What’s the deal with guys and yoga?

Last week, right before yoga class, we sat on our mats and folded our legs while we waited for the instructor to get settled in, and the topic of men came up – specifically, why so few men did yoga.

“I think my husband is just afraid he’ll look stupid,” one woman said. “I invited him to come to class with me, but he said he’d only do it if he could practice alone first.”

“A lot of men tell me they don’t think it will be enough of a workout, like it will be too easy,” the instructor said.  Everyone in the class laughed a bit, because if there is any word in the world that does not describe yoga, it is “easy.”

And then almost in unison, all of the women swiveled to look at the three men in our class, who shrugged as if to say, Don’t ask us, we’re actually here.

I didn’t think about the man-yoga question again until I walked out of the studio. My muscles were warm and aching in that pleasurable way I associate with a good workout.  I’d worked very hard in that class, and I could feel it in my quads and shoulders.  Best of all, I felt serene and calm, like the human embodiment of a sun-dappled pond in the woods.  It was awesome.

I walked past the lifting area, packed as always with men, and I envisioned all of the guys I lift with, guys who will spend twenty minutes a day developing each peak of each bicep and another hour on their forearms.  In the past I’ve wondered whether any of those guys can run a mile without puking their guts out, but now I was curious to know how many of them could bend over and touch their toes.

What a shame, I thought.  All of those guys don’t know what they are missing.

I’m not the only one who is puzzled over the gender gap of yoga.  A quick Google search brought up several articles written by men who practice yoga in which they all but implored their fellow broheims to reconsider writing off yoga as a “chick thing.”   Certified alpha males who do yoga, like powerful businessmen and professional athletes, are often cited as proof that a man’s testicles will not automatically ascend into his body upon making contact with a yoga mat.

Take the book “Real Men Do Yoga” by sportswriter John Capouya. The cover features a buff, shirtless man sitting cross-legged atop a mountain, backlit like a superhero.  The subheading of the book is “21 Star Athletes Reveal Their Secrets for Strength, Flexibility and Peak Performance.”  The not-so-subtle effect is to recast yoga as a source of masculine strength and power.  More Tony Romo, less Rodney Yee, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes the article authors go a bit overboard in their attempt to appeal to the dudes, as with this lede (ironically enough, written by a woman):

We know you love yoga—for your girlfriend. Her weekly practice makes her bendy in bed, more chill overall and therefore more sexy even when she’s lounging around. Well, we’ve got news for you. Yoga isn’t a ladies-only thing like going to the bathroom in packs or opening store credit cards only to get 5 percent off the purchase.

Oh, those wacky women, with their shopping and their weird bathroom habits, how silly are they? Amirite, guys?

Some writers actually manage to do it without being offensive:

Let’s be honest.  You’ve thought of doing yoga before.  Maybe the idea came and went.  Maybe you thought, “What’s the big deal?” or perhaps you brushed it off as too religious, overrated, or “feminine”.  As far as the latter, you should be “man” enough to realize that’s a bit silly.

Bless you, Douglas Wagner, for pointing out the absurdity of all of this without slamming on us ladies in the process.  (By the way, his article is pretty great reading for people of all genders who are interested in yoga.)

And here’s my favorite example of an attempt to reframe yoga as something that is appropriate for men: “broga.”  Yes, broga.  Because trying to appeal to dudes with the use of the word “bro” will never go out of style.

Lest you think I’m hating on these people, I’m not.  I actually sympathize with them, because I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to women and weight training.  Whenever I talk about weight lifting to women, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time reassuring them that, no, they will not turn into hulking she-beasts if they lift weights.

I’m not the only fitness enthusiast facing this dilemma.  I have lost count of the number of books I’ve seen that encourage women to take up weight training by talking about how sexy it will make them look.  Have you ever seen someone trying to walk a cat on a leash?  I have, and it reminds me a lot of trying to get certain people to step across the gender divide.

How sad is all of this?  How absurd?   Look at how invested we are in these imaginary rules.  And make no mistake about it – they are absolutely imaginary.  There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about yoga, or weight lifting, or running, or pink or blue or cooking or household tools or really much of anything, for that matter.   It’s all in our heads.

Andrew Tilin writes about this for Yoga Journal in an excellent article called “Where Are All the Men?”  In it, he points out that for thousands of years, men were the only teachers and practitioners of yoga.  Yoga only became strongly identified with women in recent decades:

 Russian born and Indian taught, [Indra Devi] came to the United States in the 1940s and was championed by none other than celebrity cosmetologist Elizabeth Arden. That name resonated, of course, with the women who gobbled up her products, and Arden encouraged her customers to try yoga. A few years later, teacher Richard Hittleman published yoga books and landed on TV—but always had women perform the poses. Yoga’s next media celebrity was a young instructor named Lilias Folan, who began teaching asanas on public television in the 1970s. Folan had a gentle style that empowered millions of stay-at-home moms to follow right along. By the time Power Yoga emerged in the 1980s and began attracting more men, the mainstream view of the practice had, fairly or not, taken root: Yoga was for housewives.

Even Claire Dederer, in her wonderful book “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” says she once thought of yoga as the realm of “self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands” and “skinny fanatical twenty-two-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts.”

It’s like the dissolution of the old gender definitions left us feeling like we needed to set up new ones, and to hold to those as tightly as possible in case those were taken away from us as well.  But at what cost?  We end up shutting ourselves off from of so many fabulous and wonderful things, simply because somehow it was decided that certain things are for men and certain other things are for women.

Here’s a proposition – rather than doing (or not doing) something simply because it’s not what we think a man or a woman should do, why don’t we try looking at ourselves as individuals, and deciding what we as individuals should do, based on what we as individuals like and prefer?  Why don’t we stop looking at ourselves as collections of pointless gender stereotypes and grant ourselves the complexity that is our right as human beings?

We’ve got nothing to lose when we do this, and yet we also have so much to gain.

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16 responses to “What’s the deal with guys and yoga?

  1. “It’s like the dissolution of the old gender definitions left us feeling like we needed to set up new ones, and to hold to those as tightly as possible in case those were taken away from us as well.”

    Yes!

    “Why don’t we stop looking at ourselves as collections of pointless gender stereotypes and grant ourselves the complexity that is our right as human beings?”

    Sounds good. I’m workin’ on it.

  2. Here, here! I had never found my sex to be particularly relevant to my identity was an athlete. I am a person who runs, swims, lift weights, plays squash and occasionally fits in a yoga class and who happens to have two X chromosomes. My partner, who happens to have a Y chromosome, has attended many yoga classes with me and finds them very relaxing.

    • It’s good to have variety in your life, don’t you think? And to not be limited by these weird artificial constraints on our behavior.

      My husband is going to come to yoga with me sometime very soon, and I’m sure he’ll love it. So there are at least two guys out there who aren’t horrified by the idea of doing downward dog in a class full of people.

  3. Interesting and timely article, as I am trying to convince my husband to come to yoga class with me. He will do it at home with the DVDs no problem, but there’s a block when it comes time to actually go to the studio. And in a somewhat related note, I was waiting for class to get started last Saturday morning when the mayor walked in to get his yoga on. So men in power do yoga too!

    • I used to do yoga DVDs too but being in a class is a totally different experience. Not only does the instructor help you with more complicated stuff, but – and my boss and I talked about this today – you don’t feel so rushed, especially at the end with corpse pose. It’s nice to have a physical space that is just for practicing yoga.

      • I also like studio space because it affords me a huge prop that I don’t have at home: a wall. That is, a wall that doesn’t include windows, bookshelves, TV, etc., so one I can use as a balance aid while I’m figuring out my inversions. (I do not want to have to explain to my partner that the reason we have shatters and splinters instead of these items is because I overshot my forearm balance.)

        Additionally, if we’re going to practice together (that is, at the same time), my partner and I *have* to leave the house — unless one of us wants to invent Bathtub Yoga. There is just not sufficient space otherwise.

  4. Great post, as usual. I started practicing yoga seriously two years ago, and it’s funny – After a good, hard session, I feel so STRONG. I’ve got one of those husbands that practices when nobody could see him (lest they mistake him for a female I guess?? I just don’t get it …).

    I’ve asked him – when we’re working out, and I’m working on my squats and deadlifts (which are decidedly “unfeminine” movements) – do I come across as masculine? He says of course not. Now, I realize he may be saying that simply so I don’t banish him to the couch, but I believe him, primarily because he is very encouraging with my strength training.

    Perhaps we gender them so stereotypically because yoga is often perceived as gentle and passive, where strength training is often viewed as more active and aggressive? And heaven forfend women participate in active aggression and men exercise their “passive” side! Maybe it is falling back on the archetypes: that age-old line of hooey that an aggressive male is highly valued is all aspects of our culture and an aggressive female is often considered a she-bitch? Sweeping generalization here, but: The only female-aggression that is often considered appropriate is the mother bear concept, which feeds into our absolute rage and disgust when a mother harms her child, but far less so when it is the father.

    Nevermind that there are many yoga poses that require brute strength and willpower and will make the most seasoned of athletes wimper.

    • Yes! I also feel very strong after doing yoga. In this way it reminds me of ballet, where someone who isn’t familiar with the activity would look and think “pointy toes, how hard can that be?” when really, it’s quite challenging.

      I think you are on to something with the passive vs. active, gentle vs. aggressive dichotomy. My husband mentioned something similar, that yoga has this whole hippie thing going on, which many people view as being inherently passive aka weak. But I think it’s misguided to look at yoga as a passive, gentle thing because, like you said, it requires great strength and focus and discipline. Those are powerful qualities, but it’s a kind of power that is not in your face about it.

      Great comment!

  5. It’s interesting and I wonder if it has to do with flexibility issues. I rarely meet a guy (even a super in shape guy) who is comfortable being flexible. Not to sound ignorant but I always wondered fleetingly if it was a penis/groin centered thing I didn’t understand.

    Not saying men can’t be just as flexible as women because obviously they can be. But it’s just seems like it’s not as encouraged (unlike girls who are more likely to take dance, gymnastics when they’re little) in little boys and then it’s almost like they get a complex about it, “oh no I can’t bend THAT way.”

    As you can see I’ve thought about this at length in the past.

    • I actually read something about men’s bodies on average, tending to be less flexible than women’s bodies. I mean, there are outliers, but if you plot it on a curve, men tend to be less flexible, just as women tend to have less muscular strength. I don’t know the physiology behind this, though, although I am curious!

      But then like you said, that tendency becomes a reason why men don’t bother to develop their flexibility, just as it becomes a reason why women don’t develop their muscular strength. Those behavioral choices then make the differences all the more pronounced because those aspects of fitness have been allowed to atrophy over time.

      It really seems to me like a mirror image of the problematic relationship between women and weight lifting.

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