt so soft and sweet. It was like connecting with nature in a way that was so different than going to a zoo and seeing an animal from afar,” Irene says. “Interacting with lemurs is incredible, it feels magical and I never get tired of it, and that’s how I feel about practicing yoga too, so the classes here are a good mix.”
Penny Dittbrenner, a longtime certified yoga instructor who teaches at Chase, says the benefits of yoga, which include breathing, stretching and quieting of the mind, are enhanced by the addition of lemurs because they induce happiness.
Penny says in turn, happiness, like eating right and exercising, has its own positive health benefits, too.
“In addition to the benefits of yoga in general, I think that practicing with the lemurs adds an element of joy and wonder and nobody has a bad class,” Penny says, explaining that the classes she teaches are good for beginners or more advanced students alike, and that students can choose to participate in every pose or sit out at any time to interact with or feed the animals.
Nina says the animals are never forced to participate either and they can roam freely from mat-to-mat mimicking poses, look for food from students provided by the sanctuary, run around and play, or return to their habitat.
“Even if you don’t do the yoga, those lemurs just bring so much joy to everybody. The smiles are radiant and everybody just has such a good time,” Penny adds. “It’s really relaxing as well, because when you’re that happy, your body and your mind are naturally relaxed.”
Julie Hanson, a 40-year fitness instructor, with eight years under her belt as a yoga instructor, also teaches at the rescue.
Julie says she sees yoga as a very healthy practice that benefits people by improving their posture, balance, strength, breath, relaxation and movement, plus it’s a practice that brings spirituality into people’s lives.
Julie says practicing yoga outside among nature, and with the lemurs, takes the experience to a whole other level. She also says before she started teaching at Chase, she’d heard of goat, cat, alpaca and even dog yoga, but never yoga with lemurs.
Regardless, Julie says she’s noticed that every student leaves her class with more bounce in their step than when they arrived.
“Nobody knows each other, everyone’s at their own level of yoga, but the lemurs bond the class together,” Julie says. “The lemurs add so much to the experience and there’s nothing like it, unless you go to Madagascar or something. You’ll go home and talk for hours about your experience with these cute, curious, soft, funny little animals.”