Animal Yoga 101: A Introduction To Primal Movement & How It Differs From Yoga

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Have you ever come across something called Animal Yoga on a studio schedule? No, that’s not a bring-your-own-pet class but an enriching practice that draws inspiration from yoga and primal animal movement.

Although it is growing in popularity, many people are still unfamiliar with this discipline. If you’re not sure what to expect from Animal Yoga practice, let’s take this journey together.

This article covers the major aspects of Animal Yoga, including:

  • What is Animal Yoga?
  • 6 components of Animal Flow
  • 5 key differences between yoga and Animal Flow
  • Benefits of Animal Yoga
  • Tips for Beginners
bear sat doing animal yoga

What is Animal Yoga?

Animal Yoga, more commonly known under its copyrighted name Animal Flow, is a modern movement practice inspired by various animal behaviors as a form of bodyweight exercise.

It’s a creative and dynamic approach that combines elements of yoga, handbalancing, parkour, calisthenics, and contemporary dance. 

The reason this practice is called Animal Flow is due to its dynamic, fluid nature.

The movements are combined into sequences or “flows.”  Just like Sun Salutations, these transitions are set to create a continuous and rhythmic practice that works out the entire body. 

It’s a relatively new practice, which was developed by fitness instructor Mike Fitch in 2010. What started as a few fitness classes and a workout DVD, has since grown into a major program with classes and workshops delivered by certified instructors around the world.

Traditional yoga asana features many poses named after animals that inspired that particular asana.

Similarly, Animal Flow is characterized by ground-based movements that mimic the way animals move in nature. Each movement has a specific purpose within the body and an overall intention of improving physical fitness.

The flows feature animals like crab, ape, and “beast”. The latter is an amalgamation of quadruple mammal movements. 

a crab on the sand

During the session, practitioners engage in a series of fluid transitions that include crawls, hops, jumps, rolls, and dynamic stretches. These challenging movements require strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination.

Six Components of Animal Flow

Animal Flow is built on six main components in order to create an effective practice. Each component is characterized by a set of movements grouped based on specific results these exercises try to achieve.

1. Wrist Mobilizations

The session typically starts with simple wrist exercises in order to prepare them for bearing one’s body weight. These may include rotations, flexing, and general wrist coordination.

2. Activations

Similarly, before you continue to the more complex movement, the body needs to be awakened. At this point of the session, practitioners begin to perform some of the foundational animal forms and connect with their bodies.

3. Form-Specific Stretches

Within the spectrum of these animal forms, practitioners flow through various end ranges of motion. This portion of the practice is aimed at improving mobility and building strength through movement.

An example of the yogic equivalent would be the Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana) sequence. 

4. Traveling Forms

At this point, the practitioner tunes into their inner animal, mimicking some of their movement. This is a common practice known as animal locomotion. 

someone kicking the air doing animal yoga

In yoga, we perform animal locomotion movement when transitioning between Downward Dog and Upward Dog, just like various species of mammals.

In Animal Flow, these traveling forms are based on the practice’s ABCs: ape, beast, and crab. However, other variations can be incorporated into the practice.

5. Switches and Transitions

Switches and transitions make up the majority of the practice. In essence, these are the dynamic movements between two or more positions.

In these transitions, the emphasis is on good form and controlled movement. Switches and transitions can be repeated as an exercise drill or linked into a longer, more complex flow. 

6. Flows

Finally, the heart of the Animal Yoga practice is the pre-set sequences known as flows. The goal is to continuously move through the poses in a purposeful, mindful way. 

It may take a while to learn the entire sequence, let alone complete one. It is recommended to gradually build your way up to a full flow, practicing each movement until it is ingrained in the body. 

person in one leg downward dog

5 Key Differences between Animal Flow and yoga

Although it is sometimes identified as Animal Yoga, technically this is a separate practice that simply draws inspiration from the yoga practice of asana. 

Officially, while Animal Flow shares some similarities with yoga in terms of its focus on body awareness and flow, the movements themselves don’t overlap with yoga poses very much.

Admittedly, both yoga and Animal Flow are designed to improve strength, flexibility, and functional movement. But so do ballet, pilates, calisthenics, and many other movement disciplines!

So why is it sometimes known as Animal Yoga? In short, people are generally more familiar with the term “yoga”, which is why some gyms and studios promote Animal Flow as a sub-type of the yoga practice.

To help you make the distinction between traditional yoga and Animal Flow, let’s examine the key differences between these two disciplines.

1. Origins and Cultural Significance

Yoga has been around for so long, that it is hard to pinpoint the exact point of origin. Some of the ancient yogic texts date thousands of years.

statue of the bhagavad gita

Even the physical asana practice, which is considered relatively new within the yogic context, has a long history compared to some of the other forms of movement.

Animal Flow, on the other hand, was only coined as a unique movement practice in 2010. As such, it does not carry the same cultural significance as the rich and multifaceted discipline of yoga.

2. Pranayama

Although it is important to have some breath control in every form of exercise, Animal Flow does not teach specific breathing techniques or cue movements in relation to the breaths.

In yoga, breathing plays a significant role in the practice. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga and breath control is believed to be the key to directing the flow of vital life energy (prana).

Pranayama encompasses a variety of breathing techniques that are incorporated both into physical practice and meditation.

person practicing pranayama

3. Poses and Transitions

Famously, yoga consists of a huge “library” of poses: seated, standing, kneeling, prone, supine, inverted… Depending on the type of practice, these poses may be performed in quick succession or held for some time.

However, even dynamic styles like Vinyasa and Rocket Yoga include some stillness to build strength and work on one’s balance.

Animal Flow is ultimately all about movement. There is a little bit of overlap in the shapes practitioners form with their bodies, but the general approach and the vector of movement are quite different.

Furthermore, Animal Flow is a very grounded practice. Since the movements are inspired by animal locomotion, most forms and transitions require floor contact of both hands and feet.

4. Spirituality

Although both disciplines promote mindfulness and body awareness, historically yoga has a strong spiritual component. It is true that not every yoga practitioner engages in spiritual practice, but yoga can hardly be reduced to a fitness routine

woman meditating with her dog

5. Certification and Instruction

A major difference between yoga and Animal Flow is the certification process. Arguably, this is the main reason these two disciplines cannot be considered part of the same practice.

With the exception of novelty yoga practices such as SUP yoga or aerial yoga, yoga teacher training (YTT) is structured in accordance with specific guidelines set by Yoga Alliance or a similar governing body.

A typical YTT curriculum includes yoga history and philosophy, anatomy, sequencing, and teaching techniques. The Animal Flow instructor training only features the components of the program.

Although previous experience is encouraged, many foundational yoga teacher training courses are open to new practitioners. Conversely, only fitness professionals can become certified Animal Flow instructors.

Certain certifications (such as Ashtanga, Iyengar, or Strala Yoga) are only issued by authorized yoga schools. Similarly, one can only become a certified Animal Flow instructor by completing one of their official workshops. 

Terminology aside, venues that offer Animal Flow classes recognize that it is a great tool that can be applied alongside yoga practice, which is why many yoga studios started to incorporate this discipline into their schedule.

yoga teacher adjusting a student

Benefits of Animal Flow

Like yoga, Animal Flow offers a range of scientifically-backed benefits that contribute to overall fitness, mobility, and well-being. Here are some of the main benefits of this practice:

1. Full-Body Workout

Animal Flow sessions are designed to engage multiple muscle groups throughout the body, providing a comprehensive workout for the entire body.

It’s a combination of strength training, cardio, and mobility work.

2. Functional Movement

The practice is purposefully constructed to mimic natural animal movement, promoting functional strength that translates to everyday activities. As such, Animal Flow is a great way to keep fit and cross-train for other sports.

3. Improved Mobility

In Animal Flow, there is a huge focus on transitions and flows that require the joints to move through their end-range motion. This results in improved mobility and joint strength.

man hanging off a tree branch

4. Balance and Coordination

This practice requires extensive mind-body coordination and challenges your balance as you transition between movements with virtual ease. Naturally, it’s a great way to enhance overall body awareness and proprioception.

5. Stress Relief

Like other forms of exercise, rhythmic movement practices like Animal Flow can release endorphins and relieve stress. The playful and creative nature of the practice also contributes to making the process fun and engaging, promoting relief from stress and anxiety. 

Furthermore, the practice encourages you to be present in the moment and can serve as a form of moving meditation.

Tips for Beginners

Ready to experience this unusual practice for yourself? Here’s what you need to know before you start:

  • Break it down. Focus on learning basic movements and flows before you tackle more complex sequences.
  • Pay close attention to your alignment and posture in each movement to execute it with proper form.
  • Listen to your body. If something feels uncomfortable or painful, adjust or skip the movement to avoid injury.
  • Keep yourself hydrated throughout your practice, especially if you’re sweating. 
  • Learning new movement patterns takes time. Be patient with yourself and celebrate small achievements along the way.

More of a visual learner? Here is an example of the Animal Flow beginner class, showcased by the creator of the program Mike Fitch:

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An avid yoga practitioner, Cat completed her training as a Hatha yoga teacher in 2016. She firmly believes that with the right guidance, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of age, gender, size, or ability. With a background in journalism, Cat realized she could share her yoga experience with others, kickstarting her freelance writing career.

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