As teachers, we can be artists who sculpt experiences for our students through the words we use to teach a pose, the music we play during class, or even the ways we decorate our studios. We can also create a more meaningful experience by opting to teach to target audiences.
This is not a new concept. A glance at any studio's schedule offers us plenty of options: Basics, Level 2/3, Hot Yoga, Prenatal Yoga, Mysore, Meditation. Rarely, however, do we see options such as Women's Yoga or Men's Yoga listed.
Yes, yoga offers freedom to everyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or religion; but are there times when it would be more effective to teach to men or women only? And if so, is such an undertaking financially viable?
Let Personal Experience Guide You
Teaching to a target audience isn't for everyone. And the maxim of "teach what you know and what inspires you" applies to gender-specific classes, too.
For Janice Gates, author of Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga and owner of the Yoga Garden in San Anselmo, California, the inspiration to teach women's-only yoga retreats arose out of her personal practice.
"In the early '90s, when I was practicing and teaching Ashtanga Yoga," she explains, "I kept bumping up against the reality that the practice was designed by and for men and had a very masculine flavor to it. Meanwhile, most of my students at that time were women."
Gates then began exploring other styles of yoga and applying her findings to her teaching.
"The response was overwhelming," she says. "Women were hungry for a safe and sacred space to voice their personal challenges, discuss what was and what was not working for them, and explore alternative ways of practice."
Bruce Bassock, founder of Elements Yoga & Wellness Center in Darien, Connecticut, teaches a popular Yoga for Men program. Like Gates, this arose out of personal interest and perceived need.
"I decided to teach a men's-only class because yoga changed my life," he says. "I truly wanted to share this with others. I suspected that there were a lot of men in town who could greatly benefit from yoga if they'd just try it."
For Women Only
Angela Farmer, who teaches worldwide and runs a retreat center in Greece with her partner Victor van Kooten, celebrates the opportunity to teach her women's retreats.
"There is definitely [a need for] a place in our busy lives and competitive society to come back to the beauty of just being a woman," she says.
"When I teach only to women, it is more intimate," she continues. "I feel less like the teacher and more there to inspire, encourage, and support. Having 'sisters' is so ancient, and yet deeply needed in this present time."
Women: Wired for Connection
Gates notices that she can place a greater emphasis on the mind and emotions when she teaches her women’s-only retreats. Women establish bonds of trust and intimacy very easily during these times, she says, thus creating a “sacred container” in which to unravel deeply held emotions.
"It is no secret that women are wired for connection," she says. "There is much more of an opportunity to share, connect, laugh, cry. Connection, resonance, and community-building have immense power for healing and empowering women."
Gates emphasizes meditation and personal reflection, with less emphasis on technique in poses.
Farmer applies a similar approach. As a result, she says, "The classes become more playful, creative, and exploratory."
For Men Only
While recent Yoga Journal studies reveal that nearly 80 percent of yoga practitioners are women, this doesn't negate the fact that men need and want yoga, too. Bassock’s successful Yoga for Men program proves this.
A former New York City commodity and stock trader and avid tennis player, Bruce’s humble, down-to-earth presence and physique is far from intimidating—especially to men who eschew yoga as an activity reserved only for the flexible. "I suspected that my background would be disarming, and that many men who ordinarily would not consider taking a yoga class could identify with me," Bassock explains.
Unlike the emphasis on connection that Gates and Farmer focus on in their women's retreats, Bassock keeps his classes grounded in the physical.
"I focus on stretching the areas where men tend to be tight, and then I do a lot of poses that men can typically do well, in order to build their confidence," he explains.
And to be sure to keep to the subject matter, he holds the yoga philosophy to a minimum.
Men Need Downtime, Too
But the emphasis on the physical doesn't mean that men don't appreciate some time to step back from the outside world together.
Peter N. Hillman, a 53-year-old litigation lawyer with Lyme disease, takes Bassock's class to help with his stiffness and joint pain. "It's a thorough, healthy workout, with no shame, no embarrassment, no humiliation, and no loss of ego," he says. "The other day, we were doing the wind-down, and the guy to the right of me whispered, 'This is the best part of my week,' and I said, 'Amen, brother.'"
Promoting Your Specialty
Running gender-specific events can be lucrative. For instance, many women sign up for Farmer's annual women's retreats at Harbin Hot Springs a year in advance. Bassock draws a full house to his Yoga for Men, and these students later attend his mixed-gender classes as well.
How can you make it work?
- Teach What You Know
Bassock probes us to first ask, "What excites you? What is close to your heart? What in your past experiences will serve you in teaching others? What are your assets? Be creative and find a niche that suits you." For instance, don't start teaching prenatal yoga if you have never been pregnant. "Teach from your own experience. Share with others only what you have taken home, digested, and integrated," Gates advises.
- Rely on Word of Mouth
"I have been teaching for more than 15 years," Gates says, "and can really see now how developing relationships over time has had the most powerful influence on the attendance at my retreats. I advertise through my website, email mailings, and postcard mailings; but word of mouth is number one for effective advertising." If you're just starting out and don't have your own studio, Gates also suggests teaching at venues with the population you're targeting. If you have a vision of teaching pregnant women, for example, "find out where they hang out and see if you can teach there. Put your flyers out at the local OB/GYN offices."
- Solicit the Women!
Bassock initially gathered his clientele for Yoga for Men from the female students at his studio who were eager to have their husbands give yoga a try. Gates concurs. "I find that for our classes at the Yoga Garden, men most often come through the recommendation of a woman in their lives."
A Win-Win Scenario
Taking time out to be with the girls or the guys for a little while can be a good thing for everyone.
At the end of her retreats, Farmer hears some women say, "Oh, I am so looking forward to going home. I now realize how much I love my husband!"
And not to worry, the other half benefits, too. "One woman," Farmer laughs, "told me that her husband encourages her to go on one of these retreats each year, as she returns home so happy and fun!"
Sara Avant Stover is a yoga instructor and writer who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she teaches women's yoga and meditation retreats each winter. Visit her website at www.fourmermaids.com.