It’s a sunny Saturday on Hux Family Farm in Durham, North Carolina. Dove, a snowy white baby goat, peers through a chain-link fence, while Junior, with his big belly and long beard, lounges near the back, waiting for yoga to start.
The goat yoga session is a fundraiser for the National Psoriasis Foundation and the brainchild of Julie Greenwood, who has lived with psoriatic arthritis for 3 decades.
Her daughter, Nora Yechou, 18, recently found out she also has the condition — making Greenwood’s fundraising mission even more personal.
“I worry so much about what happens to Nora in the future,” says Greenwood. “At 52, my life doesn’t look like I expected it to look. Fortunately, we’ve caught Nora’s early and have started her on medication.”
The gates open and Dove stumbles in, unsure where to go. Junior, who’s used to hanging out with humans, struts out and surveys the group. He makes a beeline to a sunny spot between someone’s legs, which just so happen to make a perfect headrest for the assertive goat.
Nuzzled under Junior’s chin, the participant can’t do any serious yoga, but that doesn’t matter.
Yoga is the pretense — snuggling with goats is the real reason everyone’s here.
“It’s so peaceful,” says Greenwood. “It’s just such a great way to be with nature — to see and pet the goats, to hear the geese and the horses. It’s so calming, even if I don’t feel up to doing much actual yoga.”
Soon, nearly all of the attendees are stretching over a goat, hands reaching to stroke a belly or back as Amanda Huxley, the farm manager and yoga instructor, explains the ground rules.
“Long hair needs to be in a ponytail. Any dangly jewelry needs to be removed. The goats will eat it, and we want to keep them safe,” she says.
“The goats will likely pee or poop on you during the session, so if you see that happening, feel free to move out of the way. It’s easy to brush off the pellets, but if you need help, raise your hand.”
Her warning doesn’t seem to faze anyone, though. People are just excited to be with the farm animals for a few hours — even if there’s a little poop involved.
“The amount of cuddles, love, and acceptance they feel balances out anything that might make those not used to it uncomfortable,” says Huxley.
Yechou’s experience with psoriatic arthritis shows why events like the goat yoga session are important in raising awareness for the condition.
She started noticing symptoms of psoriasis on her scalp when she was 15 years old. A year later, Yechou began having pain in her wrist and neck, but doctors were dismissive of her symptoms.
“The first doctor was focused on my sleep schedule and would say things like, ‘That’s a weird place to have psoriasis,’” says Yechou. “I was crying on the way out. She minimized everything. I was there because I was in pain.”
She was eventually referred to a pain clinic, where she was given medication to ease the discomfort but no diagnosis for the cause of the pain.
Yechou says there were some days when she felt the need to stop taking her medication to prove the pain was real.
“I did that and the back of my neck started swelling, and it felt like there was a knife in my neck,” she says. “[I realized that] this is real, this is valid, and I think my mom saw that, too. I was in bed all day. It was miserable.”
Greenwood was frustrated. An avid attendee of psoriatic arthritis conferences at the time, she talked about her daughter’s symptoms, pleading with specialists for answers.
“I knew we needed to get her on something, otherwise she was going to have permanent damage. I’ve had so many surgeries to repair damage, and I don’t want that for Nora,” says Greenwood.
They eventually found a dermatologist who figured out that Yechou had psoriatic arthritis.
But finding a treatment proved just as frustrating as getting a diagnosis. She had to try a few different options to find one that was both effective and covered by her health insurance.
Now, she has “pain day to day, but it’s never super bad, and it doesn’t last as long as it used to.”
“I still have inverse psoriasis, which hurts quite a bit, but I don’t have patches of visible psoriasis, which I’m very thankful about,” she says.
Greenwood is relieved that her daughter has found a treatment relatively quickly compared to what she went through.
“When I was first diagnosed, there were no biologic drugs. I was 23 years old, and the doctor gave me a narcotic pain killer and methotrexate. It scared me, and I refused to take them. I spent 10 years on things like ibuprofen or Celebrex.”
The lack of treatment left Greenwood, who recently underwent wrist fusion surgery, with permanent joint damage.
After a treatment she had used for many years stopped working, Greenwood is now back to the drawing board to find a new medication to manage a flare. She recently took a leave of absence from her job as an events planner at a large software company, and it’s taking a toll on her mental health.
“I’ve struggled with depression, more so since I’ve left work,” says Greenwood. “I think finding the right therapist is the biggest thing — letting people help, accepting help from people. My therapist says, ‘Say it out loud,’ and, for me, that has been a big piece of it.”
Another important piece? The goats at Hux Family Farm.
Today’s goat yoga session will bring in $1,000 for the National Psoriasis Foundation — an increase of $200 from the last event Greenwood hosted. That might not sound like a lot, but Kris Bockmier, the organization’s director of field operations, says that grassroots efforts make a huge difference.
“Our volunteers mean everything to us,” says Bockmier. “The DIY events our volunteers do for us are just as important as any of the other events we do. Can you imagine if we had a hundred volunteers do an event and raise money for us like Julie did?”
But for mother and daughter, it’s about more than the money: Goat yoga sparks joy, even on days when psoriatic arthritis makes joints painful and movement a challenge.
“I love that it’s not like, ‘Do the yoga!’” says Yechou. “It’s optional yoga — with goats — so you can do what you need to do, what feels good, what’s easy for you to do.”