Yoga: Where are the men?
Since its beginnings in India, Yoga has been mainly taught and studied by men for thousands of years. Fast forward to 2014 and as a yoga practitioner, one has to enquire, why are yoga classes in the western world so one-sided towards women?
Males have a lot to gain by practicing yoga. So what is holding us back?
There are three distinct scenarios that discourage men from practicing yoga:
- social environment
- physical barriers
- emotional constraints
1. Social environment
(A woman’s thing…)
Speaking to many senior teachers here, getting men to identify with yoga has long been a challenge around the world.
For some of us, TV was another medium where people may have seen yoga for the first time. By the 1970s, although there were male teachers on TV, it was always women who perform the poses. By the time Power Yoga emerged in the 1980s and began attracting more men, the mainstream view of the practice had taken root: yoga was for housewives.
(The yoga class and teacher)
“Men walk in needing a challenge, women often come to the mat seeking refuge.” (Lasater, 2011)
Generally, the first thing many men notice on entering a yoga studio is that they are in foreign territory. Pensive women readying for class sets can be intimidating as a locker room of guys snapping towels.
A female teacher is what most men coming to yoga would expect to find. However, a male teacher, who will likely be more humble and sensitive than your average tough-love personal trainer, may be met with disdain. Imagine a male student walks in from the corporate world, and he encounters this ‘sensitive’ man who exists in such a different realm. The instructor might be perceived not to be a guy’s guy.
2. Physical barriers
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 cannot specifically link it to differences in hormones, musculature, or connective tissue (Millar, 2011).
Whatever is to blame, the typical man’s pursuits and lifestyle, from sitting at a desk all day to grabbing beers after a twilight hockey game, put little importance on flexibility. For males, stretching takes a back seat in a male’s life as early as high school.
Science has not concluded that women have higher IQs but women can boast about their mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that receive signals from another person and trigger similar reactions in the observer (Brizendine, 2013). 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.
For men, the catch is that they do not 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 females’ mirror neurons are more easily activated and therefore, on average, women can mimic better than men (Brizendine, 2013).
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. This means for teachers that they need to be more patient with the male students and likely have to perform more demonstrations for them.
3. Emotional barriers
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 realise.
It is likely that this problem 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 international football, and you get someone who is not looking to quiet his mind but to let go of pent-up energy. That is 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 compete with. It has been proven for the last 40 years that for men, physical activity has always been closely associated with competition (Brizendine, 2013).
Therefore, 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.
The ‘s’ word
Try to get a man in contact with the spiritual element of yoga right from the start, and it is likely he may be lost. Even men who have been practising yoga for many years admit that they still find it difficult to chanting Om many times and even closing their eyes.
What life is about 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, the word ‘spirituality’ cannot be too far away. As most of us know, many people (not just men) might find that term a turnoff.
However, incorporating mindfulness meditation towards the end of solid yoga class allows one to ease into this world on their own terms. For students, especially men, this needs to be led an experienced meditation teacher who also has intimate knowledge of yoga.
This article was written by Ed Niembro, accredited meditation and yoga teacher with International Meditation Teachers Association of (IMTA) and Yoga Australia respectively. Ed is a meditation and yoga teacher now residing in Fontainebleau, France.
Brizendine, L. (2011) The Female Brain University of California Press
Millar, L. (2011) Interview with Lynn Millar: Professor of physical therapy (Recorded 11 June 2011) Andrews University, Michigan.
Tilin, A. (2013) Where are all the Men? (Yoga Journal)