By Jillian Bedell
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
A farmer, a yoga instructor, and a writer walk into a barn — and they all end up laughing hysterically. But goat yoga is no joke, at least not at Westbrook’s Smiling Hill Farm, where Portland-based yoga instructor Ashley Flowers has been leading classes and private groups in hour-long sessions since spring 2017. Flowers offers goat yoga from May to October, but spring is peak season, as that’s when new litters of kids emerge with their mothers into the barnyard, where they can frolic among folks in Lycra pants breathing and stretching and digging their feet into the grassy ground.
This is how Flowers likes to see yoga done: in the open air (rain or shine), rather than cooped up in a studio, and with an element of the unexpected that comes from being surrounded by antic livestock. Goats might nibble your mat or suckle your fingers while you’re posing in one of Flowers’s classes. They might headbutt their friends right in front of you, climb on top of you, or pee and poop on your mat, disrupting your practice in a way that’s as mischievous as an old Chan master. You can’t take yourself too seriously when a baby goat is nuzzling your neck as you try to hold your plank — and that’s the point.
"Getting massaged by little goat feet while you do yoga,” Flowers says. “What could be better?"
Smiling Hill is home to goats, cows, sheep, an emu, a tortoise, geese, a hedgehog, a ferret, sheep, and donkeys, although only the goats attend yoga. At any given time, you can hear a few of these, and Flowers says the barnyard sounds — and sights and, yeah, smells — are all welcome distractions that help her yogis get out of their own heads. After each goat yoga session, she sets time aside for some group snuggling with the goats — not that you always have to wait. As she leads me in a downward-facing dog, a 5-month-old Nigerian dwarf goat named Melody hops onto her buttocks and, with a bleat, strides onto her back. “Getting massaged by little goat feet while you do yoga,” she says. “What could be better?”
The farmer, meanwhile, is Hillary Knight, Smiling Hill’s 13th-generation steward. During goat yoga sessions, she stands inside the goat pen to make sure her nannies and billies are behaving. Goats do well among the yogis, Knight says. Flowers’s classes help socialize the babies, who will matriculate to the petting zoo when they are a little older. Smiling Hill is a dairy farm — its glass bottles of milk are ubiquitious across southern Maine — but the Knight family also welcomes folks to visit and interact with the animals year-round and to cross-country ski in the winter.
Flowers didn’t invent goat yoga — its first practictioners were in Oregon, and she’s not Maine’s only instructor to offer it — but it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to do it than on a southern Maine plot that’s been a working dairy farm since the 1700s. The setting encourages mindfulness, Flowers says, and a loss of ego. She adds though, that she’s mostly in it for the snuggles.