NEW YORK – The yoga instructor sits cross-legged, telling the class to say “Ohm.” Instead, some students bark.
This is no ordinary yoga class -- it's Crunch gym's "Ruff Yoga," for people and pups.
"We do the traditional poses. The dogs just get incorporated,” said the instructor, Crunch's yoga director Suzi Teitelman, looking lovingly at her dog Coaly. "The whole process is a bonding time."
The fierce loyalty people have for their pets has spurred several businesses, including doggie day care, doggie gyms, pet-friendly bars and pet psychology practices. But is this a case of yoga and dog devotees run amok?
"The opinion of the general public might be that either they're really weird, really lonely, really ugly or really decrepit," said Steve Dale, pet writer for USA Weekend and host of Animal Planet Radio. "It's probably none of the above. It just means they have a special relationship with their dog."
Yoga guru and author Bruce Van Horn addresses the pup/yoga connection in his book and video, Healthy Living Wellness Program: Daily Yoga Class. He says the relaxed state people achieve through yoga rubs off on their animals if they're nearby during the exercises.
"It actually reduces the stress levels of animals," Van Horn said. "When people have crazy animals, it's usually because the people themselves are crazy."
Van Horn is conducting a study of the physiological effect of yoga on dogs at the Bergen County Animal Rescue Center in New Jersey, in which researchers measure the pooches' pulse and heart rates while their handlers achieve inner calm.
"When we heal ourselves, we can actually change our energy level and change our animals and change the world," he said. "It radiates out into nature."
But others raise an eyebrow at the trendy obsession with dogs and alternative medicine.
"It's entering into one of those bizarre, 'Ripley's Believe It or Not' dimensions," said Gary Hoppenstand, former president of the National Association of Popular Culture.
Crunch, a national chain with gyms in Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, currently offers Ruff Yoga only in New York City, but is considering instituting the class in its other locations.
The company is welcoming requests for the class to be added outside New York. Those interested in seeing Ruff Yoga at their Crunch can go to www.crunch.com; click on "You have a question/comment about group fitness" and express their support. The fitness director will review all suggestions.
During a recent session, outside in Madison Square Park, the class drew nearly 20 people and their fluffy friends -- as well as a crowd of amused onlookers.
One woman arrived out of breath, halfway through class.
"This is Isaac," said Sarah Klein, introducing her cocker spaniel.
"I thought it would be nice for him to meet other dogs," she added.
Klein and the other Ruff Yogis said they're always on the lookout for things to do with their dogs.
"Inhale … Exhale … Now, hug your dog," the instructor, Teitelman, said. "Stretch the dog's legs -- first the front leg, then the back leg. Now praise them: 'Good boy.'"
A round of excited barks rang out and tails wagged enthusiastically.
And what would doggie yoga be without "Downward Dog?" During that pose -- where people form an inverted V with the body -- the canine students sat patiently beneath their human partners.
Some people hoped their pups would get the same relaxation benefits from yoga as humans.
"He's kind of hyper," said graphic designer Lee Eckhaus of her sharpei pitbull mix, Tony Baloney. "I thought it would calm him down."
Though Teitelman and Van Horn would agree, others said it's just another way of projecting human traits onto four-legged companions.
"One questions whether it has any true applications for pets," said Hoppenstand, who acknowledged that having pets is beneficial, but thinks the doggie yoga trend goes too far.
"Pets provide real therapeutic effects [for people]," he said. "But the sad quality is that [in] our society, people feel so isolated from one another that their best friend is their pet."
Vet Jack Stephens, CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance, said it's unclear whether yoga helps animals -- but for people the benefits are clear.
"We know scientifically that being with your dog calms you down," said Stephens. "That's pretty much what yoga does, so I imagine taking your pet might accelerate the process."