I’m lying on my back in corpse pose, feeling the grass under the edges of my fingertips. It’s a perfect 70 degrees out and the warm sun is starting to peek out from behind the clouds. I feel totally refreshed by this yoga class. I open my eyes and see a fluffy, eager face staring down at me. It’s Sir Eric, the alpaca. He wants to say hi.
When Matt and Amy Varrell opened the Harvard Alpaca Ranch two years ago, they had animal therapy in mind, not yoga. But local yogi Krista Schepanovsky saw the farm of friendly alpacas as the perfect venue for a rejuvenating fitness class.
When I arrived at the farm I was apprehensive. With no alpaca knowledge, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. Would I need to sign a waiver? Was there going to be manure everywhere? Did my health insurance cover bitten-off fingers?
The first thing Amy and Matt have you do is meet the alpacas. Everyone gets a little bit of food and can feed and interact with the alpacas to get more comfortable with them. Like humans, they all have their own personalities. Charlie is not so interested in socializing with humans (can’t blame him sometimes), but Lia loves hugs, pets, and babies.
In terms of safety, it turns out there’s not much to worry about. Alpacas are generally very friendly creatures. “From an evolutionary standpoint, they’re prey animals. So they’re not equipped to really cause harm,” Matt told me. They only have bottom teeth and gums on top, so biting is a non-issue. If seriously provoked, with tail pulling or other tomfoolery, they may spit on you or kick you. But neither is likely to do much harm as they’re not huge animals and don’t have developed muscles.
Once you’ve met the animals, you go into a field, plop down your yoga mat (or towel, or nothing, if you really want to go au naturel), and get ready to stretch those joints. This leads me to my second concern: manure. Unlike the goat yoga trend where goats will actually urinate on you, alpacas all deposit into a communal pile, so as long as you don’t put your mat on it, you’re good.
“As a teacher I try to keep the classes moving in the direction of the animals so that [participants are] facing the animals,” says Krista. The light flow, hour-long yoga class is a great blend of relaxing and strengthening. During the class, the alpacas roam about in between the mats. Yogis are encouraged to put a little feed on their mat to lure the alpacas closer. Mostly it feels like doing yoga amongst a fleet of fluffy pets who are just moseying around and occasionally looking for some attention.
“In a normal yoga class I would really encourage people not to have their phones out. But here it’s OK if you want to stop what you’re doing to take photos,” says Krista. And oh boy, did we! I mean, come on, who can top that Instagram?
In addition to the relaxation of the friendly animal presences, doing yoga outside on a beautiful farm in quaint Harvard, Massachusetts, was a wonderful experience. It’s a great back-to-nature activity just a 40-minute drive from the city.
After the class, yogis can unwind with a juice packed with fruits and veggies from Jonesin4juice and check out the alpaca-themed gift shop. The store offers yarns produced from the alpacas on the ranch, and this winter a local knitter will be making hats from some of their fleece. There are also products from the New England Alpaca Fiber Pool, which sources fleece from all over the region to make hats, gloves, alpaca dolls, and more.
Next month, Pet Partners will review Amy and the very same Sir Eric who surprised me in corpse pose for therapy status. A nurse by day, Amy has wanted to introduce a therapy component to the ranch since it opened. Alpacas did wonders for Amy and Matt’s son during a tough medical period in his college years.
The ranch already hosts patients from Seven Hills Pediatric Center, many of whom are nonverbal or living with other disabilities. “I think we do alpaca therapy every day,” explains Amy. “I see it on their faces.”
The ranch is open every weekend for free tours and visits. Its next yoga class on Oct. 14 is sold out, but monitor the ranch’s Facebook page to stay up to date on future opportunities.
Harvard Alpaca Ranch
10 am–5 pm, Sat.–Sun.
$30/person for a yoga class
58 Old Mill Rd., Harvard