Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Men and Yoga

[Image taken from here]

It appears that the familiar topic of men and yoga has reemerged recently in the blogosphere as a topic of discussion. Most of you are probably familiar with the usual questions surrounding this topic ("Why are there more women than men doing yoga?", "Why can't I get my husband/boyfriend/male friend to try yoga?", "Does yoga not appeal to men because men are generally less flexible, and do not want to look bad in front of women?", "Does yoga not appeal to men because it seems too new-agey and effeminate?", etc., etc.), so I won't belabor them here. But since I am actually a guy who does yoga, I'll say a few things here.

I'll start by sharing something I recently read. A few days ago, Greg Sarney published a very well-written and thoughtful article, "I'm a guy and I practise yoga", in a Canadian national paper, The Globe and Mail. In this article, Sarney honestly shares his experiences of his yoga journey. He writes about the skepticism he encounters from male friends and family members when he tries to share yoga with them. He relates that when he tried to explain yoga to his father, brother, and brother-in-law,

'I was met with expressions ranging from curious amusement to veiled cynicism. They couldn’t get their heads around the transcendent feeling I experienced in my shoulders during warrior 2 pose, or the expansive feeling in my hips during pigeon pose. I was even careful to avoid using terms such as “transcendent” and “expansive.”'

Sarney then sums up his perceptions of men's reactions to yoga:

"At the risk of generalizing, the guys I know play sports with sticks. The object is to win, then spring for the first round at the pub. Deep breathing? Balance? Meditation? These are flighty conceits with no application in the real world....

For the most part, women would smile knowingly when I spoke about the joys of yoga. The initiated would share their own experiences with Ashtanga or Hatha; non-practitioners would ask thoughtful questions.

Men would look at me as though I was trying to draft them into a bizarre cult."

Sarney's remarks are very insightful, and my own experiences of talking about yoga with guys largely agree with Sarney's observations. When I first started doing yoga in grad school, I tried to get a couple of guys whom I was hanging with regularly at the time to try it too. They had actually noticed that I looked leaner and slimmer, and seemed more energetic after just a few weeks of yoga practice. I remember thinking to myself: "If they can notice what yoga is doing to me, surely they would be willing to give it a try too? After all, who doesn't want to be (or at least look) leaner, slimmer and more energetic?" Over the course of a few weeks, I would invite them to go to yoga with me whenever I met them. They would chuckle and then politely decline, citing some excuse or other ("I can't even touch my toes!", "Oh, I am going to a basketball game tonight", "I've made plans to hang out with so-and-so"). It was only after a few weeks (yes, I'm that dense) that it suddenly occurred to me that they were really not interested in trying yoga. And as I became more and more involved in this yoga thing, I also started hanging out less and less with them. Although the last time I heard, they were both doing well. One of them started working at a locally-owned restaurant in the area, became a partner, and expanded the restaurant, opening a new location that serves lots of vegetarian options and ethnic flavors. Hmm... maybe the yoga did have some kind of effect on him, after all :-) 

But I digress. Over the years, I actually find myself trying less and less to get guys to do yoga. Quite honestly, I'm not sure I see the value in singling out guys as potential yogis just because there happen to be less guys than gals doing yoga in this country at this particular point in time (it's not as if we are into some kind of yoga affirmative action, or anything like that).

Which is not to say that I don't find this sex disparity in yoga interesting and intriguing; I do. And I really don't think that the "yoga is not physically as challenging" line really explains this disparity. Even with Ashtanga, which is a very physically challenging form of yoga, most Ashtanga classes I have been to have an approximately 70/30 female-to-male ratio (I've actually been to a number of mysore classes here in the midwest where the ratio is more like 80/20; it's not surprising for me to look around in the middle of my practice and find that I am the only guy in the room). And yes, I do know that the sex ratio is quite a bit more balanced on the east coast; a couple of years ago, I practiced at Eddie Stern's shala in NYC, and noticed that there was a roughly equal number of men and women in the shala during morning mysore. But I'm not sure if what we see in a few studios on the east coast is representative of the male-female ratio in yoga studios across the country in general (my feeling is that it's not).     

But back to what I was saying. So over the years, I have found myself trying less and less to get guys to do yoga. Besides the fact that I see little value in singling guys out for yoga-recruitment, I have also discovered that the usual strategies for reaching out to guys about yoga are either not very effective, or not very satisfying. Here are a few common strategies that I have noticed over the years:

(1) Talk to guys about the spiritual benefits of yoga from the get-go: Most yogis who have tried this strategy will tell you that this is a non-starter. Mention words like "being mindful/meditative", "breathe", "being present", "transcending this or that", 'being non-judgmental" (the list goes on) to the average guy, and you will get reactions ranging from polite amusement (the smile that seems just a bit too fixed and static) to thinly-veiled skepticism (picture Han Solo's reaction to the young Luke Skywalker's first experiments with the Force aboard the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: A New Hope; oops, I forgot that not everybody is a Star Wars geek. Never mind; forget I said this :-)).

(2) Get them to see how yoga can make them stronger/improve their performance in their sport of choice: This seems a more promising approach. Which guy wouldn't want to be better at their sport? Sarney actually tried this:

"I tried a different approach. “Side twists increase mobility and flexibility in the spine, which can mean a bigger backswing and a longer drive,” I said. “And deep breathing can intensify your focus, which can improve your putting.” The glaze disappeared from their eyes.

“You know, I’ve heard that somewhere,” my brother offered. He has a seven handicap, which for him is seven strokes too many. “It makes a lot of sense.” And with that, the conversation moved on to the impending playoffs.

This counted as a big victory in my attempts to introduce yoga to the men in my life."

While this approach is more promising than (1), I have my reservations about it. First, although most guys will probably be impressed by the sports-performance-enhancing potentialities of yoga, it seems quite unlikely to me that they will forgo other things in their daily life just to make time for a yoga class in order to improve their back swing or putting. In other words, while improving putting or backswing is a great thing, I suspect that most guys will not think it a big enough pay-off to justify enduring a yoga class (and possibly being humiliated or looking bad in front of women). Moreover, I feel that trying to sell yoga to somebody by touting its sport-performance-enhancing effects is a bit like trying to get somebody to go to the gym by telling him that it will enable him to carry big bags of groceries more easily and effortlessly; it kind of misses the bigger point of doing yoga. But maybe this is the yoga purist in me speaking. Never mind.

(3) Sex sells ("You will need a tall dark stranger/a hot chick in yoga class"): This is probably the most promising approach by far; all other things being equal, this approach probably has the best chance of getting a guy's foot into the yoga door, so to speak. I am speaking from experience here: This was more or less my initial reason for trying a yoga class :-) (see this post).

But if you have been following discussions in the yoga blogosphere for even a short while, you will know that this approach draws mixed reactions from yogis. Some yogis are quite favorably inclined towards this approach. They believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with using sex to sell yoga: "If it gets somebody to give the practice a shot, why not? Once they step into a class, either the intensity of the practice will turn them towards the yoga journey itself, or they will see that this yoga thing is really not about meeting hot chicks, and they will either get their minds straight, or they will stop coming. Besides, sex is already being used to sell everything from washing machines to beer, and nobody in their right minds would think of making love to a washing machine; so why not yoga?"

Other yogis, however, see using sex to sell yoga to be highly problematic. After all, one of the yamas or ethical observances of yoga is Brahmacharya (variously translated as either "celibacy" or "judicious use of sexual energy"); using sex to get people into the yoga door seems to be starting them out on a wrong footing, paving the way for many problems to come. The most dramatic (although fictional) personification of this approach gone wrong is the case of Ogden from The Inappropriate Yoga Guy. Most of you probably are already familiar with him, but in case you aren't, here's the infamous video chronicling his, uh, exploits:

 Actually, Ogden's story is not entirely fictional. At this studio I used to teach at in Florida, there was an Ogden-type character (I'll spare you the details); I also suspect that quite a few people out there have also encountered Ogden-type characters.

So, to sum up: because of the less-than-satisfactory results I have been getting with the above three approaches, I have, in recent years, stopped actively trying to get guys to do yoga. If you have any thoughts about these three approaches, or if you have your own views, perspectives and/or stories to share, I'll love to hear them.

In other news: I am still working on Part II of my hip-opening series. It's taking a bit longer, but it's coming. It's just that the rigors of my July 4th weekend travels have kind of messed with my blogging grove, and I am still trying to recover my rhythm. In addition, Kino has also just started her own Youtube channel, with videos on how to work towards and get into specific postures, including Mari D. I highly recommend these videos; they are, as usual, very good. But it's kind of hard for me to top that, don't you think? :-)


  1. hehe, that is a funny post, Nobel - i giggled all the way through hehe ;-) ivana
    p.s. i am looking forward to the part II of your hip-opening series. i am sure it will be as good as the first one

  2. there are more women here who do yoga too. pity tho - i think guys would take to ashtanga v well if they gave it a chance - guys are naturally strong and it's a perfect fit!

  3. Thanks Ivana :-) I'm glad this post entertains you. Yes, part II of the hip-opening series is coming...

    Yes, yoginicory, I also agree that Ashtanga would be a good fit for guys (especially all the vinyasas). And although I have never practiced in Singers, I do get the sense that it is mostly women who do yoga there.

  4. i actually think that men doing yoga look quite hot, if you know what i mean ;-)

  5. I have seen people use approach #1 a lot, and they are pretty much always women. That approach wouldn't get me to practice yoga, and I'm a totally dedicated practitioner! Sorry, but it's just not going to work on guys, unless they are into spiritualism and such--and most guys are not.

    My sense is that most guys who've tried a (non-Ashtanga) yoga a class have been turned off yoga because a) the class was too Iyengar/gentle, and they thus think that all yoga is gentle or b) the (probably female) teacher used words like "mindful" and "present" and gave instructions referring to "the earth", "breathing into the kidneys/liver", "flowering", and "heart opening". This is all yoga lingo, and it's not beginner-friendly. We need to use more straightforward language with beginners, or we will continue to turn people off from the get-go.

    As for Ashtanga, I think a lot of beginners get turned off because of teachers talking too much about the purported (intangible) benefits of the practice. For example, teachers talk about cleansing the body of toxins, but this sounds to an outsider like "yoga talk". Toxins are not expelled via the sweat, and most people know this or are skeptical (that is not to say that this is wrong, but that it's too complicated to simplify like this--a topic for another dicussion).

    Personally, I think we should focus on the intense physical nature of the practice--requiring the development of strength, flexibility, and stamina, whatever your starting point in each area--and the intense concentration that it requires (so, physical, plus maybe some mental benefits). Some people may get emotional benefits as well, but whether, when, and where in the life of your practice they will occur varies wildly. If someone comes looking for that, fine. But we shouldn't trumpet those benefits (nor anything spiritual) to the average male that walks into the shala.

  6. Yes, I know what you mean :-) Hmm... now I wish somebody would take pictures of me practicing so I can post them here :-)

  7. Interesting, Frank. I think your observation that in Ashtanga, "a lot of beginners get turned off because of teachers talking too much about the purported (intangible) benefits of the practice" is very insightful. I remember when I first started going to vinyasa/flow classes, many teachers (who are probably Ashtanga-trained/inspired) would talk a lot about engaging mula bandha without really explaining what it was. For the longest time, my mind would just "switch off" whenever I heard the word "mula bandha" in class. It took me a very long time before I gathered enough discipline and interest to go research what this whole mula bandha business was about. And I suspect that many other people probably have similar experiences with Sanskrit terms that just go over their heads.

  8. I'd like to disagree a little here. Plenty of men consider themselves spiritual, or have an interest in spiritual and/or religious practices. So, while talking about that aspect might turn off some guys, it might not turn off others. Perhaps the languaging needs to be different, and yes, too much talk about emotional benefits might not capture the average dude.

    But I think there's already enough gym rat types focusing solely on the physical aspects of yoga - and yet there's still this gender disparity. In fact, most people, when they hear I'm doing a teacher training, think I'm trying to become an exercise instructor - which is totally not my goal. So, I'm not sure why continuing to strip away the spiritual or even ethical elements of yoga and focusing on the physical will somehow bring more men into the fold.

    I definitely agree about the Sanskrit issues. It would be helpful for teachers to have easy to understand translations of terms, or be able to show and demonstrate what they are talking about if they use just the Sanskrit.

  9. Several times now we've offered a weekly "Yoga for Men" series (for 6 or 8 weeks), which has been very well received. The athletic club I teach at has a variety of weekly yoga classes that are predominantly attended by women. When we create a male-friendly environment (including a male teacher), though, guys show up.

    I believe many men are curious to try yoga, but don't know where to start. My observation is that a lot of guys are inflexible, injured, out of shape, suffering neck/back pain, stressed out, or whatever, and are desperate for some relief. Even if they're open to yoga, though, it can be very intimidating to step into a class of flexible, experienced yoginis.

    In my experience, I was never concerned about being surrounded by women in class. I also learned a ton from female teachers all along the way. However, the one guy teacher I had early in my practice made it "OK" to practice yoga as a guy myself. It's hard to put in words, but having him as a role model was critical to establishing my practice at the beginning. It was little stuff that made for shared experience. We both work full-time, have kids, etc. So not only was I able to relate to him and establish a deeper relationship, but through his example I could see how a yoga practice would fit in with all my other life stuff.

    Like you, I don't actively recruit men to try yoga. However, I do think there's a need out there and I try my best to address it. :)

  10. Yoga is good for health in case of both women and men.It gives lot of relaxation to our mind.A healthy brain in a healthy body is possible only with yoga.

  11. Thanks for your perspective, Nathan. Now I'm wondering if perhaps guys are generally spiritual in slightly different ways than women? Perhaps they tend to be more interested in spirituality as it relates to certain particular aspects of life rather than others? I'm not sure; I'm just speculating.

    Interesting, Mike. I like your story about your teacher being a role model. I think that may be a big part of the equation too; perhaps there are not many guys out there who practice yoga and make it a part of their life. As a result, it becomes harder for the average guy to see how yoga can become integrated with all the other aspects of their life. In this respect, the work you are doing as a yoga teacher is very important :-)

  12. Men doing yoga gross me out... Too much of a wuss. I guess if confronted on the dark street, they'll do a yoga pose in hopes attackers leave them alone cause they don't fight wimps--they can't protect their girlfriend either. For christ's talke, take up gymnastics--rings, etc, you'll need both strength and flexibility, not the wussy yoga.