Guys have the world to gain by practicing yoga. So what’s holding them back? Explore why men should be getting on their mats as often as women.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning and I am in, of all places, a yoga studio. While my cycling buddies set out for a ride, I waited by racks of flowery yoga clothes, then filed in for class. While my pals pedaled and, no doubt, rapped about racing, I unrolled my Black Mat near someone else’s pink one, beside someone else’s painted toenails and a pile of voguish flip-flops. Now, my fellow riders are probably engaged in some testosterone-fueled sprint, while I’m grunting loudly to stay balanced on my forearms. I’m inverted and self-conscious: In a class filled with women, I alone am emitting primal noises.
A world turned upside down—that’s yoga for most of us men. We still run most of the government and hit the major league home runs, but yoga is a woman’s domain. “What I find myself constantly contemplating,” says Michael Lechonczak, a yoga instructor who teaches at Equinox Fitness in Manhattan, “is how to get more guys into class.”
It’s not that we don’t know what we’re missing. Nowadays, there seems to be a yoga studio on every corner; our girlfriends and wives are walking, talking testimonies to the practice. At home, we watch them rushing out the front door, brows furrowed, only to return standing tall, with big, tranquil smiles on their faces and compassion in their eyes. Because my wife Madeleine is a yoga instructor and an avid student, I witness this stress-to-bliss transformation several times a week. When she comes home, I often mumble to myself, “Don’t I want to be that happy?” Yet I haven’t practiced yoga consistently for years.
So I asked highly qualified doctors, scientists, and veteran yoga teachers exactly why so many men stick to yoga’s sidelines. I also polled members of that rare breed known as the male practitioner—from pro athletes to busy investment managers—to find out how they came to embrace yoga. In the end, I discovered social, physical, and emotional realities that discourage men from practicing. I also heard about the moments of inspiration that got men over such barriers—and ideas about what might help other men make the leap, too. If you’re a man who’s hesitated to try yoga—or you know a man you’d like to introduce to the practice—read on.
Social Obstacles: Yoga Takes a Brave Man
Getting men to identify with yoga has long been a challenge in this country. It doesn’t matter that yoga, since its beginnings in India thousands of years ago, has mainly been taught and studied by men. Restrictive American immigration laws of the early 1900s stunted the spread of Indian culture on these shores, and only a handful of influential yogis arrived here through the decades. One such important teacher was Indra Devi. Russian born and Indian taught, she 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.
Sure enough, the first thing many men notice on entering a yoga studio is that they’re in foreign territory. Pensive women readying for class sets as strong a tone as a locker room of guys snapping towels. “Men walk in needing a challenge,” says Judith Lasater, who has authored six yoga books during her 35 years as a teacher. “Women often come to the mat seeking refuge.”
The instructor can be equally alien. A female teacher might seem like just another pretty face in the intimidating crowd. A male teacher, who will likely be more humble and sensitive than your average tough-love personal trainer, may be met with disdain. “A student walks in from corporate America, and he encounters this man who exists in such a different realm,” Baptiste says. “The instructor might not be a guy’s guy.”
Lechonczak, who consulted on the book Real Men Do Yoga, sympathizes with such concerns. Before coming to the practice nearly 20 years ago, he had a consuming business career and was a weekend warrior who ran and played basketball. Lechonczak thinks more men might be willing to try yoga if they perceived it as yet another test. Albeit a unique one. “The guys coming to yoga have to be ready for the next level, be ready to let down their defenses,” he says. “They have to have heart.”
A guy’s first act of yogic bravery, Lechonczak says, is to introduce himself to the teacher. “Find out if the class is appropriate,” he advises. “Admit any fears or anxieties.”
Once the line of communication is open, a good instructor will tailor a class for individual students—male or female. Scott Achelis, a general contractor in Walnut Creek, California, began taking classes locally early last year because his back was tweaked from decades of construction work. The key was a positive first experience at the Yoga & Movement Center: a men’s only, one-day workshop held by studio director Diane Valentine. Her agenda? Make it fun, and let guys be guys. “It was unthreatening,” Achelis says. “We were all stretching and making off-color jokes.”
Achelis quickly became a regular in a coed class. “It’s still difficult for me when I’m partnered with a woman. I’m uncomfortable touching anybody who’s not my wife the way you have to in yoga,” he admits. But otherwise being a man among women no longer bothers him. He couldn’t care less who’s in the room, or that some very unathletic-looking females can enter poses that he can’t. “I don’t feel like I’m doing 10 percent of something being done by a woman next to me,” Achelis says. “I’m doing 100 percent of what I’m able to do.”
Physical Hurdles: Overcoming Groins and Gray Matter
Get a man past his reservations about asana time with the ladies and he’ll still have a well-founded reason to drag his feet to a studio: Yoga can be painful.
Men, it seems, are naturally tight. Boys and girls may be born equally limber, with an ability to comfortably put their feet behind their heads. But by adolescence, boys generally lose flexibility faster than girls, and as boys become men, the differences in flexibility tend to grow. Researchers have noted this gap, although they can’t specifically link it to differences in hormones, musculature, or connective tissue. “It’s hard to attribute to any one thing,” says Lynn Millar, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Whatever is to blame, the typical man’s pursuits and lifestyle, from sitting at a desk all day to grabbing beers after a twilight softball game, put little importance on flexibility.
Lasater says stretching takes a back seat in a male’s life as early as high school. “Look at the way they stretch in football—they push on each other and bounce. It hurts,” she says. “How could anyone emerge from that with a positive view of flexibility?” Investment manager Ron Bernstein was certainly ambivalent about stretching—until his 80-hour workweeks caught up with him. Back in 1998, Bernstein, a former competitive high school golfer who’s a managing director for the investment firm Marathon Real Estate in New York City, realized that “everything hurt,” he says. “My wife was doing some yoga and suggested that stretching would be good.”
Bernstein went to a class in lower Manhattan and muddled through. “On my walk home, my back felt so much better. All those Upward and Downward Dogs really worked.”
Physical Benefits of Yoga for Men
Today a more limber Bernstein is religious about his one-day-a-week private sessions. He attributes his daily vitality and still-strong golf game to Warrior Pose variations that open his shoulders, hips, and back. “My handicap was 10 as a kid and I’m still at about 13,” he says. “Not bad for a guy who works all the time.” Elasticity also helps men who are determined to play all day. Barry Zito, the MLB star pitcher, serves as a role model for any jock who’s determined to stay injury free. Building up muscle mass and repeating the same athletic motions day after day and year after year only adds to a body’s tightness. Which is all the more reason why Zito, who’s been in the majors since 2000, likes to brag about a statistic other than wins and losses. “I’ve never missed a start,” he says.
Zito began practicing yoga in 1998, when he heard about an off-season training program in Southern California that entwined baseball skills with yoga—”I’ve always been open to alternative forms of training,” he says—and he’s been doing asanas ever since.
Zito’s daily regimen usually includes groin and hip openers like Pigeon, Frog, and Warrior poses because “they’re kind of like the positions I find myself in when I’m pitching,” he says. Zito happily demonstrates poses to his fellow major leaguers, although in the good ol’ boy world of professional baseball, he keeps plenty to himself. “It’s too foreign for them,” he says. Zito believes, however, that such myopia may prevent players from staying in the lineup.
“Some guys aren’t willing to do the things required to keep their health,” Zito says. “I’m not judging anyone. I just know my own experience, and it’s been really, really good.”
Zito might have an even harder time spreading the gospel of yoga if men knew that, when it comes to life on the mat, their brains as well as their bodies are working against them. Science hasn’t concluded that women have higher IQs. But women can boast about their mirror neurons.
These are brain cells that receive signals from another person and trigger similar reactions in the observer. Watching someone cry, for example, might more easily cause you to cry. While mirror neurons often detect emotions, they also help an observer match posture and breathing. “You use mirror neurons to watch and imitate your yoga instructor,” says Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco and the author of The Female Brain.
For men, says Brizendine, the catch is that they don’t respond as well as women to such transmitted signals. Scientists are still speculating whether women have more of such cells, or just more active ones. Either way, the neurons don’t inherently make women superior jocks, since men may have been born or raised with other athletic advantages. “But because females’ mirror neurons are more easily activated,” Brizendine says, “on average, women can mimic better than men.”
Fortunately, men can raise the performance of their mirror neurons if they consistently employ them. But until then, men enter the yoga studio at a disadvantage. New poses will be harder for them to get right. “The instructors need to be more patient with the male students,” Brizendine says. “They have to perform more demonstrations for them.”
Men’s Emotional Challenge: Try Beating Yourself Instead of Others
Even if a guy turns a physical corner and starts adapting to yoga’s demands, he may still miss out on many of the practice’s benefits. Yoga’s internal rewards—everything from better focus to less stress—are the hardest for men to realize.
Brizendine says that this problem, too, begins with men’s wiring. Men’s brains have a high capacity to process emotions like fear and aggression. Put an average, aggressive-feeling man on the mat, add thoughts about hostile takeovers or Shaq dunking a basketball, and you get someone who isn’t looking to quiet his mind but to let go of pent-up energy. That’s easy in traditional recreational sports, with their scores, times, and rivalries. But guys in Downward Dog may still be looking for something, or someone, to beat. “For men, physical activity—nonsexual physical activity—has always been closely associated with competition,” Brizendine says. “Studies have shown that for the last 40 years.”
Brizendine adds that with time and training, men’s brains can get past such competitive urges, and the proof lies in the men who have found enormous benefits from tapping into yoga’s more emotional offerings. Bill Gross, chief investment officer for asset management company Pimco and one of the most powerful men in his business, appreciates what 12 years of yoga has done for his head. Every morning, Gross leaves his Southern California office to gather his thoughts in a gym. Part of the workout always includes yoga. Gross loves doing Headstand. “Some of my best ideas come during Sirsasana,” he says. And, he adds, often after his routine, “a light bulb turns on, and I’m on to something.”
Away from the multiple computer screens and trading-room hubbub, Gross gets more than inspiration. The mat offers him a place to calm his nerves and breathe deeply. He returns to the office rejuvenated and relaxed, ready to work with a purpose. “Focus is a huge part of what I do,” Gross says, “and when you are trusted with nearly $700 billion of other people’s money, you’d better be focused. Because of my practice, I can sift the noise from the facts of an investment.”
Yoga can also teach a guy who’s overwhelmed by his many responsibilities that the best way to get things done is by being present—focusing on one thing at a time.
“If I go from breath to breath, I’ll find myself at the end of class,” says Zito. Similarly, when he’s playing a game, he says, “If I go hitter to hitter as opposed to letting my mind drift, I’ll suddenly be in the seventh inning.”
Men, like women, can get addicted to yoga’s emotional benefits. Mehmet Oz, neurosurgeon otherwise known as Dr. Oz, is also a sports nut. But the doctor, who played football at Harvard and has a basketball court in his basement, sees his daily yoga practice as an escape, whether it’s from surgery or scorekeeping.
“That’s where the freedom comes in. You can let go,” he says. “You realize that the bigger game you’re playing in life isn’t about competitiveness.”
What life is about, Oz says, is awareness, equanimity, and keeping one’s ego in check—after all, the world is a bigger place than any one…man. Indeed, in topping off the list of yoga’s benefits for his male colleagues, Oz even uses the word “spirituality,” although he’s aware that some men might find that term a turnoff. “Try to get a man in contact with the spiritual element of yoga right from the start, and he’ll be lost,” he says. “He isn’t ready for that.”
Bernstein, the investment manager who has practiced yoga for seven years, admits that he still doesn’t like “chanting Om too many times and closing my eyes.” But these days Bernstein’s biggest problem concerning yoga is an inability to share his experiences with the very wife who persuaded him to try it. She abandoned yoga eight years ago. “I have no idea why Keri quit,” he says. “She just won’t do it.”
Maybe she needs a few more male practitioners to tell her what she’s missing.