Yoga: It’s not just for the ladies

by Jim Pennell

If you’re a man who finds himself in a yoga class, the first thing you might notice is there aren’t very many men in a yoga class. Accurate percentages are hard to determine, but the general consensus is that 75 to 80 percent of the 21 million people practicing yoga in the United States are women. This is an interesting development because yoga was started by men over 5000 years ago as an aid to meditation. The practice, created by spiritual men to enable them to sit comfortably for long periods of time, has now developed into movement classes of mostly women.

“Yoga” is a Sanskrit word that means union or connection, literally to yoke together. However, the practice of yoga is not easy to define. It seems to be easier to say what yoga is not rather than what it is. It’s not a religion, it’s not an exercise regimen, it’s not a dance and it’s not a martial art. It’s none of those things, but it is spiritual, it is movement, it is graceful and it has its share of warriors. The inability of yoga to be clearly defined has led to the many misconceptions and myths that surround it. For example, the poses alone will not cause weight loss, but they can make people more aware of their own bodies, which in turn can lead them to be more comfortable doing an exercise that can help people lose weight.

A core principle of yoga is “do no harm,” and true yoga participants (men are called yogis and women yoginis) learn to be more aware of everything, not just their own bodies, but the world around them, their place in it, and their influence on it.

One of the things you may become more aware of is your diet and choice of food, and while being a vegetarian is not a requirement to becoming a yogi or yogini, by being more in touch with your body, you learn what foods make you feel good and what makes you feel not so good.

The physical movement and poses that now define yoga are relatively new developments and have been around for a few hundred years. Yoga’s first appearance in the Western Hemisphere was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Virtually all of those early gurus were men. So, why aren’t more men doing yoga?

There is the physical side to it. A man’s body is different from a woman’s, and many yoga poses can initially be uncomfortable for a man. Yoga instructors should always offer modifications or options for a pose to accommodate the differences in people’s bodies and abilities, but sometimes female instructors may not be aware of what makes their male students uncomfortable.

Sometimes a change as simple as straightening a leg can ease discomfort and allow men to relax into the pose. But men are men after all, and asking for help isn’t something they’re particularly good at.

The fact that most of the women in the class, including the ones older than you, appear to be more flexible than you can also be intimidating.

However, there are some poses that a man’s body is more suited for than a woman’s. A woman’s hips may be more flexible than a man’s, but a man has the advantage in upper body strength and may be able to go deeper into and hold longer poses that use the arms.

It might be more the mental side of yoga that men are challenged by. In most yoga classes, quite a bit of time is spent thinking, or rather, not thinking. Centering and relaxation are the usual beginning and end to a yoga practice, and it is a time when you try to let your thoughts pass by undisturbed. Men are conditioned to think ahead and solve problems, which is good for the continuation of the species, but not so good for a yogi. It is not easy for any of us to let our thoughts pass by undisturbed, and for some men, it might be impossible.

It’s a well-worn cliché, but yoga is best defined as a journey, not a destination, and this may be the biggest challenge to a man. It may be a generalization, but men tend to be goal-oriented and respond best to a cause and effect situation. If you exercise with weights, for example, your muscles will get bigger.

Yoga is a process that offers an abundance of rewards, but few, if any of them are immediate and visible. You may become more flexible by practicing yoga, but along with the increase in flexibility is the increase in the awareness that it doesn’t matter how flexible you are or aren’t.

If you reach that difficult point where your thoughts aren’t being thought, you realize that it doesn’t matter what you are or aren’t thinking. You just are.

Men can be inherently competitive, and yoga could very well be the most uncompetitive thing you can do with other people. It will never be an Olympic sport.

There still are plenty of men doing yoga. After all, 25 percent of 21 million is 5 million, give or take a million or so, and that’s a lot of yogis. There are almost as many male yoga instructors as there are female, and some of the biggest names in yoga are men.

There are yoga classes for men only, a Yoga for Men Facebook page and, recently, a school of yoga has developed called “Broga,” which is yoga taught by men and for men only. It’s a good idea, and getting more men involved is a noble effort, but the name choice might turn some men off, and it seems like a room full of men being led in physical movement by a man can’t help but have a competitive edge.

If you are a man and you’re considering trying yoga, by all means do it. Find a class and a studio you feel comfortable in. Don’t pay attention to what it’s called or who else is in the class or what he or she is doing. Wear your favorite pair of sweatpants and a loose-fitting shirt.

Don’t worry if you can’t do a Full Lotus or can barely bring your feet together in Bound Angle; just do the best you can and never force yourself into the pain realm because you think you have to or you’re trying to keep up with someone. Keep your intentions simple and to yourself, and by all means, relax.

Let those thoughts of meetings and dinner and tomorrow’s schedule and oil changes and taxes and gray hair and thinning hair and that cavity and women and other men pass by undisturbed.

You will be just fine. You will just be.

Namaste.

 

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