If these two concepts seem contradictory to you, let me give a brief history lesson. Yoga began as a way of finding the best posture in which to meditate, all of which were seated poses. This meditative way of life was practiced in India, at first primarily by the elite and only by men. Centuries of division, transformation, and various interpretations have brought this practice to us in the United States, where it is predominantly practiced for physical fitness, by middle to upper class white women. Even the revered Krishnamacharya refused to teach the practice to women until Indra Devi, a Russian noblewoman, insisted on learning the practice and after a number of years teaching in China, brought the practice to Hollywood, where she taught movie stars.
Today, however, the practice is widely known, but still not widely understood. For many men, especially in smaller cities like, Appleton, WI, there can be a lot of fear and apprehension about entering a yoga studio filled with mostly women. The ideal of men and women occupying the same workout space without feeling either emasculated or sexualized has not been fully realized by everyone and that’s okay. I’m not here to tell people how they should feel; I’m here to cue people safely through movement, allow them a space where they can feel fully accepted, open up hips to new ways of moving, and maybe open up minds to new ways of perceiving their own world and the world around them.
Most of my students are male, so from experience I know that men are open to the practice and looking to improve the quality of their life in the same way women are. Debates can be made as to differences in psyche between men and women, but ultimately all human beings want to live well, and for many of us male or female, living well doesn’t only include being financially secure, but it means having energy, exercising, eating healthier, getting rid of stress. The question is, how do we begin to open the door wider for men to feel comfortable practicing? I don’t have all the answers, but there are 3 things I have observed that get men to practice this ancient art.
1. A Familiar Face
One of my students, a Facebook friend and acquaintance who my husband and I knew through other friends, reached out to me because his “hamstrings are bullshit.” He knew the specific area that he wanted to improve in his body, and because he knew me and considered my husband and I good people, he decided to check out one of my classes. He’d mentioned that he was apprehensive about going into a class where he wouldn’t know anyone, afraid of being judged. In my experience, both men and women who hesitate to check out a live power yoga, vinyasa flow, restorative, hatha, or other yoga asana class do so because of a fear of how they might be perceived. But once the door is open, in this case, he saw someone he knew was teaching, those fears begin to fade. So, whether your a teacher or a student, keep the door open. If a male friend, co-worker, or spouse expresses interest in the practice, invite them to a class.
When I was in teacher training, I would practice cueing poses for my husband, Michael, whose hamstrings and flexibility in general were also bullshit, and though he’s still not as fond of the practice as he is of running, he came to my volunteer classes, and even to a few of the classes at the place I teach.
2. A Familiar Space
I teach at Flashback Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, LLC. While most yoga studios in the area are dominated by women, this is a space that, while greatly welcoming to women and men, is dominated by men. So, naturally, I have had students that come to my Vinyasa Flow class to increase their flexibility for this grappling sport. I once came to the facility, yoga mat and cucumber mint water in hand, and opened the door to men rolling on mats, moving their hips, adjusting their bodies onto their shoulders, shifting their body weight in order to block or fight. And after being very rough on their bodies, they just ended, and my immediate thought was, um, they should really stay for yoga. And since they were already there, they did. Yoga studios and Jiu-Jitsu facilities are typically open to both men and women, but depending on culture, geographical location, predominate ideas about sex and gender, there are reasons more women are practicing yoga and more men are fighting each other on mats. I am glad to provide such a peaceful practice in such a perceivably aggressive space. Strength, flexibility, calmness of mind, inspiration, peace are meant just as much for men as they are for women, and provide stellar recovery to the more aggressive work of jiu-jitsu.
3. Bullshit Hamstrings and… What Hips?
Men want to be healthy. They want to be strong, flexible, and to look good. We don’t see male body image issues represented nearly enough, but that is something that exists. Men care about their bodies and how they look. They care about tight hamstrings and hips. And while I never encourage vanity or ego as road to wellbeing, I do try to help men and women meet their goals while also emphasizing the importance of being okay exactly where they are at. Often in classes I will provide blocks for pose modifications, but in a class I taught recently, I said, “I want us to work just with the bodies we have.” I know we are moving through poses to get unstuck in body, mind, and spirt, but yogic philosophy tells us we have everything within us to arrive at oneness with the Self, so working with that attitude in mind, I cued these men from airplane pose (Eka Pada Dekasana) right into half-moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana), both challenging standing balance poses, the transition requiring strong abdominal engagement, an opening of the hips from closed toward the mat to opening out toward the side. A man’s hips are more narrow than a woman’s, but they do exist. In general, we don’t do a lot to open the hips. This posture transition brings greater awareness to what adjustments are needed to get the hips open and stacked in such a way that one finds balance. We all could use more body-awareness, but for the men in my class I focus on areas that are often neglected.
Man or woman, when a person finds good alignment and ease in a pose, it’s a beautiful thing. In my experience of observing male bodies versus female bodies, it seems to take a bit more for men to relax, especially in those more vulnerable postures like Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), but once cued to breath, to soften the face and jaw, to relax, the pressure is off. Sometimes I use a mantra I’ve heard other teachers say in class, there are no prizes. Once the pressure is off to have to perform in some way or impress someone, once men feel free to just be and exist as they are, the body relaxes, the hips release, and there is in the room a perceivable atmosphere of calm. It’s awesome.