Goat yoga: Connecting with animals, the earth and each other

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Floral incense float to the floor in a swirl of smoke. A cool breeze sneaks through the window cracks and echoes the sounds of the country. Outside, the sun is shining, but inside Blue Sky Farm’s make-shift yoga studio the low-light and metal star-covered walls elicit a feeling of serenity reminiscent of the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much like Shakespeare’s classic comedy, things aren’t always what they seem.

Circling the women sitting cross-legged on mats are six baaing, leaping and headbutting baby goats. For the yoga students, the goats are a hilarious addition to an otherwise relaxing activity. To the goats, the yoga students are something they jump off in a flailing ball of hoof and fur.

June marks one year since Ellen Beaulieu, owner of Blue Sky Farm, started hosting goat yoga at her Sugar Grove homestead. After purchasing the farm in July 2013, she knew she wanted to share the rolling green landscape with those craving nature or just the touch of a miniature horse.

“My mission is to connect animals, the earth and each other,” Beaulieu said.

Spreading the word

She quickly realized that creating the farm experience wasn’t the hard part. In order to enter her property, visitors must drive down a winding road adorned with 100-year-old houses, open fields and horses. Once on the farm, guests are greeted by naying miniature horses who stick their snouts through the wooden-fenced enclosure and beg for head scratches.

Beaulieu struggled with spreading the word about her farm to those outside rural Sugar Grove, where there’s about as much novelty in owning a goat as there is in a city resident owning a dachshund.

“My first inclination was, how do we share this with people that need it?” said Beaulieu.

With a background in special education and psychology, Beaulieu’s idea of “need” comes in a variety of forms. From those recovering from addiction to those simply wanting to cuddle a farm animal, she wanted Blue Sky Farm to be a safe and beneficial space that could meet the needs of all visitors.

“I wanted to sell an experience. But how do you get known for that? That was my struggle,” Beaulieu said. Going from a childhood household that forbade pets to owning a farm demonstrated to Beaulieu how therapeutic petting animals and breathing fresh air could be. But, in a click-bate culture, slapping that sentiment on a poster wasn’t going to cut it. “Then goat yoga came across my radar.”

That’s when everything changed.

By summer, Beaulieu connected with educator-by-day and yoga-teacher-by-night Danielle Todd.

Certified yoga instructor Danielle Todd plays with Blue Sky Farm’s goats before class. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

“I’m the main teacher for Ellen, and I absolutely love it,” Todd said. She spends most of her time teaching middle schoolers English, literature, social studies, yoga and meditation at Grace Holistic Center for Education in Yorkville, Illinois. When she isn’t educating children or tree posing with goats, she leads traditional yoga classes at a studio and piglet yoga classes at her friend’s house. (Todd lovingly referred to this as downward hog yoga.) The pigs used in these classes will one day be sold as pets, so integrating them into a class of people doing yoga prepares them for future human interactions.

Newborn goats in the studio

Beaulieu uses that same thought when introducing newborn goats into her yoga classes. Often, goats spend the first 8-10 weeks of their life (essentially their entire childhood) nuzzled up with their mothers. By the time the goats are grown, they haven’t been socialized, so their natural inclination is to run away from humans.

There is a wait list for goats bred by Beaulieu. Not just because she only raises pedigree Nigerian dwarf goats, but because her goats are acclimated to humans, which makes them more manageable adults.

On the day I visited the farm, guests are lucky enough to spend an entire hour with all baby goats. Often, a variety of ages are in the mix, but with it being breeding season at Blue Sky Farm, Beaulieu has a surplus of babies to socialize.

As Todd leads the class from child’s pose to cobra, the goats hop off people’s backs and sniff extended fingers. A barefooted Beaulieu weaves across the room and scoops up one of the smaller goats. The white and brown head snuggles against her chest as she whispers softly.

“You’re doing such a good job. I’m so proud of you,” she says.

Beaulieu notices me watching and informs me the goat is only a week old. As she sets the doll-sized fuzzball back down, it shakes it’s rear and skips toward the other babies roaming the room.

Owning a business with goats means looking out for goats doing their business

Late-spring through early-fall, Blue Sky Farm hosts Friday night classes from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday morning classes from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every other week. Blue Sky Farm also offers “Goat Cuddle” sessions on Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Those interested in 2-hour private goat yoga parties can book their event for $300.

As traction picked up and news of Blue Sky Farm spread, Beaulieu recognized another issue. While she wanted to provide the “farm experience” to visitors, that didn’t mean she wanted people stepping in goat excrement or sticking their hands in urine. At the same time, when you’re working with animals, they’re going to relieve themselves whenever they feel the time is right.

That’s why Beaulieu starts each class with this disclaimer:

Ellen Beaulieu opens each yoga class with a friendly speech. She tells visitors to “leave their expectations at the barn door.” (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

“People will always say, ‘Will I get peed and pooed on?’ and I say, ‘Absolutely, you will see them pee and poo. They’ll look you straight in the eye and you’ll think you’re having a little bonding moment and they’re pooping,’” she said.

That’s the risk people take when they sign up for goat yoga.

Luckily, the goats rarely go while atop a person practicing cat-cow or any similar poses. Instead, they squat on the concrete floor and Beaulieu rushes over to immediately clean up the mess.

But sometimes the goats do get a little too comfortable.

A couple of months into hosting goat yoga, all of the guests laid in savasana when very calmly one woman said:

“I think I’m being peed on.”

“Is it warm?” Beaulieu recalled saying back.

With a heavy, meditative breath the women responded, “Yes.”

Since then, Beaulieu has honed the skill of identifying a goat about to pee.

I’ve had the joy of watching her make eye contact with a goat standing proudly on the back of a human. Almost in slow motion the goat starts to lower itself into position. But before it’s too late, Beaulieu swoops in and plucks the goat away and safely places it on the floor.

Goats on the go

When the leaves turned red, Beaulieu encountered yet another challenge. She thought her earning season would end in the winter because she knew it was too cold to host classes at her farm.

At the end of class, visitors have the chance to take pictures with the goats. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)

But then, organizations reached out in the hope of collaborating. This launched “Goats to Go,” in which Beaulieu would bring her baby goats to senior living facilities, painting classes and yoga studios in the area.

From a trip to get fast food that turned into a drive-through photo shoot when employees realized there was a goat sitting on Beaulieu’s lap, to the confusion of customers entering a burger restaurant who thought the goats they could hear in the yoga studio next-door were on the menu, traveling with goats always ends in shenanigans.

A successful year

As of mid-April, Beaulieu reopened her barn doors to those interested in a combination of goats, yoga and a farm setting. In less than a year, word of Blue Sky Farm’s goat yoga classes crossed state lines, bringing in guests from Chicago to Iowa.

“I’m so proud of us. We’ve made it a year and it’s grown,” Beaulieu said of her accomplishments. “I understand so much more what people are looking for.”

Guests of Blue Sky Farm love seeing the goats run around in the open field. (Stephanie Fox)

That means, a heavier emphasis on the experience rather than perfecting each yoga pose, as well as a station for goat selfies at the end of class.

“It’s joyful. It’s silly. It’s a space for little connections,” Beaulieu said.

Photo at top: Ellen Beaulieu hugs a 1-week-old goat during a yoga class at Blue Sky Farm. (Stephanie Fox/Medill)