Friday, March 4, 2011

Some ruminations on the pelvis, men, martial arts and yoga practice

Recently, Brooks has published a series of interesting posts on her mulabloga blog about the pelvis and its place and function in our physiological and psychological makeup. In particular, in her latest post, she offers some useful insights, which I would like to share here.

First, a little background. Evolutionarily speaking, we were once quadrupeds. At some point, Eric Franklin observes in his book Pelvic Power, "our legs were stretched horizontally backward and then rotated by 90 degrees", which resulted in our present upright bipedal posture and gait. For females, Brooks remarks, this evolution from being four-footed to standing means that "[w]hat was once revealed in the back—female sex organs—is hidden underneath now that we stand", and that "[a]s women stood to reveal our hearts, our genitals may have retreated in fear toward a place tucked away between the legs."

Men, of course, are not spared drastic changes either :-) Brooks also remarks that "as men stand might they be called—just by this evolved physiology of their genitals moved to the front—to bring consciousness and care to their sexuality." This might mean, among other things, that "men might actually be more vulnerable", presumably because our (remember, I'm a guy!) genitalia are now moved to the front of our bodies and are thus more vulnerable to attack. As a commenter on Book's post suggests, this might also cause men to overcompensate in other ways (probably by being more aggressive and assertive).

Brooks ends her post with an interesting thought:

"Total opinion here, but I wonder if as women reveal our hearts, are we not being called to educate men about our sexuality (if we choose to be with a man). The slightly hidden location of our sex organs could just be saying, “Enter with caution.”
This is a sacred space."

Being the yogic prude that I am :-), I don't have too much to say about Brook's opinion about women being called to educate men about their sexuality (although I have independently verifiable reasons to think this is probably true); still less am I going to say anything about entering with caution :-)

But I want to say a few things about what evolution has done to the male body, especially with regard to the position of the genitalia. Speaking from my own experience of my own body, this inconvenient position of the genitalia definitely makes us (as in the royal, male "us") inconveniently vulnerable. Many martial arts (which were originally created by men) are designed to (over)compensate for this structural weakness in the male anatomy. When I studied Tae-Kwon-Do, I noticed that most of the stances are designed to minimize the opponent's access to the groin area. In many stances, the legs are positioned in such a way as to at least partially block or obstruct possible attacks to that area, and defensive movements such as blocks and parries are designed to enable the practitioner to quickly guard the groin area should the necessity arise. And yes, despite all these measures (and despite the official ban on below-the-belt hits in practice and competition), I have experienced hits to the groin area. They are... very unpleasant (to say the least).

Actually, even if you have never studied martial arts, you probably have a good sense of what I'm talking about if you have attended self-defense classes. I understand that in such classes, one of the favored points to attack on the assailant's body is the groin area (why doesn't that surprise me? :-)).

What has any of this to do with yoga? Well, here's one: Given my martial arts background, yoga practice represented a very big paradigm shift from what I was used to getting my body (and mind) to do my entire life. From a martial arts point of view, even the most basic standing postures such as samasthihii or tadasana represent an unacceptable exposure of male weakness. Not to mention wide-legged forward bends such as the prasaritas: I'm quite sure that the first few times I did the prasaritas, I kept picturing in my mind an imaginary attacker coming up to me, and kicking me where it hurts the most. And of course, from the martial arts point of view, backbends are absolutely sacrilegious, since one is practically offering one's entire front body (not to mention the genitalia) to the opponent! Hmm... I wonder if that's why there's this general perception that women are "better" at backbends than men?

Fortunately, aside from imagining these imaginary attackers, I have never had any intense emotional or psychological reactions from switching from the "protect the front-body" paradigm of the martial arts to the "open everything there is to open in the front body" paradigm of yoga practice. And ultimately, since the mind and body are but different layers of the same being, one cannot open the body without also opening the mind on some level. So I like to think that in this way, my yoga practice (especially the backbends) has led me to cultivate a more open, embracing mind and spirit. But conversely, I also wonder if it is this prospect of having to open the front body that keeps many men away from yoga; that the motivating force behind the usual excuses such as "I am not flexible" or "I prefer football/basketball" is really a certain fear of having to open one's body (and mind) up to the unknown?

Just wondering. 


  1. Thank you, Nobel! I feel rich with increased understanding! Hearing (reading) about the "imaginary attackers" in vulnerable-feeling yoga poses makes sense. It is so courageous for men to do yoga—and so helpful, I believe.

  2. Thanks Brooks! I think yoga definitely challenges everybody's comfort zones, but it definitely challenges mine (and, I suspect, many other guys') in a very powerful and unique way.

  3. By hanging out with my not very PC male colleagues I have learned that men can be a lot more self-insecure than women in many ways. I get the feeling that if achieving enlightenment demands chauvinistic guys to place themselves into compromising yoga positions, they would rather choose to stay miserable for the rest of their lives. There's always alcohol to drown out the sorrows right?

    I've had my fair share of accidentally hitting men's "sensitive spot" in my martial arts practice. I can say it's more effective than all the fancy joint-lock/self defense techniques that I've learned applied to any other body parts.

  4. @Yyogini, "if achieving enlightenment demands chauvinistic guys to place themselves into compromising yoga positions, they would rather choose to stay miserable for the rest of their lives."

    Unfortunately, I think you are very right here.

    And yes, the simplest things in life are often the most effective and powerful. I guess this applies to hitting men where it hurts as well :-)