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 idea 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.
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 you’re 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.
2. A Welcoming Space
Guiding yoga at Alternatives Holistic Health and Wellness Center in Appleton, WI has been on of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my 4+ years of teaching. The space houses several offices for practitioners of various health and wellness practices, including massage, chiropractic, esthetics, physical therapy, Feng Shui, reiki, and mental health services. Whether it’s the decor, the calming sound of fountains, the soft music playing as you enter, or simply the healing energy from a building filled with professional wellness providers who have a genuine care and desire to help others, the space is welcoming to all.
Another space in which I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of teaching is Brillion Community Center. And while that gig is on pause for the moment, I’d started seeing a greater diversity of students. Typically, the people who come to my classes are middle-aged to older women, however in 2019, a couple of older men started coming to class, one 80-something year old prompted by his children as a way to help keep him active and work out muscle tension. Brillion is a very small town in Wisconsin with limited resources for yoga or other wellness practices that might seem to some more fringe, so being able to offer this healing practice and see both men and women open to moving in and through poses that can be both challenging and vulnerable.
Ultimately my teaching style creates an atmosphere that allows all ages, genders, body types, etc… to feel comfortable. I use some Sanskrit (an ancient language of India, used mostly in Hindu texts, and in yoga often used to describe poses) as an homage to the origins of the practice, but do limit it for the greater comprehension and comfort of my students. Most people in yoga class aren’t there for a history lesson or to learn a new language, but to learn how to increase strength, range of motion, balance, and relieve stress through physical movement. I often provide props to help students find success in poses wherever they are at. Men tend to have more tension through hamstrings and hips, and so providing a blanket or block to sit on in seated forward folds can allow for more support, and with that support, freedom to move. People across genders come to my yoga classes because they know they will be supported and welcomed. I’m not going to tell you to check your ego at the door (I don’t always do that myself), and I’m not going to ask that you be something you’re not. I’m here to guide your practice wherever you’re at in life, whatever you’re dealing with, whoever you are. All you have to do is show up and move.
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. 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, so when I sequence I make an effort to guide a slow transition from closed hip position, such as high crescent lunge (hips are square to the front of the room and the legs are in a lunge position, one leg extending back, ball of the foot to the ground, heel lifted, the other leg forward with knee bending above the ankle, foot fully anchored to the ground) to open hip position, such as warrior 2 (where the back heel plants to the ground, foot about 90 degrees (this may vary depending on one’s personal range of motion at the hip), hip of the back leg rotates open, stacking over the hip of the front leg, while front leg remains in the lunge position). This posture transition brings greater awareness to what adjustments are needed to get the hips open and stacked. Moving from a position that we’re more familiar with to a position that is not as familiar, and often more challenging, allows for ease of transition. Yoga is not about powering through or to a pose, but creating space in the body to bring openness, strength, and balance over time.
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, a supine position where the soles of the feet are together and the knees butterfly out), 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.