Swanton farm begins first alpaca yoga session of the season

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    Yoga instructor Sheila Watson breaks into laughter during a selfie with an alpaca after leading a yoga class inside the barn at Sunny Meade Alpacas in Swanton, Ohio.

    The Blade/Lori King
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  • SWANTON — A small group of women packed into a chilly rural Swanton barn Saturday for a morning yoga session.

    It was a traditional yoga practice taught by Sheila Watson of Bee Free Yoga, with focus on continuous movement, stretching, and breathing.

    But there was an added piece of the relaxing practice: alpacas.

    Yoga with animals — such as goat or horse yoga — has become a popular option, so Julie and Bill Verhelst of Sunny Meade Alpacas, Ltd., Swanton, started the sessions last year alongside the docile alpaca.

    “I see a stressful world and as long as we can accommodate it, I figure, why not?” Mrs. Verhelst said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a visitor leave without a smile on their face.”

    It’s the fourth time the couple has hosted alpaca yoga on their farm, but Saturday was the first session of the season. Sheets and yoga mats covered the barn’s floor as the group moved through a variety of stretches and poses. 

    “I think it gives people an open mind of being outside and exercising in the environment, kind of getting themselves outside of their comfort zone,” Ms. Watson said.

    VIDEO: Yoga with alpacas in Swanton

    Since it was too brisk to practice yoga in the pasture among the alpacas, the group lined up inside a barn as the animals watched from their pens. The alpacas verbally communicated with a hum, showing their interest.

    One of the participants, Louann Cummings of Perrysburg, raved about the session. While she’s practiced yoga for many years, it was her first time participating next to an alpaca.

    “It doesn’t get better than this. You are one with the animals,” she said.

    RELATED: See more photos from Saturday’s yoga class with alpacas

    Mrs. Verhelst, a self-described animal lover, grew up raising horses and planned to have one on her Swanton farm.

    Nearly 20 years ago, she created a logo as a graphic designer for an alpaca farm in Whitehouse. A month later, she took home one of the farm’s baby alpacas, Amber, known as the “matriarch” of the farm, Mrs. Verhelst said. 

    “I figured I’d get an alpaca, start a business, and put a horse in the corner of the barn. Twenty years later, I don’t have a horse in the corner of the barn, I just have the alpacas,” she said.

    One alpaca turned into 30, with its newest edition, “Tut,” a six-month-old. 

    “You see people’s lives becoming ever-so cluttered and busy. I take for granted the peacefulness on the farm, but when people come out here, they remind me,” Mrs. Verhelst said. 

    Sunny Meade Alpacas farm also has a “Paca Pal” program, which includes a photo and bio of an alpaca, along with a quarterly newsletter. That program has extended globally, with pals from New York and the United Kingdom, the couple said. A family from Texas plans to visit the farm in a few weeks. 

    The farm has gained a lot of attention recently. 

    Following freezing temperatures, Mrs. Verhelst let the alpacas out to the pasture one day in January when the weather neared 50 degrees. She posted a video on social media of the alpacas flooding into the field. It went viral with more than 9 million views.

    “I may not be the wealthiest, but I’m certainly wealthy in spirit from sharing the alpacas,” Mrs. Verhelst said.

    An Alpaca Day Retreat will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 2. It includes a visit to the farm, alpaca yoga, a speaker, and a fiber art project, made from alpaca fiber. You can register on Facebook or via e-mail at sunnymeade@windstream.net

    Located on their private residence at 7700 Prov. Neap. Swan. Road, the couple hosts other events and also provides tours by appointment.

    Contact Allison Dunn at adunn@theblade.com, 419-724-6506 or on Twitter @AllisonDBlade.