By Diane Majeske
The sun is just peeking over the horizon, burning off the last tendrils of early morning fog, as instructor Lisa Norgren begins teaching her yoga class. The studio is dim; a soothing fountain trickles gently in the back of the room. Students stand in front of their mats, talking softly. The room eventually becomes quiet. The cats awaken, stretch and start to roam.
Yes, the cats.
Because this is no ordinary yoga class. This is Yoga with Cats at Tiny Lions Lounge and Adoption Center, administered through the Humane Society of Huron Valley.
“This center is for anyone and everyone who loves cats,” explained Wendy Welch, director of marketing for the humane society. “All the cats here are looking for forever homes, of course, just like at the humane society. But at Tiny Lions, the cats are free-roaming, and everyone – whether you’re interested in adopting or not – is encouraged to come in and visit with the cats.”
The nonprofit Tiny Lions center, located at 5245 Jackson Road, Suite A1, in Ann Arbor, is also known as a cat café, a concept that started in Japan and has gradually made its way to the States in a variety of forms. Some cat cafés focus on the food aspect and have resident cats who are not available for adoption. Others focus on the felines and have cats looking for homes.
At Tiny Lions, the focus is on adoption and human/animal bonding, and the café is in the form of a Biggby Coffee shop, conveniently located next door. Visitors are welcome to bring their refreshments into the café, pay an hourly fee of $7, and enjoy time with the 10 to 15 felines who wander about freely. Cat toys abound, and visitors are welcome to interact with any and all kitties. The money goes toward the upkeep of the center and the care of the cats.
And if a cat and visitor bond particularly well, even better. All the cats at the center are available for adoption, and cards at the back of the large, cheery room detail the name, age, and individual quirks of each feline.
“We get a lot of people who come in here with their laptops, and they try to work, but they end up playing with the cats,” said volunteer Sierra Nair, laughing. “People come in for lots of different reasons. We’ll have students who are away from home, and they miss their cat. Or we’ll have families who come in, and maybe one family member is allergic, so they can’t have a cat at home – but other family members love cats.”
The staff at Tiny Lions makes sure there is plenty to do when people arrive. Guests are welcome to simply come in without reservations, visit, and play with the cats – with some limitations. These include only gentle petting, no cat chasing, and no flash photography that may startle shy felines. The posted rules also recommend visitors steer clear of kitty belly rubs, since those often lead to play that involves claws, and safety for everyone is of the utmost priority.
For those looking for more structured, cat-centered activities, there are many available. Visitors can register for events like Cat Tales Storytime or Family Mew-vie Time. Niva Lin of Ann Arbor, whose longtime family cat passed away last year, enjoys taking her three young children to the latter event. She’s not quite ready for another cat in the household, but says movie time allows her children to enjoy a little feline interaction.
“They really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun and a great way for them to be around cats without us having one at home.”
And of course, there’s the weekly Yoga with Cats. Yoga enthusiasts both new and experienced are invited to stretch and bend while sharing the floor with a few furry friends – who may at times decide to take over more than their share of the mat. Norgren keeps class casual, taking any and all kitty interruptions in stride.
“When I first started teaching this, I’d get all sorts of questions,” she said, laughing. “People were like, ‘Yoga with cats? Are you teaching the cats yoga? Are you using the cats to teach yoga? How does it work?’”
Norgren didn’t mind the questions; she was delighted at the new opportunity.
“I love to teach, and I feel like I’m doing something for the cats, too,” she said. “I already have two rescue cats, and that’s my maximum right now... so I feel like this is my way of helping.”
Each class is different and equally enjoyable, she said.
“We take our time, we leave cat toys between the mats... We make it fun.”
Debbie Crump, who attends class regularly with husband John, is one of her most enthusiastic students.
“For us, this is a way to promote a local business, to relax, and to have a good time,” said Debbie. The couple has six cats at home, but they still enjoy coming to the café to enjoy a little cat camaraderie. “This is such a great idea – the cats get used to people, and there are so many fun activities.”
In fact, she and her husband had never tried yoga until they started visiting the center. “We just thought, ‘Why not?” she said. “And we like it so much. The cats lounge on the mats, they jump around – they’re so funny. And the instructors don’t get overly serious. They give you time to move around... If you want to stop to take a quick picture, that’s OK.”
Because, in the end, it’s all about the visitors and the cats bonding. And maybe, just maybe, more cats finding forever homes.
It’s happening, said Welch. Since the center opened in June, more than 100 cats have been adopted. And when one is adopted, another takes its place. “The best scenario is when they fall in love with a human... and find a new home.”
For more information, check out www.tinylions.org.