The other day, I saw a class being advertised here in Chicago that just made me laugh. It’s called “Yoga For Real Men”. Not just plain men, or imaginary men, or girly men, but real men! After I had a good laugh at this, I started thinking about all the implications of this class’s odd, and highly problematic, title.
If you hadn’t noticed, yoga is incredibly gendered in this country. There’s Prenatal Yoga, Postnatal Yoga, Yoga for the Larger Woman, Mommy & Me Yoga, and so on. Women in tight yoga pants advertise everything from, well, tight yoga pants to soy milk to Bank of America. In other words, the message is yoga is really something for your wife or girlfriend (and maybe a few gay or effeminate men).
But real men!? Real men with chest hair do things like eat raw steak and chop wood. They pump iron and watch football and grunt as they scratch their crotch with one hand and down a Miller Lite with the other. But they wouldn’t be caught dead on a yoga mat.
Enter “Yoga For Real Men”. In such a class, I imagine that you get to have an ashtray next to your yoga mat, and the walls are covered in LCD screens showing ESPN SportsCenter. They serve you buffalo wings during your Sun Salutations. And instead of chanting “Om”, they lead the group in a Chicago Bears chant. Or something manly like that…
Okay, now that I got my snarky remarks out of my system, here’s the real point. The whole problem of yoga being so gendered in this country is the result of two distinct but related causes. First, yoga is heavily marketed as being feminine. (When was the last time you saw a man on the cover of Yoga Journal?) Second, gender stereotypes are stubbornly entrenched in our culture, and stereotypes/expectations of men seem to exclude anything that women do.
Thankfully, some gender stereotypes are changing — e.g., people are increasingly more comfortable with a world in which women are well educated, have positions of power, and succeed in their careers as full-time professionals. (Of course, we still have a ways to go in terms of pay equity…) Likewise, our ideas about what constitutes a real man are also changing, although perhaps more slowly and with more resistance.
When it comes to yoga, it’s not particularly helpful when studios and teachers perpetuate gender stereotypes by implicitly acknowledging that yoga is “girly”. If a studio has a class called “Yoga For Real Men,” it just sends the wrong message, in my opinion. It suggests that that other yoga — the stuff your wife or girlfriend does — is somehow feminine, and therefore not appropriate for men. Instead, real men need their own, special class, where their masculinity won’t be threatened.
Sure, you could think of “Yoga For Real Men” as a just clever marketing ploy to get more people to do yoga, and I guess that’s a good thing. But this approach is far from progressive. If anything, it’s backwards and mildly offensive. It also seems to miss one of the main points of yoga: detachment.
Instead of marketing classes for “real men,” why not create an environment where people can leave their gender hang-ups at the door? My teacher Raghunath used to say something like this: “When you are in yoga class, you are not a man or woman, old or young, black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. You are breath and movement. You are here. You are now.”
Of course, a message like this might be too touchy-feely for the real men out there. Perhaps this way of thinking threatens them and their sense of masculinity. But maybe that’s exactly what they need.
NOTE: If this topic interests you, you might want to check out my older posting on the same issue.