A Yoga Journal market study reports that something like 4 in 5 people who do yoga in the U.S. are women. This is particularly strange when you consider the fact that, throughout the thousands of years of its history, yoga has been practiced and studied almost exclusively by men. So why don’t more men practice yoga now? There are a couple of interesting historical, sociological, and psychological factors that might explain the present gender disparity here in the U.S. I’d like to discuss some of these factors, and also say a few words to try and convince skeptical (especially male) readers to give yoga a shot. My remarks owe a significant debt to an interesting article “Where Are All The Men?” in the March 2007 issue of Yoga Journal and to the historical introduction to yoga which can be found in a wonderful photography book simply entitled “Yoga”, published by Yoga Journal.
1) Arriving in the U.S. sometime in the mid 20th century, Indra Devi was one of the first people to introduce and popularize yoga in this country. A student of Krishnamacharya (the”Godfather” of Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow, and other related types of yoga), Indra Devi was one of his only female students, and was able to study under Krishnamacharya only at the insistence of the Mysore royal family. Like many of today’s popular yoga teachers, Indra Devi made a name for herself in America as a “yoga teacher to the stars,” including Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe. One celebrity in particular who became associated with Indra Devi — and, by extension, with yoga — was Elizabeth Arden, founder of the cosmetics empire that still bears her name. By the mid 50’s, yoga was already well on its way to being viewed in the public eye as something that housewives did, not men. And by the 70’s, yoga’s PR fate was all but sealed by a popular yoga television show on PBS starring Lilias Folan. This show was targeted specifically at stay-at-home moms, and it focused on a gentler, slower style of yoga that was more easily accessible to the masses. Given yoga’s introduction into popular U.S. culture, it’s no wonder that men thought of, and still think of, yoga as something for the ladies only.
2) The (male) ego can sometimes be a good thing, driving us to succeed in our careers, to excel in athletic competition, etc. But, with a few exceptions, this ego creates more problems than not. And no where else is this more evident than on the yoga mat. A lot of men cannot stand the fact that they can’t do many of the yoga poses that, say, their wives or girlfriends seem to do with such ease. I often see proud men who come to yoga class for the first time, having clearly spent many years lifting weights at the local gym, panting and grunting their way through class. When the teacher suggests an advanced modification, these guys are usually the first ones to try it out, and they are also usually the ones who mangle the pose so badly that it doesn’t even look remotely like what the pose is supposed to look like. Why does this happen? Well, yoga is friggin’ hard. You can’t master it. You can’t beat it. You can’t beat anyone at it. And it’s humbling. Even the most basic poses continue to challenge long-time practitioners. This reality is difficult to swallow for many men, who are used to competitive sports where there is always a way to judge/measure one’s own performance, and where there must always be a way to beat out the next guy. To do yoga, then, is really to adopt an entirely new way of thinking, a way of thinking that is different and maybe even contrary to the way that men are accustomed to thinking in our Western society.
3) A lot of men think that because they are inflexible, they will never be able to do yoga. I often invite my guy friends and acquaintances to give yoga a try, and the most common response I get is, “Oh, I could never do yoga. I’m so unbelievably inflexible.” This sounds really strange to my ears, and probably to anyone else who has done Ashtanga or Flow yoga for awhile. It’s tantamount to saying something like “I could never start up a weightlifting program; my muscles aren’t big enough.” Just as there are lighter weights for the beginning weightlifter, there are many modifications and props that can help the inflexible start up a yoga practice. And just as one gets stronger by lifting weights and can move up to greater weights over time, one gets increasingly flexible by doing yoga and can do more demanding poses over time. In other words, you don’t have to be flexible to start doing yoga.
4) There are some huge misconceptions about yoga that are continually perpetuated (like most widespread misconceptions) by today’s media. One misconception in particular really irritates me, and, I think, also keeps a lot of men away from the yoga studios. This is the idea that yoga is not a legitimate or serious form of exercise, but just some casual activity that is all about relaxation, bending, stretching, but nothing too strenuous. Fortunately, this view of yoga is starting to change as more power yoga, “yoga for athletes”, Ashtanga, and Vinyasa Flow classes pop up around the country. As anyone who has practiced one of these more rigorous forms of yoga will tell you, the asana practice is a full body workout that involves tremendous strength, flexibility, balance, focus, a lot of sweating, and, of course, some relaxation, bending, and stretching. I have personally left yoga classes with my limbs trembling from being repeatedly worked to the point of exhaustion. If you experience this just once, you will never go back to thinking that yoga is not a legitimate form of exercise.
5) A second misconception about yoga is that “real” men don’t ever do yoga. This is just not the case. Yoga training is becoming increasingly common today in the U.S. military (and, again, not just for the stretching and relaxation). As well, quite a few NFL, NHL, and MLB teams now incorporate serious yoga into their physical training programs, both to reduce injury and to improve athletic performance. Hockey star Luc Robitaille, and running backs Eddie George and Ricky Williams, just to name a few, are some well known professional athletes who speak enthusiastically about the benefits they have experienced, both mentally and physically, from a regular asana practice. In addition to the fact that “real” men do in fact practice yoga today, throughout most of the history of yoga, it’s actually been the case that only “real” men practiced yoga. One of my teachers often tells us that yoga was used traditionally as a means for training warriors (who were all men) and that because of the great power yoga conferred on its practitioners, only a very select group of men were permitted access to it. I don’t know about the historical accuracy of yoga as training for warriors, but it is pretty well established that throughout its long history, yoga has been reserved for men, and usually only for those who exhibited great physical and mental prowess. Krishnamacharya, for instance, was quite selective in who he would take on to be his students, and, as lore goes, was loathe to take on the sickly B.K.S Iyengar who seemed too weak and puny to be successful as a yogi.
So, to wrap up, I have some final words for those skeptical men out there who are reluctant to try yoga. First, and most importantly, forget about all the images you have in your head about yoga from TV shows, commercials, and magazines — these are, for the most part, constructed images that falsely represent what yoga is and what it can be for you. To find out what yoga is, just go to a yoga class and try it out. Also, be aware that not all yoga classes and teachers are alike, so if you go to a class and find that it is a lot of relaxation and very little exercise (and “real” exercise is what you’re looking for), then try out a different class. Lastly, don’t be afraid of being a beginner. It takes years and years of dedicated yoga practice to really be able to hold your own in an advanced class. Accept this reality, and you can set off on the rewarding and challenging journey that is yoga. Let your ego get in the way, however, and you’ll find yourself continually frustrated and unable to get much out of your yoga experience.