Five Myths (Some) Men Believe About Yoga
by Tresca Weinstein
The first time Sam Chase went to a yoga class, he hated it. Growing up as a bookworm who suffered from asthma, he thought of his body as little more than a vehicle for his brain. In his twenties, he decided he finally wanted to get fit—and his first goal was to touch his toes. Since he’d never been athletic, Sam figured that yoga was an easy place to start.
It didn’t turn out that way. “I was sweating, and I didn’t expect to be sweating. It was hard, and I didn’t expect it to be hard,” he recalls. “I was being asked to pay attention to all sorts of things I wasn’t used to paying attention to—the breath, the sensations in my body. I just wanted to be able to touch my toes!”
But, lying in Savasana after that first class, Sam felt his breath deepen, his body relax, and his mind grow quiet in a way he’d never experienced before. It was enough to bring him back for another class, and another, and another—and eventually to yoga teacher training at Kripalu. Today Sam not only can touch his toes, he’s also been free of asthma medication for 10 years, and has developed a thriving yoga-teaching career that’s included leading programs for the United Nations and the National Guard.
But many men never get past that first class—or never get to it at all. Last year’s Yoga in America study, released by Yoga Journal in December, found that 82 percent of the country’s approximately 20 million yoga practitioners are women. What keeps men off the mat? Here are five myths that may be part of the problem.
Myth #1. Yoga is all warm and fuzzy.
“For some men, their hesitation about yoga is that it’s going to be boring—just sitting around stretching, and talking about opening your heart,” says Robert Sidoti, cofounder and creator of Broga® Yoga, designed specifically for men (that’s “bro” as in yoga for “bros”).
Robert says that one of the biggest pitfalls when it comes to men and yoga is how the practice is marketed. Broga Yoga’s website is designed to appeal to guys with phrases like “strong, energetic, and challenging” and “an amazing workout.” Once the men show up in class, Broga teachers make a point of using straightforward language that won’t make guys roll their eyes—particularly because most Broga students are beginners.
“It’s not dumbed-down, it’s not oversimplified, it’s just accessible,” Robert says. “I meet them exactly where they are, and give them the sense that this is their home.” Over time, he says, as students gain familiarity and comfort, they often begin to seek deeper layers of the yoga experience, such as breath work and more evolved poses. When they’re ready, Robert offers up these new experiences.
Rudy Peirce, a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher who’s been leading men’s yoga retreats at Kripalu for 22 years, says the warm and fuzzy part sometimes creeps up on guys unexpectedly. “It’s impressive, the degree of honesty and self-revelation that will happen even on the very first evening of a retreat,” Rudy says. “Then, in the circle the next night, they’re astounded at the degree of connection that’s been created in only 24 hours. In addition to feeling better physically, what often is most profound is that they make a deeper connection with their body, their emotions, and their spirit.” But, he adds, “these things are not necessarily attractive calling cards for men.”
Myth #2. You have to be flexible to do yoga.
“When people think of yoga, they think of flexibility: Can you put your foot behind your head? Can you bend like a pretzel?” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, former Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga. The stereotypical image of a yogi is either a beautiful, flexible young woman or a skinny Indian man bending into seemingly impossible shapes. Devarshi says neither picture represents a realistic goal for most men to aspire to. Part of that may be due to a tendency for men to have tight muscles and weak backs and abs because of the time they spend sitting—at a desk, driving, and relaxing after work. In his men’s yoga workshops, Rudy addresses these issues in three stages, first stretching the tight back muscles, then strengthening the stomach muscles, and finally building strength in the back muscles. Broga Yoga teachers use lots of props, and deconstruct the postures as they go so that everyone can naturally find their edge.
Balancing that edge with awareness is key. “I encourage students to find that sweet spot where the challenge is strong, but manageable enough that there’s room for breath, attention, and compassionate self-regard,” Sam says.
Myth #3. Women are better at yoga than men.
It’s true that, on the whole, women tend to have a broader range of motion in the hip joints, while men have broader shoulders and stronger arms. Women are more likely to have grown up going to dance or gymnastics classes, where flexibility is emphasized, while men are more likely to have played sports in which strength and stability are valued.
“The emphasis for men needs to be on not forcing the movement,” says Rudy. “Many men have a wonderful gift of strength, and we tend to work things too hard and to override pain and discomfort. It’s confronting to men’s habits to slow down, relax, and take deep breaths—we think we have to make things happen.” Using their strength to push through a challenging posture can lead to a greater incidence of yoga injuries among men, according to a recent New York Times article by William J. Broad, author of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.
The solution: Focus on what’s working, says Sam. Many men may not be comfortable in Split, Lotus, or Forward Fold, but they can feel masterful in postures such as Crow, Side Plank, and Chaturanga.
Myth #4. You can win at yoga.
Let’s face it: Most people, men and women alike, are competitive. But—whether as a result of conditioning or biology—that can be especially true for guys. One thing that helps, Rudy says, is simply acknowledging that fact. “Sometimes I’ll use humor and gently tease the men in my classes about their habits, and then I’ll add compassion and education so they get that they’re not to blame and not alone,” he says.
Coming face-to-face with your competitive side can be a good thing, Sam says. “There’s a part of the mind that’s hardwired to compare yourself to other people. You can let it run the show, or you can let it take the back seat. As much as men come in predisposed to compete and compare, the yoga practice is a great opportunity to put those competitions and comparisons in their proper place.”
Robert shifts the paradigm from competition to camaraderie. “No pain, no gain” does not apply in Broga classes, he says, but being inspired by each other and going to your personal edge does. Being aware of the guy on the next mat can keep attendance up, too: “Guys are used to being on a team,” Robert says. “They show up in class because they know the other guys are going to show up as well.”
To create that sense of accountability when a weekend retreat ends, Rudy sends participants home with a yoga sequence they can do every day, and assigns them a partner to help them stick with it. At Kripalu recently, he ran into a man from New York City who took his men’s program 15 years ago; he still checks in every week with his partner, who lives in Missouri, to ensure that they’re both staying on track with their practice.
Myth #5. Yoga may change your life. (This one’s true.)
Men typically show up at a yoga class because they want to improve their flexibility, lose weight, or heal an injury—and then get back to their “old” life. But, more often than not, something else happens along the way.
“Little do they know what they’re getting into when they step in the door,” Robert says. “I just present the practice in the most simple, accessible way, and let the magic of yoga take over from there.” As the weeks go by, he sees his students’ priorities, ethics, and lifestyle choices shift. “They used to go out after work for a few drinks, watch the game with the guys on the weekend and drink some more. Now these options aren’t as appealing to them. They’ve come into their bodies.”
Sam remembers that shift in his own practice. “What kept me going was noticing that I was behaving differently, that the choices in my life were becoming easier to make,” he recalls. “Yoga helped me understand the conversation that my body, breath, mind, and spirit are always having.”
If more men understood that this conversation is what yoga’s really about, there would be more of them practicing it, says Devarshi, who points out that the male-to-female ratio in meditation classes is much more balanced. “When they start to get it that yoga is a practice of consciousness and that the postures are just a vehicle to support that, more men will come,” he says. “There is a yoga out there for everybody—there just needs to be a redefinition of what yoga is.”
Tresca Weinstein is an editorial consultant for Kripalu.