Where are all the men in yoga?
The gender landscape of yoga has experienced a massive shift since its origin in India 5000 years ago. Traditionally practiced by men, its adoption in the western world in the last 80 years has been so embraced by women that men have become somewhat of a scarcity in a yoga class. Since I have been teaching I can count the number of men I have taught on one hand. This came as a surprise to me as there are incredibly powerful and inspiring male voices and teachers in the yoga world and I am privileged to be have been influenced by them in my own practice. So I ask the question – where did you all go (and are you coming back)?
There may be a combination of factors that put men off yoga:
1. Yoga is seen as a woman’s practice
I can imagine it must be very off-putting to bite the bullet, venture along to a yoga class only to find that you’re the only man there. Women’s dominance in the yoga setting may have become a barrier to entry for aspiring yogis (the correct term for male yoga practitioners). You’re already being pushed out of your comfort zone in the first place by coming to a yoga class and that’s made worse by feeling you’re an anomaly in the yoga world. The result is that men may come along to one class, get put off by being the only man and choose not to come back. But please come back, in fact bring your friends, yoga needs you! There is a vulnerability to practicing yoga but that should (and hopefully does) serve to create more welcoming environments for everyone. Yoga doesn’t care what gender you are. The only important thing is that you have taken a first step toward practicing.
2. Men aren’t as flexible as women
Yes, that’s a very broad brush statement, but its true. Women produce the hormone relaxin which is rather aptly named as it helps with their natural flexibility. While men produce relaxin it is secreted from the prostate gland and can be detected in the semen, but is not generally found in the blood circulation. But here’s the thing, men are naturally stronger than women. Yoga is a combination of strength and flexibility. So there’s lots of stretching to push flexibility but there are also lots of poses that require significant strength. Women have to work towards such poses over a period of time but they could come much more easily to a man. As an instructor, if I have male students in my class I make sure to incorporate arm balances and strength based poses because its important for EVERYONE in the class to have that “Eureka!” moment.
The quote I often hear is:
Saying you're not flexible enough to practice yoga is like saying you're too dirty to take a bath.
In no other form of exercise would you take your first class and expect to be a pro at the end of 90 minutes. Flexibility is something that is acquired over time. As yoga is composed of strength and flexibility, use the strength as your base and improve on your flexibility over time. Whatever happens you’ll vastly improve your range of motion and overall mobility. When you train tight muscle groups like the hamstrings, glutes, pecs and shoulders you’ll naturally increase your range of motion. If you don’t you’ll continue to train through a limited range of motion and leave yourself open to the risk of injury.
3. Yoga isn’t seen as enough of a workout
Actually this is an argument that I hear from both men and women alike. There is a belief that yoga is just passive stretching from one pose to the next, with a bit of breathing and mediation chucked in for good measure. Some classes are like that, but most aren’t. There are so many different types of yoga, taught by so many different types of teachers that no two classes are the same. Going to one yoga class that wasn’t a good fit for you is like trying on one pair of trousers and then swearing off trousers forever more because they felt uncomfortable. Just try on a different pair (please). If you want to feel pushed try Ashtanga yoga on for size. Or come to a vinyasa class and hold chaturanga (a low plank) for the eleventy billionth time (as a student of mine once put it). You may also find that you enjoy the softer pace of a gentle Hatha class or restorative yoga. Go out try them all and find the one that works for you.
Look beyond competitive sport
Perhaps there is something in our schooling that pre-programmes us to think that only competitive sport counts as a workout? I actually really enjoy the removal of competition from my practice. It’s a challenge sometimes to remember that I’m not competing with myself, my body was different yesterday and it will be different tomorrow, I can push myself but I have to leave my ego out of it or I can end up injuring myself. Yoga is a subtle alchemy of poses, breathing techniques and meditation that need to be treated with respect in order to get the most out of your yoga practice.
I’ll take another step and say that yoga is a wonderful compliment to other forms of exercise. By incorporating yoga into a rounded exercise regime you can actually encourage other forms of exercise to go deeper.
4. Men in yoga are under represented in mainstream media
Think of yoga and you might call to mind a lithe blonde white woman in yoga clothes bending her body into the unthinkable on Instagram. That’s wrong on so many levels. White women should not be the dominant face of yoga. Media marketing for yoga is failing and needs to undergo a massive overhaul. Men and women of all races need to be embraced in yoga advertising. White women account for an incredibly high percentage of yoga students and as such any marketing is geared at that very precise audience (to the exclusion of all others) albeit at the younger airbrushed version of that audience. The consequence is that when you only target a white female audience, you attract more white women to your classes and exclude anyone else, its self perpetuating. But Yoga is for EVERYONE! Actually, I’m going to say that again: YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE!
Looping back to Instagram for a moment I follow some fantastic male yogis who are nothing short of inspirational. Here are three to whet your appetite:
5. Yoga is a bit touchy feely
Yeah it is but not all the time. Overt spirituality can be a negative for both men and women. Lots of yoga studios have realised that the more spiritual aspects of yoga practice can be off putting to many people and so they down play that side. Some types of yoga practice are more spiritual, but if you know that’s not your thing you can avoid them. You can also go to lots of classes until you find a yoga teacher that gets the balance right for you. Personally, yoga philosophy and spirituality fascinate me but I aim to get the balance right for my students. An example of a great yoga franchise that teaches excellent classes with a down play on spirituality is Hot Pod Yoga. You can expect well taught classes with good music instructed in plain terms with no emphasis on Sanskrit pose name or spirituality.
But is touchy feely really a bad thing? As men and women we are actively encouraged to push quickly through negative emotion to get back to the good place of positive emotion. Its exhausting. Taking some time for personal reflection can be a welcome counter to the hectic pace of the rest of our lives. The meditative aspect of yoga combined with a physically testing practice can provide us with an outlet and an opportunity to explore emotion.
Bonus: Yoga Improves Sex! (or so they say)
This last point cropped up a few times when I was researching this article so I felt it would be remiss not to include it!
Studies show that men of all ages can enjoy the benefits of yoga when it comes to sexual function. This includes desire, erection, performance, confidence and orgasm.Yoga’s ability to keep you flexible and lower stress levels can lead to better sexual performance. It helps to regulate your blood flow, which can lead to increased pleasure in bed. So, yes, the more time you spend on the mat, the more quality time you'll spend in the sack!
It does stand to reason that as self confidence and endurance improve with yoga practice so would sexual confidence and performance… I’ll let you decide on that…
I recognise that my own experience of teaching male students is exactly that: my own experience and could be the result of factors that are only applicable to me, such as marketing style and message. If that’s the case, its certainly something that I want to remedy. My hope is to create welcoming yoga classes for everyone.
As yoga becomes less of a fringe activity and is folded into mainstream exercise my belief is that numbers of men in yoga classes will rise. Yoga is not a standalone practice to the exclusion of all others but can actually work fantastically as a maintenance aspect of an overall exercise regime, leaving you free to enjoy the things you love to the maximum.
My message to any man who is nervous about coming to a yoga class is this: Remember that there is safety in numbers, by which I mean, everyone in the room remembers their initial nervousness at trying something new, its only natural, but they all want you to be there whether they are a man or a woman. And if you still feel unsure, bring a friend!
For pointers on what to do for your first yoga class visit: FAQ