That looks a bit like me doing the downward dog, if it weren’t for the fur, tail and claws – oh, and I don’t usually yawn while I’m at it. Yoga has become a big part of my life over the past few years, to the point where I wonder how I used to manage without it.

When I go for a few days without yoga, as per lately due to too much time at the computer, my body starts to let me know that things are starting to go awry. Protests start to emanate from my neck and shoulders, lower back, hips, knees and ankles. Even if I do other exercise, such as walking, or karate – it’s the yoga that brings everything back into harmony again. Not all at once, mind – it’s more of an ongoing process built around a regular practice that creates gradual but real results. Ya, kind of like any exercise – I know.

What intrigues me about yoga is how it resembles what my cats do every single day, at various moments and without a regular schedule (at least not one I can decipher). Sometimes, they’ll do an energetic, yang-like spinal twist movement out of the blue and hold the pose for a several seconds while they lick that itchy spot on their back or comb out the matted fur in the lumbar area. Other times they sit on their sacrum to take a bath in a movement reminscent of a spinal curl or butterfly. They lie in passive yin poses for hours as they sleep. Upon waking, they do a few stretches, yawns and shakes, and they’re ready for action – just like my yoga DVD instructor does before we start sun salutations. My cats are so beyond sun salutation; those ritual moves are for beginners – for lower beings who have forgotten, and have to be taught how to inhabit their own bodies again.

So I like to think of pandiculation as feline yoga, or for that matter, a very primitive, pre-human kind of yoga – and I’m not using “primitive” pejoratively. Primitive as in sensual, in a context where the nerves and synapses of the cerebral cortex have less influence, and sensual information gets processed more directly- whether those senses communicate pain, pleasure, proprioception, information on surroundings, and instincts on what to do, now.

Healthy cats do yoga at any time, in just about any situation. Cats who don’t pandiculate don’t feel quite like cats. I can think of at least four reasons why cats I see at the clinic pandiculate less often than the cats I don’t see. Number one on my list has always been (and I hope won’t always be) – obesity. Or as we put it more delicately in French: embonpoint. While I am willing to allow that some humans can be simultaneously very healthy and overweight, this is rarely the case for cats. Embonpoint in cats leads very early to all sorts of woes, such as feline urinary tract disease, and later in life, it is the most significant risk factor in developing diabetes. In the time it takes for a young and svelte kitten to develop into a young obese cat who is one or two years old, it has lost a lot of body awareness and comfort. Overweight cats are generally grumpier, less active and have slower reflexes than slender cats; so it’s not all about weight and appearance, it’s also about movement and suppleness. A cat is definitely carrying too much weight if she is unable to turn around and wash her back – and has the matted hair to prove it.

A second case of decreased or absent pandiculation happens in long-haired cats who have been bred to grow unnaturally long and fine hair that they can’t manage without human help. If these cats are abandoned or neglected, they develop painfully matted coats that prevent them from stretching, twisting and holding positions that should normally be very comfortable. The hair is matted to the root, and pulls on the skin as they move. These cats are also very grumpy and inactive.

Thirdly, loss of pandiculation happens in cats who are simply ill, for any reason. The ill feeling might be fever, dizziness, weakness or pain – any feeling that would prevent a human being from feeling like exercising.

A fourth reason that is really important to me to mention is that many declawed cats – not all – but many, including my own Mädchen, whom I had declawed back when I was an ill-advised vet student – don’t pandiculate as much as they would if all of their distal phalanges had not been cruelly amputated. I think that some declawed cats rightly resent the feeling of their shortened digits, and don’t feel like doing yoga because it doesn’t feel right. Others have phantom pain or are depressed.

Mädchen, in fact, is the only one of my cats who is declawed, and the only one who never joins me for yoga. Cats love being with humans while they do yoga. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but there’s youtube evidence that they are doing something cats have likely done ever since humans started doing yoga, a few thousand or so years ago in the Near East and India.

See how the kitty’s tail points straight up as he approaches – that means he’s familiar with this routine and is delighted he can participate. This guy is lucky, he can talk about staying undistracted, but I can’t – my junior cat enjoys attacking my hair when I lie back on the ground, or when it hangs down. I have to be aware of him, because I could get a claw in my eye one of these days. My senior cat generally installs himself on top of me and won’t move unless I physically dump him. He doesn’t hold it against me though – he comes right back.

Here’s a link to another long cat-human yoga session; it’s 10 minutes long and one of these days I’ll get around to watching it myself:
Stray Cat Yoga.

Explore posts in the same categories: animal behaviour, cats, human behaviour, human-animal bond, yoga

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38 Comments on “Pandiculation”

  1. deBeauxOs Says:

    Well, if I were a cat I would be quite insulted that wonderful pose is called the downward dog.

    Dogs don’t do and don’t get yoga.

  2. brebis noire Says:

    Well, my dog does that pose too, but she doesn’t look quite as elegant while doing it. Actually, when a dog does downward, it’s either to stretch, or an invite to play. So when a dog sees a cat doing downward dog…you can imagine the confusion that can ensue, because the cat is almost never inviting the dog to play.
    Dogs are little kids – they don’t think yoga is necessary. It would be good for their joints though – notice how few cats get arthritis compared to dogs. 🙂

  3. DbO: My chocolate lab does a very good downward dog. I notice that she does it whenever she jumps out of the car! She also does the plank. (I try not to brag too much.):)

    I started doing Yoga last fall. I had been taking Roxy to doggie boot camp (ie private lessons)and after an hour work-out, every muscle ached — mine not hers. I realized how out of shape I was, so I signed up for Yoga classes in the village here. Big difference and a nice way to spend an hour. Working out at a gym never interested me, but the yoga I like.

  4. mouthyorange Says:

    brebis – I love your post, again. It’s wonderful. It’s drawing out all kinds of responses from me. I’m terrified I’ll always write very long comments for you! Blame it on your amazing essays. …

    That’s so neat, the observation about cats loving yoga. I’ve done yoga on and off over the years; sometimes all it is is the sun exercises in the morning, but even that makes a total difference to my body and my day. My cats have always been interested. They walk around and under me. One of my cats, years ago, used to jump up and settle into the small of my back for a snooze. I was always very torn about what to do next because I hated to disturb him.

    My Bouviers often come over when I’m doing yoga and loom over me and grin and kiss my face. My yoga does seem to attract them.

    Pandiculate is a wonderful word. I’ve never heard it in English before, and my Canadian English dictionary doesn’t have it. Where did you get it? Is it French? May I borrow it?

    I have a rescue cat who had been declawed by a previous human. (A sub-human?) She came to us also grossly obese and with myriad health problems. (Miraculously, not diabetes.) She did not pandiculate — could hardly even walk. Couldn’t hold up her own weight. We put her on a raw food diet and strictly controlled her portions. All her health problems disappeared and she shrunk down to size. She regained a great deal of mobility, but there are many things she does not do because she is declawed. Actually, I knew her when she was a lithe and incredibly athletic kitten. The quality of life that she has lost from the declawing is enormous. It breaks my heart. She does pandiculate now that her health has improved again but does not do it anywhere near to the extent of our other cat, who is her mother. Her life in her cat’s body is severely limited. I cannot rationalize declawing. I cannot and I will not. I appreciate the way you wrote about it here.

  5. I love the video. Maintaining the pose (poise) has a lot of resonance for me. I feel about meditation the way you do about yoga.

  6. brebis noire Says:

    Lilian, I don’t think I’m ready for meditation yet, but I’m sure the time will come when I will be. It took me a long to realise that I needed to do yoga, it wasn’t just an option. Part of what prevents me from meditating is that I can’t find a comfortable sitting position that I can maintain for long enough. In the meantime, my cats inspire me in that sense too. Great meditators, those kitties are.

  7. brebis noire Says:

    mouthyorange, I can’t thank you enough for your response, it’s wonderful to connect, and I love to hear about your experiences. I first heard pandiculate from a much older Scottish vet and ethologist, so I presume it’s one of those technical terms – I can’t even find it in my veterinary dictionary. But it’s on the web.

    It is heartbreaking when cats get declawed as adults, even worse than if it’s done at around 3 mos of age. Very painful and traumatic, even with the best of care. I wish vets would refuse to do them, but the problem is, their refusal leads either to losing a client (usually not a big loss…) or a request for euthanasia. So they’re between a rock and a hard place, but people also need to know what they’re doing to the cat and to be talked out of it.

  8. brebis noire Says:

    southernquebec, I feel the same way about working out in a gym – not interested. But I like doing yoga in both class and solitary situations.

    Dogs are indeed proficient at some yoga poses, but they haven’t got it down to an art like cats have. 😉

  9. milaelly Says:

    Like cats we stretch,
    and rearrange,
    curl up inside
    a warm spot we’ve made.

  10. milaelly Says:

    Pandiculation is the act of …
    Do you know how to do it right?
    Secrets of Tibetan monks.
    Better watch once than a lot of time to read.
    Exclusive video.

  11. brebis noire Says:

    That’s lovely milaelly. I’ll keep it in mind as I go stretch the body this morning.

  12. kerry Says:

    thanks for the info

  13. Brebis–I’m sorry I missed this post the first time around. Your writing is always so thought-provoking and interesting to read. And that kitty yoga video is tremendous!

    I do a very bastardized 10 min yoga routine before bed each night, and my cat always joins me. First, she stalks me, then she swats at my dangling hair, and finally she stretches and purrs like crazy 🙂 It’s my favourite part of the day–just wish there was more time for it!

  14. brebis noire Says:

    Oh yeah, the dangling hair swat – I have scratch marks on my skull from that one! I keep my eyes closed for upside down poses when power yoga kitteh is around.
    My two others are more yin – they just want me to stop moving so they can absorb the body heat.
    Thanks kitty!

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