Jay White, a University of Nebraska professor, tried yoga to relieve back pain; Karl Schiffmann, of Santa Barbara, California, thought it would help him manage his anger. Mike Shaw, a trainer at Gold's Gym in Lincoln, Nebraska, after years of bodybuilding, turned to yoga for flexibility. Three men, three different backgrounds, but all came to yoga with one thing in common: an interest in yoga sparked by the women in their lives. In fact, many American male yoga practitioners are led to yoga this way, and most men who give it an honest effort get hooked.
White was 50 when he took his first class. He'd been a runner until an injury forced him to quit. Bored with exercise bikes and treadmills, he asked a trainer at his health club for advice. She recommended yoga. "I was skeptical," he says. "When I walked in, there was only one other guy and a room full of women."
But he removed his shoes, thinking, "What the heck, I'll try it." Four years later, he's still at it. "When I'm doing yoga," he says, "my cares disappear." Outnumbered six-to-one in most classes, the men who try yoga, like White, often get more out of it than just a good workout. "Yoga showed me that I can be both strong and very loving," says Schiffmann, who dabbled with yoga until his wife encouraged him to take it up seriously. Now a certified yoga instructor, Schiffmann says the practice is central to his personal growth. "It's my form of warriorship," he explains.
Schiffmann's experience is telling, says Richard Miller, psychologist and meditation teacher: "First men see their bodies changing, then their focus."
Steve Dwelley, who leads Ashtanga classes in Santa Barbara, California, thinks "yoga has been toned down for Western consumption, losing men in the process." Yoga is taught differently in India, says Dwelley, where it was cultivated for thousands of years by Brahmin men—and it's anything but gentle. "We've adopted yoga on a feminist model," he says, "but yoga has plenty to attract men." The Indian masters aren't softies, Dwelley claims, "They're fierce."
But San Francisco trial attorney Ike Lasater, who started yoga in college, says being more "open" has allowed him to take risks and made him feel more powerful.
The numbers are still small, but many yoga teachers, like Noll Daniel of New York City, say more men are coming to class lately, and "a few are even starting to bring their wives or girlfriends along."