Decades after millions of western women embraced the practice, yoga is evolving to meet the modern man.
James Arbona wasn't expecting much from the yoga class. The 48-year-old New York camera operator had tried yoga a handful of times only to come away underwhelmed. The flowery metaphors, foreign-sounding chants, and slow stretches hadn't resonated with Arbona, who's an avid basketball player and runner. But this particular class, a men-only offering called Yoga for Dudes that his girlfriend had urged him to try, was different. Arbona enjoyed it. He became a regular. And the difference in the way he felt as a result changed his mind about yoga.
"Before those classes, I remember playing basketball and making one of those moves where my body said, 'Don't do that again!' But after going to the Dudes classes, when I'd play basketball, I'd feel so good," he says.
Lately other men have had similar revelations. Lots of other men. In fact, while yoga in the US is predominantly practiced by women (according to Mediamark Research and Intelligence, 77 percent of practitioners are women), male participation is on the rise. Pure Yoga studio in New York reports that male membership has increased 20 fold. Men represent approximately one-third of all people stepping onto a mat at CorePower Yoga's 58 studios in five states, and Yoga Journal's own market research shows that the number of male practitioners relative to the total number of practitioners in this country has jumped by nearly 5 percent.
How to account for the shift and, in particular, the fact that sporty, guy's-guy types like Arbona are flocking to studios in unprecedented numbers? It's not that men have become more flexible, spiritual, or in touch with their feminine side—qualities that have long been associated with yoga and that in reality still turn many guys off the practice. Rather, yoga, whether in special classes just for "dudes" or simply tailored to be more accessible, is finally meeting men where they are.
"Men shouldn't have to work against their strengths," says Nikki Costello, the New York City instructor who teaches Arbona and other men in her pioneering Yoga for Dudes class at Kula Yoga Project in Manhattan. "It shouldn't be a struggle for men to embrace yoga. Not if they're seen, really seen, for who they are."
Not Your Girlfriend's Yoga
According to scholars, yoga has likely evolved to suit changing audiences for thousands of years. The yoga we know today can be traced in part to practices taught to young Indian boys about 75 years ago to help them develop strong bodies and a focused mind. Modern yoga was also influenced by the fitness culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writes Mark Singleton in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. In the mid-1900s, yoga began a decades-long association with Western women, courtesy of teachers such as Indra Devi and Richard Hittleman, who found fans, respectively, in female Hollywood stars and middle-class at-home moms. For years, the latter group followed along with a meditative style of yoga on daytime public television, swinging the practice further away from the sensibilities of macho men.
But in recent years, a handful of studio owners and teachers like Costello have seen an opportunity to reintroduce men to the gifts of the practice by tailoring classes to them. Costello, who has taught yoga for nearly two decades, first began to reflect on the unique needs of male practitioners in the early 2000s. While teaching at Manhattan's Equinox gym, she noticed that her vigorous sequences and no-nonsense style attracted a larger-than-usual percentage of guys—men who were accustomed to both sweat equity and the unvarnished English used in offices and gyms. "I have my metaphors," she says. "But I don't talk a lot about feelings."
Costello, who grew up with two brothers, says that the Equinox classes gave her ample opportunity to observe at close range the challenges and strengths peculiar to her type-A, sports-nut, desk-bound students. Over time, she says, she came to see a disconnect between the physical attributes of her male students and the 21st-century asanas they could expect to encounter in a typical yoga class.
Many men, she explains, have strong muscles—big biceps, robust quads, and developed shoulders—earned rep by rep at the gym. "The guys have worked their bodies in isolated parts," she says. "But yoga is about how everything relates."
In her men-only classes, Costello focuses less on developing strength and stability and more on encouraging integration and mobility—coaxing muscles that are tight from sports and weight training to move and work together. Costello keeps her new students away from Downward Dog, where she says the tendency is to shift all the weight into the arms and just muscle through the pose. Instead, she'll talk them through a pose like Warrior II, encouraging them not just to rely on the strength of the quadriceps but to soften and feel the stretch in the groins, glutes, and hips, and to notice how the different actions of the pose affect one another. Making connections—between one part of the body and another, between thought and action, between breath and movement—is what yoga is all about, says Costello, and while these lessons are inherent in yoga asanas, they're not always immediately intuitive for guys used to training one triceps at a time. "At some point, the guys realize the significance of the body's interconnectedness," Costello says. "When we learn to connect one part to another and to move and act with this awareness, we are setting ourselves up for the full experience of yoga."
There's more than one way, however, to reshape yoga for men. Other studios and teachers have made their classes more appealing to guys by addressing some of the things about yoga that typically keep men away. New England's three-year-old Broga may have a playful name (that's "bro," as in "brother"), but co-founders Adam O'Neill and Robert Sidoti are dead serious about attracting uninitiated men to their studios. For starters, Broga classes, which are about 75 percent male, might begin and end with tunes from Radiohead rather than recorded sitar music and incense. The classes typically blend vinyasa yoga with fitness-type movements such as lunges and squats.
"It's not dumbed-down yoga," insists Sidoti. "We've designed Broga to work from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Once our students are in a positive place, we give them the deeper stuff."
See alsoDownward Facing Dudes
The teachers at Empowered Yoga in Wilmington, Delaware, curb any new-to-practice embarrassment in their classes by spending extra time introducing students to basic yoga protocol. British Columbia's seven-studio YYoga, which has seen its male clientele double over the last two years, mixes classes for runners and cyclists into a schedule that includes traditional Anusara and Ashtanga offerings. "The message we want to send is that yoga is accessible," says YYoga co-founder Lara Kozan. "We don't want men to think that yoga is only for people who can put themselves into pretzel positions."
Then there are the efforts to make yoga more welcoming to men who may feel uncomfortable with anything that hints of spirituality or esoteric practices. Instructors in many CorePower Yoga classes go out of their way to teach beginning men what Om means and why and how it's uttered. Empowered Yoga instructors teach their students breathing practices but avoid Sanskrit words such as Pranayama, at least at first.
"I use a lot of sports analogies," says Johnny Gillespie, a yoga teacher influenced by his study of Ashtanga and Anusara Yogas who founded Empowered Yoga nearly a decade ago. "I remind my students, 'Look at a pitcher just before he pitches a ball. That pitcher takes a deep breath in, and lets a deep breath out.' " And when Gillespie, who is also a strength and conditioning coach and a longtime Buddhist, asks his students to chant Om, he'll often liken it to the empowering unified shout football players give as they break from a huddle.
One Small Step for Man
While women still outnumber guys in the average studio, more and more room is being made for men. And there's no doubt that reaching out to men is a smart business move for a booming industry that wants to continue to grow. Meanwhile, studio owners say, every time a big-name pro athlete like basketball player LeBron James or hockey's Tim Thomas champions yoga, more men are inspired to try a yoga class. And efforts are ongoing to round up every last guy who remains in the dark. "There are still so many men not doing yoga," says Mark Schillinger, co-organizer of a pioneering first attempt at a men-only yoga conference called Activation, which was held in San Francisco last fall. The conference was marketed to men who were new to yoga, and it addressed topics such as sex and stress. Though turnout was low, the organizers say they will repeat the conference this year, and they have plans to develop a teacher training curriculum designed specifically for men, reasoning that men will be more receptive to learning from male teachers.
But Kula Yoga Project's five-foot-tall Nikki Costello, who's not afraid to "hit my guys on the back," knows it doesn't take a male teacher to figure out what makes a class of red-blooded, sweat-loving guys satisfied as a class winds down.
"They're always happily wringing out their shirts at the end of the Dudes classes," says Costello. "They're all thanking God when it's time for Savasana."
A Sequence for You Guys
Although the typical American man might spend more time sitting at a desk, playing sports, or building muscles at the gym than stretching, that doesn't mean that yoga is not for him. When teaching her Yoga for Dudes classes, Nikki Costello focuses on what tends to be challenging for her male students: getting tight muscles to lengthen without gripping, encouraging large muscle groups to move freely and fluidly, and learning to use strength in a balanced, integrated way in each pose.
"It's not that the poses are really different," she explains. "It's applying the principles of yoga to what men's bodies need."
1. Eka Pada Pavanamuktasana: One-Legged Wind-Relieving Pose
Lie flat on your back and stretch both legs along the floor with the toes pointing up. Bend the left leg, bringing the knee to the chest, and hold the shin with the hands. Think about relaxing and softening the bent leg while giving equal attention to engaging and firming the extended leg. Stay for 3 to 5 breaths. Return to the starting position and change legs, repeating the pose twice more on each side.
This pose is a simple, familiar way to begin stretching. It releases tension and gripping in the buttocks, and it broadens and relieves tightness in the lower back.
2. Supta Padangusthasana: Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toes Pose
On your back, bend the left leg toward the chest. Place a belt around the left foot and stretch the left leg upward until it is perpendicular to the floor. Hold the belt in both hands and bend the elbows to the sides until the backs of the upper arms rest on the floor at shoulder height. Broaden the chest and keep both legs fully stretched and the knees firm. Stay for 3 to 5 breaths.
Hold the belt in the left hand. While keeping the right leg steady, exhale and move the left arm and leg to the left until the leg comes to the floor. Stay for 2 to 3 breaths. Inhale, bring the left leg perpendicular to the floor; then release the belt and lower the leg. Repeat the sequence with the right leg.
Lying on the back makes a challenging stretch more approachable. A belt extends your reach so that you can get the leg to fully extend without straining, which is key to releasing the hamstrings.
3. Utthita Trikonasana: Extended Triangle Pose
Stand at the top of your mat. Exhale and jump your feet as wide as your outstretched arms. Turn the right leg and foot to the right and bring the left foot slightly in. Exhale and move the hips and legs to the left as you extend the torso to the right. Place the right hand on the floor or on your shin. Place the left hand on the waist.
Reestablish your balance: Lift and spread your toes. Lift the arches, knees, and thighs, and press down through the heels. On an inhalation, lengthen the trunk and exhale to turn the chest upward. Extend the left arm up. Broaden the collarbones and stay for 2 to 3 breaths. Inhale to come up. Repeat on the left side.
Attention to the alignment in standing poses stretches the legs and builds a strong, balanced foundation. Doing the poses in quick succession in coordination with the breath— exhaling as you come into a pose and inhaling to come out—encourages fluid, rhythmic motion.
4. Utthita Parsvakonasana: Extended Side Angle Pose
With the feet wide, exhale and bend the right leg until the thigh is parallel to the floor and makes a 90-degree angle with the shin. Place the right fingertips on the floor next to the right foot. Lift the arches and press the heels into the floor. On an exhalation, extend the left arm over the left ear. Stay for 2 to 3 breaths. Inhale as you use the left arm to lift up, and straighten the right leg.
Once you feel comfortable with the shape of the standing poses, repeat them several times, moving from side to side while paying special attention to inhaling and exhaling as you reach your hand to the floor on steady, balanced legs.
5. Setu Bandha Sarvagasana: Bridge Pose
Lie on your back and bend the knees, bringing the heels toward the buttocks. Hold the sides of your mat and tuck the outer shoulders in to lift the sternum and chest. Exhale and lift the hips. Raise the heels off the floor, lift the hips a little more, and tuck the shoulders farther in. Keep the hips high and lower the heels to the floor. Draw your shins toward the chest while pressing down through the heels. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Strengthen the back muscles and bring health and vitality to the spine in this pose. It will counteract the tendency to slump and sink in the chest that comes from sitting at a desk.
Sit on the edge of two blankets, legs extended. Bend the right knee and place the foot on the floor. With the right hand on the floor, extend the left arm up to lift the spine. Exhale as you turn to the right, and hold the knee with the left hand. Move the right hand behind the buttocks. With each inhalation, lift the spine. With each exhalation, turn a little farther, starting with the abdomen and moving to the ribs, chest, shoulders, and head. Take 5-8 breaths to complete the twist. Release on an inhalation. Repeat on the other side.
Twisting releases residual tension in the lower back or spine, tones the abdominal muscles and internal organs, and quiets the mind and prepares the body for final relaxation in Savasana.
Andrew Tilin is the author of The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs.