A full two thirds of my students are men, which is counterintuitive in a discipline dominated by women. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, when I designed the original set of Yoga 15 videos, my then boyfriend, a keen mountain biker, was my test subject for each and every sequence. And secondly, because I had my first success with an article I wrote for Pink Bike—a primarily male community and website. Subsequent projects with The Sufferfest, Crankworx, The Inertia, Roman Fitness Systems, RSNG and others followed on from there.
A third reason might be that I don’t really enjoy yoga classes as they are commonly taught. I like a bit of spirituality but not too much, I appreciate the benefits of constant variety which is difficult to achieve for a class teacher, I’m much more interested in the fundamentals than I am in the fancy stuff, I like my sessions to be the most efficient and effective use of my time possible and I value teachers with over a decade of experience. I therefore feel a kinship with anyone marginalised by the current yoga scene.
To address the elephant in the room, clearly I don’t look like many of the men who practice my videos. I am, for the most part, smaller and more flexible. And that’s ok. Yoga isn’t about imitating shapes. It’s about understanding the objectives of each pose and finding a way to achieve those objectives in your body.
THE BENEFITS OF YOGA FOR MEN
I couldn’t be happier with the popularity of my videos with men. There is nothing more rewarding than bringing yoga to a population that can benefit from it so profoundly and for whom it is not as accessible as we would hope. Regular students quickly report experiencing relief from debilitating pain, reduced overall tension, greater kinaesthetic awareness, improved suppleness and agility, more energy, better breath control, improved posture, fewer injuries and radical improvements in their athletic performance. They also find that they naturally start to make healthier life choices and look after themselves better.
Yoga allows you to do the things that you love, more efficiently and for longer. Whatever sport you play, whichever activities you enjoy, yoga gives you the energy, mental balance and freedom from tension that allows you to pursue those passions with everything you’ve got. You learn more about your body, start to understand how to give it what it needs and to treat it the best way you know how.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MALE AND FEMALE YOGA STUDENTS
There are not all that many differences between the way men and women practice yoga from the point of view of poses and sequencing but there are some distinctions that can make a home practice a good choice for men. In fact, many of the points I make in this article apply equally to men as to women but due to societal considerations, these reasons don’t typically preclude women from finding a yoga class that they enjoy, whereas men may find this more challenging.
For the most part, the mats that are available in gyms and studios are regular-sized which I hear for some men can be like wearing shoes that are a size too small. This can be an additional problem if the studio is packed and space is in short supply. Manduka does a great XL mat for home use and a lighter one for travel. They’re not cheap but they are really nicely made and last a lifetime.
Everybody gets tight. You can get tight from practicing lots of sport but also from exercising too little. Yoga is fantastic for remedying both these causes of tension. If you’re tight from over-activity, the flexibility poses can help to release tension and if you’re tight from a too-sedentary lifestyle, the bodyweight strength movements will balance you out.
Both men and women get tight in the hips, men maybe more so in the hamstrings and shoulders. The primary difference is that women have more tools to release tension so the build up may not be as intense. Women typically feel more comfortable dropping into yoga classes and sifting through the abundance of free content that is available online.
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
In my experience, it isn’t that men don’t want to do yoga or that they aren’t aware of its profound benefits. It’s more that they don’t know where to start. In the same way as I have absolutely zero way of navigating a motorcycle garage or the drill aisle in a hardware store, it’s almost impossible to find what you’re looking for if you don’t know what you’re looking for. In places like California, where men are more confident of the classes, teachers and styles that they enjoy, you see much more of an equal split between male and female students. And since almost every professional male athlete, in sports ranging from golf to basketball and rugby to UFC, regularly practices yoga, we know that men who have access to the knowledge, are fully signed up.
In the Yoga 15 videos, I find that using the English names for poses can minimise this problem. Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe pose is a lot more comprehensible than Sanskrit terms like setu bandha sarvangasana (Bridge) or urdhva dhanurasana chakrasana (Wheel), which can be weird and alienating. And explaining that a posture stretches your chest and puts your spine into extension might make more sense to a new student than describing a pose as heart-opening or detailing the colour of the energy centre it activates. I also find it useful to tell students why we are doing a pose and how it might apply to their specific sport or activity.
Men don’t like to look bad at something, especially in a public setting. But who does? You should see me in a Zumba class. I just don’t have the moves. I feel horribly self-conscious and after 20 minutes, I run straight to the treadmill where I am master of my domain. Not being good at something is frustrating and unpleasant. I have even heard of students feeling criticised by the teacher for not being able to do poses because of limited mobility. And very full classes can be especially intimidating if you’re new to the practice.
With online yoga, male students can practice the moves at home without an audience before unleashing themselves on a class of slim, bendy women who look like they were born to fold themselves into seemingly impossible shapes. You can move at your own pace, ask questions and check pose tutorials as you go.
LACK OF STRUCTURE
When I first started practicing yoga, this is the aspect that frustrated me the most. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual discipline, I was looking for a physical practice to complement the sports that I was passionate about. I found the lack of consistency frustrating. Sometimes a class would hit the spot, and other times, I would be 45 minutes in, my chakras would be aligned but I still had none of the physical benefits that I’d been promised.
In the Yoga 15 videos, I aim to clarify what the objective is before we start. Today, we’re stretching the calves and hamstrings, or working on advanced balance. This sequence is great after a workout and this breathing practice can help you to feel focused when your attention is scattered. I think this is one of the reasons that my vids are popular with men who share my passion for structure, progression and clarity.
The right approach to take in yoga can be a bit of a mind and body-shift for men (and equally to competitive women). If you attack a pose, or try to muscle your way into it, you’re likely to find it incredibly frustrating. When I was training footballer, Patrice Evra, he told me, “I want to beat you at yoga”. We were on day two. And although Patrice was a very talented yogi for a rookie, I did have 10 years on him. Mens’ sports are typically fairly aggressive and in life, they are less socialised in the art of yielding. You have to let go in yoga, trust the process and allow your body’s wisdom to take over from the analytical part of your mind.
One of the greatest aspects of yoga is that there’s a modification for every pose. If your wrist is injured, you can come down onto your forearms, you can use blocks to bring the ground closer up to you if your calves and hamstrings are tight, and you can prop yourself up with bolsters or cushions in passive stretches in which your muscles stubbornly refuse to let go. As the pace of yoga is slow, you have the opportunity to practice in the way that is best for you, today. In a way that aligns with how your body is feeling.
THE DESIRE FOR A CHALLENGE
Almost all men I speak to say they love to be challenged in yoga. Whether that is trying new, difficult poses, trying to stay focused on the breathing throughout the class, putting yourself into uncomfortable stretches that give you the release you need or dropping the impulse to be competitive. There are limitless ways to push yourself to try new things and then practice and refine them until you attain mastery. It’s not that women don’t love a challenge in yoga but it seems more often to be a deal breaker for men. And for all of us, an immediate feedback loop that demonstrates clear, upward growth can be addictive and endlessly motivating.
For some reason I think this puts off more men than women but it sure can trigger me too. I think that women who are more familiar to yoga might just be more immune to it. I’m personally very interested in the spirituality, philosophy and history of yoga but it’s rare to find a teacher who aligns perfectly with our idiosyncratic beliefs and perspectives. I generally find I learn the most about this dimension of the practice from books and in workshops. A class in a studio or gym is unlikely to hit that precise nexus and I find that can be incredibly off-putting.
This is why I make no mention of spirituality in my videos and write about the themes that interest me in my articles and online courses where you can always skip them if they don’t resonate with you. I don’t believe you need incense, sitar music and chanting in yoga. You just need a straight forward practice that will physically challenge you and help you to feel more at ease in your body.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOGA FOR MEN
I see Yoga 15 as a gateway drug. Hopefully, my male students are emboldened by practicing alone at home to step into studios that might not have previously felt welcoming. They know what to ask questions about, are happy to roll out their mat at the front of the class and are undaunted by the very real possibility of face-planting in Crow pose.
Please let me know how you as men have found your entry into yoga and for my female students, how many of these “masculine” notions resonate with you.