We were stretched out on foam yoga mats in corpse pose—Savasana in yogi speak—under the broad canopy of a live oak tree, the smell of fresh-cut grass all around. It was mid-morning in League City, not yet hot, and a gentle breeze fluttered across the lawn outside the historic Butler's Courtyard while a couple of young goats nibbled at our toes. Savasana encourages you to relax and recenter yourself at the end of a yoga practice; the goats provided their own encouragement—namely to smile and laugh, because that's what Houston's first Goat Yoga class is ultimately all about.
After the practice, one yogi approached instructor Rachel Henson and told her: "That was the first time I've laughed in two weeks." A few days later, by phone, Henson tells us: "That mattered more to me than any money you could give me. Baby goats chewing on your ear during yoga; what more could you want?"
Henson only began practicing yoga five years ago, though goats have always been a part of her life. Raised on a farm outside Madisonville, the University of Texas graduate still lives on 60 acres of her own land in Friendswood, where she keeps horses, geese and—right now—two baby goats, abandoned by their mother, named Ray and Conway. Black-and-white-spotted Ray and tawny Conway were the stars of our Saturday morning class, leaping from one lap to another for sweaty cuddle sessions.
When she's not teaching Goat Yoga, the 33-year-old Henson works full-time as a district sales manager for Pep Boys—"I think there are about 9 [women] in my position at the company, out of 4,000 nationwide"—and volunteers on several committees with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, including the Lamb & Goat Auction Committee.
During class, Henson's self-titled "country kid" roots are on full display, and not just because of all the goats roaming around a fenced-in pasture. Saturday morning practices are set to a soundtrack of Texas country artists, while Sunday morning "sunrise Gospel" classes feature what she laughingly calls "Jesus jams," with 10 percent of the proceeds going to her church. A truly Texan yoga class, says Henson, "is totally what we're going for." But how does a farm girl who's worked in the automotive industry her entire adult life get into Goat Yoga to begin with?
"My doctor said, 'I would love for you to start doing yoga,'" says Henson, whose own health concerns—including heart and digestion issues coupled with stress and anxiety—led her on a search for a way to feel better that didn't include popping a bunch of pills. "When a real MD tells you, 'Hey, try this,' I'm gonna take my doctor's advice," she laughs. Over time, her stress headaches and digestion issues cleared up, and last year Henson found herself on sabbatical in Nicaragua, taking a 200-hour course to become a certified yoga instructor. One day, while practicing on the front porch at her younger brother's ranch in Madisonville, Henson realized a herd of his goats had surrounded her and an idea was born.
In other cities across the U.S., goat yoga has become such a popular activity that waiting lists of 1,200 people per class aren't unheard of. But Houston had no goat yoga classes of its own. So this past spring, Henson got to work building a website for Goat Yoga Houston, finding a place to host her classes (Butler's Courtyard, a League City wedding facility down the street from Henson's high school was more than accommodating), and convincing her skeptical brother to cart a few of his goats down to League City—a nearly two-hour drive.
"I don't understand it," her brother said after the first class—a sold-out success. "I honestly thought these classes would be empty. It's the craziest thing." Her brother's goats, for their part, seemed equally bemused by the group of yogis that greeted them last Saturday morning—happy to be petted though just as quick to pee on a yoga mat or chew on its rubbery tips.
To spare them an immediate drive back after yoga, the goats spend a relaxing weekend on Henson's nearby ranch before heading back to Madisonville with her brother the following week. It's not arrangement that will last forever. Her goal is to raise up a herd of goats just like Ray and Conway—hand-raised and human-friendly, who enjoy being handled, picked up and petted. She's adding another location, too: this one at another pastoral wedding venue, Chantilly Country in Conroe. Classes will begin there in September.
After our Saturday morning class, we dipped inside the groom's quarters at Butler's Courtyard to freshen up and cool off—the facility offers restrooms, cold water and other comforts for the goat yogis in attendance—and hung around briefly as some yogis worked on additional, advanced binds and poses with Henson, while others bottle-fed the baby goats who'd worked up an appetite.
If all goes to plan, says Henson, her pack of 20 trained-up yoga goats will enable her to move into teaching yoga full-time. She hopes her livestock might tempt wary Texans into picking up the workout routine she credits with solving so many of her own health issues. "You know that phrase, 'To whom much is given, much will be required'"? she asks. "I'm just super thankful. And with God's grace I think I might have found a chance to help a lot of other people."
Goat Yoga Houston currently offers classes for $35 on Saturdays and Sundays in League City at Butler's Courtyard. Classes are by reservation only and hold up to 30 people; private parties may also be booked. No children under 15 are allowed. Visit goatyogahouston.com for more details.