I wrote this ‘article’ almost exactly 2 years ago. I had fanciful aspirations of getting it published in something like ‘Men’s Health Magazine’ but realised after contacting them that that wasn’t going to happen. I have sat on it since and would most likely continue to do so, had it not dawned on me that in a couple more years it will become irrelevant, due to the fact the landscape is changing – directly in line with the salient point of the piece. I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean once you read it, but in a nutshell: In the relatively short time since writing it, the number of men attending my classes has doubled. I suppose I should feel vindicated.
“My mum does yoga”.
I wish I’d been given a pound every time I’ve heard a man say that.
It always goes like this:
Bloke: “so what is it you do then?”
Me: “I teach yoga”
Bloke: “Yoga! Really?…My mum does yoga” or sometimes it’s “Gran”, occasionally it’s
“girlfriend”, but it’s never “my dad”, or “my big brother”, or indeed any male figure what-soever.
What’s that all about? Seriously, I’ve been teaching yoga for over 15 years and it’s
always been the same.
Until recently that is, because something interesting seems to be happening finally.
I’ve noticed a change over the last year or two, and more so in recent months, and it’s the
increased number of men showing up in my classes, and I don’t believe it has anything to
do with the number of nubile women in tight clothing.
It seems that some kind of critical mass has finally been reached, and that the very
real and practical benefits of this ancient system has finally lodged into the popular psyche
of the average bloke. The sort of guy who only a short number of years ago, wouldn’t have
stepped foot in their local gym’s ‘holistic studio’, let alone have walked into a dedicated
yoga centre of their own free will.
So what changed? Well the media portrayal has changed, certainly. I quite regularly
come across articles that speak of the health benefits of a regular practice. Such benefits
have always been clearly stated in yoga texts (some of which sound impossibly optimistic
and overstated to the ears of the novice) but there have been recent studies in the West
vindicating it’s positive effects on physical wellbeing, stating for instance, that: ‘Yoga may
work better for lower back pain than conventional treatments’*1 . US Marines are using it
to reduce the risk of injury, maintain mental calm under fire, and to cope with the
psychological fallout following trauma in the field: ‘Om in the army: the US military gets
yoga’*2 . And of course everyone knows now that many high profile Premiership
footballers are attributing their reduced number of injuries and lengthened careers to a
regular yoga practice, Ryan Giggs being a case in point: ‘Ryan Giggs: Yoga is key to
prolonging my Manchester United career’*3. I think we can certainly attribute at least some
of yoga’s surge in popularity with men to news articles like the ones above. Once high
profile male sportsmen, and football players at that, began singing it’s praises, it took it’s
first step into the realm of male acceptability. Suddenly it wasn’t a suspect thing for a real
bloke to do anymore, footballers were doing it, Goddammit!
Now it appears men from all sporting backgrounds are using it to compliment their
chosen sport. Amongst my private students alone there are hardcore cyclists and runners,
plus a 3 x New Zealand Ironman finisher. Who knows how many other sportspeople line
up in my open classes, as I only really speak with the ones who come with knee, hip and
back problems (as they need to notify me before starting the class). And in case you’re
wondering, the yoga practice always helps to some degree.
In truth, this probably accounts for most of the new uptake: using yoga to stretch out
the tensions caused by more traditional sports and exercise regimes, and coping with
injuries incurred whilst partaking in them. Add to this all those (and there are many) men
suffering with undiagnosed, chronic back ache who are pointed in the direction of the local
yoga class by their GP or osteopath, and we must have 90% of UK men signing up for
beginners courses. And the rest? Well, there’s got to be some guys out there interested in
spiritual enlightenment. Hasn’t there?
You know what’s funny though? It’s that I should even be writing this article. The fact
of the matter is: traditionally yoga was predominantly practised by men anyway! Indeed it
was seen as quite progressive when Sri. T. Krishnamacharya (the granddad of our main
contemporary systems) saw fit to teach women.
It is sheer speculation to say why yoga was adopted by the fairer sex in this country
first. Perhaps it’s simply because yoga is wrongly perceived as an ‘exercise’ that requires
an existing level of flexibility in the first place. ‘Flexibility challenged’ people might see the
front cover of yoga magazines and think ‘how nice it would be to have a body like that’, but
can’t put themselves in the picture. Hmmm, but then why has there always been a steady
influx of not-so-flexible women in regular yoga classes?
Well maybe it’s because there isn’t any perceived achievement per se. You can’t
‘win’ at yoga. Could this make it less appealing to men? Yoga classes are challenging
though, albeit a personal one which shouldn’t have anything to do with your classmates.
This is a crucial point to understand otherwise you risk putting yourself under pressure to
‘compete’. Let me tell you guys, you are not going to ‘beat’ the girls on this one, so relax,
breathe, and just enjoy the way your body feels after an hour of quality ‘stretching’. You
won’t need anymore reward than that.
However…if you are of the ‘Men’s Health Magazine’ reading faction, and quite keen to
use yoga to help keep you toned and in shape, you will be happy to know that there are
yoga styles out there that will certainly help you with this, just remember not to go into a
class with the same mindset as you do your gym workout and push too hard. Ease
yourself in gently and allow time for the benefits to accrue.
On this point, there are many articles online detailing ‘yoga workouts’ for anything
from getting back into shape after childbirth, to using ‘yoga for explosive power’, and a
long list of celebrities, models and sportspeople who use it to increase this and to
decrease that, all the while singing it’s praises as something they could not now live
without. What things does it decrease and increase? How come it seems to take hold in
someones life once they’ve developed a dedicated practice? I’m not about to do an online
survey of what the celebs are saying, you can do that for yourself after all, but I can
contribute something here about my own experience, and why it has become a constant in
my life, and let me start by stating: I was no natural yogi!
The following is meant as inspiration to all you average blokes who have stiff bodies,
like to drink etc… and would rather party than get up at dawn to ‘salute the sun’.
Accidental Yogi: my own story.
I fell into yoga by accident. In my younger years I went to a boxing club (though only
for about a year) I was heavily into athletics at school (field events were my thing) then I
took up kung fu (again for little more than a year) Over the years I played a lot of squash, a
little less tennis, and less still badminton. None of which I dedicated enough energy to
become particularly good at. I virtually lived on my bike from the age of 7 and when
BMXing came along I found something I liked enough to do every day.
Then I found alcohol. Later I discovered music/clubs. Later still I discovered things
that made music/clubs better. I’ll say nothing more about that.
Fortunately, I also discovered yoga along the way, which it has to be said, didn’t fit
that easily into my lifestyle, but I enjoyed it and I liked the way my body felt afterwards. I
thought I was naturally flexible because I could touch my toes (just). The truth was that I
was very, very stiff in my lower back and had chronic back pain since the age of 14
following a misjudged springboard dive at the local swimming baths. Unfortunately
osteopaths didn’t seem to exist in Teesside in the 1980’s. On top of that I had the attention
span of a fly, my breathing was terrible and I had very serious digestive issues. I needed
something in my life that was going to help me sort myself out.
That ‘thing’ turned out to be yoga.
What I hope will inspire you is this: I didn’t make any big changes, and I didn’t try to
be something that I wasn’t. I just kept doing the yoga practice, week in week out (and yes,
sometimes I did go a week or two, or three without it) and slowly it worked it’s magic. Yoga
can and does help you change your body for the better, but on a more fundamental level, it
changes your perception of your body for the better. Plus, over time you start to feel
younger. You think more clearly. The world you see around you is the same, but there’s
less mental clutter and less stress. You enjoy a greater sense of clarity: physically;
mentally and emotionally. Yep, it’s good stuff.
Let’s clear up a common misconception. When the subject of yoga comes up, I often
hear men say something to the effect of ‘I couldn’t give up eating meat’. There is a strong
association of vegetarianism with yoga due to it’s links with Hinduism, but that does not
mean you need to start making changes to your diet just because you’ve started attending
a class at your local gym. Everyone’s constitution is different. There is no perfect diet
carved in stone that suits everybody. Taking up a regular yoga practice will help you
develop the ability to listen honestly, to the genuine needs of your body, gradually freeing
yourself from habitual eating habits which do you a disservice. For some people that may
lead to giving up or cutting down on how much meat they eat. It will most certainly make
you think more about the quality of the food you put into your body, and as they say, you
are what you eat.
So what do you do now? There are countless classes out there these days to choose
from, so how do you choose? So many teachers offering so many different styles, which
one should you try? Should you go to a dedicated yoga centre or are classes in gyms OK?
There are no definite answers but recommendations from other people can be helpful. The
best thing to do is not to limit yourself in the beginning because you don’t always know
what you’re looking for even when you think you do.
Try a whole selection of different classes and styles with a number of different
teachers until you find one you connect with, and can relate to and trust. Someone who is
going to be as tough on you as they are kind, who cares enough about what they’re doing
to work you, but at the same time will never try to push you beyond your limitations
because of their own agenda. People can and do get injured practising yoga, but don’t
blame yoga! The teacher needs to know their stuff and not simply be regurgitating
something they read or were told by someone else. As my teacher says: the information
must come alive inside the teacher, only then can they hope to bring it alive in their
students. Another way of saying this is: stay clear of bullshitters.
Who are you, anyway?
An article on yoga wouldn’t be complete without at least a little nod towards the
philosophical element, so I’d like to finish by asking: who are you? Inside, underneath the
conditioning of life and society. Who is reading this article? You are not your name,
someone else gave you that. You are not what you do for a living, that’s just something
you ‘do’. It can be argued that you are not even the person you see in the mirror. What if
you had a face transplant? What if in the future they could put your mind into another
body? So are you just your mind? Hmmm, what happens when the mind ceases it’s usual
activity? Under general anaesthetic for instance, have you gone?
But hey! You don’t need to get into that side of things if you don’t want to, yoga can
and often is used as just another form of exercise, and this is fine. Horses for courses. And
to be honest…that’s all it was for me when I started. I had no aspirations to go into it in any
depth, I just wanted to be more flexible, but look where I am now. I never planned to be a
yoga teacher. And that’s one of the other nice things about it: it’s a journey. Your own
unique one which continually surprises you. The funny thing is that the surprise IS YOU.
*1 Guardian/Science 31st Oct 2011
*2 Guardian/Life and Style 31st Aug 2011
*3 Guardian/Sport 27th March 2012