Question: I’ve been interested in doing yoga and have tried it a few times. The classes seem to be predominantly women. You’re a man and you do yoga. Have you thought about why more men aren’t on the yoga mat?
Updated Jan. 10, 2018
Frank answers: Yes, I’ve thought about this situation because it’s kind of lonely for men out there in yoga land. I’ve been an evangelist about trying to get men I know into yoga practice ever since I discovered the benefits of it for myself, although I’ve not been a very successful one.
There are now about 20 million people in the U.S. practicing yoga. What percentage of them are men? Well, on occasions when I’m not the only man in the class, I’m usually one of only two or three (sometimes four) men in a class of about ten to sixteen. That’s roughly about 15-25% of students who are men. I’d venture to say that this might be the actual ratio of men to women among those who practice yoga throughout the country. I’ve also looked in on three different yoga teacher training classes (at Samasati in Costa Rica, Seven Centers Yoga Arts in Sedona, AR, and at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA—see my blog article “Frank Answers About My Excellent Kripalu Adventure”), and these classes also had about the same ratio of men to women as I’ve experienced in yoga classes (maybe on the upper end of the ratio). This is quite the opposite from yoga’s homeland in India, where yoga has been a male-dominated practice for millennia.
I’ve looked through the pages of issues of Yoga Journal and I see pictures of one or two men in a magazine that has dozens of pictures of women. I had to look through dozens of photos of yoga classes in Google Commons or Wikimedia Commons to find one free image to post here that had at least one man in the picture. I don’t object to women practicing yoga. But where are the men?
People have speculated on why more men don’t practice yoga in America. Maybe the gurus from India in early 20th century America attracted women followers who were interested in their spirituality. Maybe having yoga gurus leading 15-30 minutes of yoga on daytime TV back in the 1950s and 1960s got women homemaker viewers into it. As studios began to spring up everywhere women went to them, and as it became female-dominated in terms of both teachers and students the men stayed away—a situation not unlike churches. It may also be the case that yoga teachers address the issues of the students they have, and if most of the students are women and if most of the teachers are women, the issues men have (especially in flexibility) don’t get addressed.
There’s also a lack of camaraderie among yogis (male yoga practitioners), like the mutual “hi, how are you?” you find among acquaintances at the gym. It’s hard to develop that male bonding with only one other guy in the yoga class while the women are talking about things that don’t particularly interest you. On the other hand, when I joined an all-men yoga class I did experience camaraderie among the regular students and our male teacher.
Me (on the right) with my friend Emil Salim from Jakarta (on the left) enjoying yogi camaraderie in partner tree pose at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL. in 2015.
As men discovered that they needed exercise because they were spending too many hours during the day sitting at a desk they got into sports like hand ball and body building and running on treadmills in the gyms. Maybe yoga didn’t look macho enough. The situation began to change a bit with the more vigorous types of yoga brought to America by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (branded Ashtanga Yoga), Bikram Choudhury (branded Bikram Yoga), and power yoga. I tried Bikram Yoga for a while and Baron Baptiste’s Power Yoga a couple of times. There were definitely more men in these classses, but the majority of students were still women. Some men like Bikram Yoga or Power Yoga because it seems like a real workout. Practicing 90 minutes in sauna-like conditions is a challenge. The sweat just rolls off. But I prefer just the regular Hatha Yoga with equal parts pranayama, asanas, dhyana.
Naked yoga groups have been springing up in American cities over the last several decades. Many of them are for men (and classes are not exclusively gay!), although there are also some women’s naked yoga groups and a few that are are co-ed. Those who practice naked like the freedom and feeling of empowerment and increased flexibility that comes from moving one’s body without being encumbered by clothing.
For those who like being shirtless but want to keep their pants on there’s Broga (yoga for bros) that emphasizes a more macho approach to yoga, as in this video image.
More grunting, less chanting?
Today with even professional football players practicing yoga, you’d think that would cause men to reconsider. But when I invite friends to come to the studio and practice with me, I get into discussions like the following (what follows is almost a verbatim!).
Dialogue with prospective yogi
I know yoga would probably be good for me, but I’m not very flexible.
Answer: You don’t stay away from the gym because you’re too weak. You go to build up strength. Just as you build up strength through repetitions of lifting weights, so you build up flexibility through practice.
(The problem is that men who try yoga quickly see that the women who dominate class enrollments are more flexible. That can be de-moralizing.)
All that chanting and meditation. I’m not too much into spiritual stuff.
Answer: The chanting and meditation serves to focus the mind so that mind and body can work together. Yoga is a union of mind and body, of energy and consciousness (Shakti and Shiva). The word “yoga” means “to yoke”—like an axle connecting wheels. In fact, that’s the oldest use of the term “yoga”—the yoking of chariot wheels (chakras). The ancient yogis were fierce naked warriors. Yoga still has warrior poses. Warriors rush into battle with chants called battle cries.
Hindu naga sadhus (naked holy men) jousting—a remnant of the ascetic warrior yogis of the past who hired themselves out to kings and rulers.
Isn’t yoga like a religion? Doesn’t it come from Hinduism?
Answer: Well, if you were a Hindu, you might worship the goddess Shakti or the gods Shiva or Krishna, who are associated with yoga traditions. Actually, Lord Shiva, the god of yogis, is pretty neat.
But I’m not aware of any worship of a yoga god in ordinary American yoga studios. Yoga is not a religion in itself and there are no yoga priests. It is an ancient yet ever evolving mind-body practice whose techniques have been used by several religions (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism), by people with no religion, and also by some Jews and Christians (see my blog articles “Frank Answers About Christians Practicing Yoga” and “Frank Answers About ‘Christian Yoga'”).
What would I need to buy to start doing yoga?
Answer: A mat. But studios are equipped with mats, blocks, straps, blankets, cushions and other aids used in modern yoga.
You mention other equipment. Are props used?
Answer: Not in hot yoga, but in other yoga brands, yes. B. K. S. Iyengar, who was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West, felt that the use of props would allow all practitioners access to the benefits of postures (asanas) regardless of physical condition, age, or length of study. He saw that not everyone could practice the more gymnastic style of Hatha Yoga promoted by his teacher Sri T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern asana yoga, which was taught to the boys and young men in the Mysore Palace compound, without aids. There’s no way that a 74-year old like myself [going on 75] is going to get into the contortions those boys could get into unless I started yoga when I was their age. The following photo shows Krishnamacharya teaching yoga to the Mysore Palace boys in the early 1930s.
K. Pattabhi Jois claimed to be the boy Krishnamacharya is standing on in this photo.
In most studios today if you can’t reach the ground with your hands in a standing pose, for example in an extended triangle pose, you can use a block (as in this photo). Blocks and straps and even blankets and cushions can continue to be useful if skillfully used by the teacher. The props are not just for beginners. Even walls and chairs can be used as props.
What should I wear to yoga class?
Answer: (Ah, now he’s showing some interest. Yes, men ask me this when I try to get them to go to yoga practice with me.) Well, you see what they wore at Mysore. Just kidding! Do you have a pair of gym shorts or running pants? I prefer the wide legged Thai Fisherman’s pants that you can buy for $20.00 on Amazon.com (as in the above photo of me and Emil). They are flexible and the legs can be easily pulled up if you want to grab your knees or behind your thighs in a floor pose. Do you have a tight t-shirt? You don’t want a loose t-shirt that falls down and gets in your face in inversion poses or gets heavy when wet with sweat. You could also practice shirtless if the studio is OK with that. The wind evaporating the sweat off your bare skin is very energizing. (The women have figured this out and many wear halters in which their arms, shoulders, and upper torsos are bare.) You don’t need expensive Lululemon clothing. They don’t have much for men anyway. If you sweat a lot, bring a towel—and some water so you don’t get dehydrated.
How will I know what to do?
Answer: The yoga instructors give detailed directions and they come around to help individuals with proper alignment (as in this photo of an Iyengar Yoga brand teacher using a strap with a student).
Will I be sore afterward?
Answer: This will be a workout and you will use all your muscles, including some you haven’t used recently. Look at the yogi in the image above this post. How many different muscles is he using (as well as opening his hips)? But the stretching exercises also lengthen muscles and relieve some of the tensions. If you’re feeling sore after class, go home and take a hot shower and maybe a couple of ibuprofens. Then go back to the practice the next day or a few days later. You will discover your muscles being strengthened in ways that are more useful for daily life than just having big biceps. You will find yourself developing core strength that provides more stability than just having six-pack abs. In fact, just working on six-pack abs is counterproductive to developing core strength because the core is within you.
Will I be able to keep up with others in the class?
Answer: You focus on yourself and not on what others are doing. Yoga is not a competitive sport and it is very non-judgmental. What you do on your mat stays on your mat.
What do you think is most important about getting started?
Answer: Finding a teacher you resonate with. This may require “shopping around,” but once you find a teacher you like stay with that teacher. Yoga was traditionally taught one on one by a guru to each student. Today we have classes. But if you go to a small studio and get to know the teacher, it is possible to develop a personal teacher-student relationship. You might even arrange for some private lessons with that teacher.
Yoga and Grace
I think I’ve covered the questions I’m usually asked when I’m evangelizing men about yoga. Now I’d like to suggest that often the real issue for men practicing yoga is the age-old human problem with grace. Grace is what we receive as a gift, not what we earn or deserve. Yoga gives its gift when we surrender our own effort and simply receive what it has to offer. But this is a difficult lesson for men (and for some women too!) to learn because we are competitive, especially when it comes to exerting physical effort. We think we have to earn everything we get. But yoga yields its benefits no matter how much effort we put into it. A good teacher will say, “If you’ve gotten this far, you’re getting the benefit offered by this pose. For those who want to go further, here are embellishments you can add to the pose.”
Young men of yoga
Is there any hope of getting more men to practice yoga? As in other areas of life, I look to youth to be the future we hope for. As professional athletes take up the practice of yoga, this filters down into the high schools, many of which now offer yoga classes as part of physical education. Here’s the boys’ basketball team of Bakersville High School in Bakersville, Oregon in yogic meditation.
Finally, while yoga can be done by men and women of all ages, I find it inspiring to see young men giving themselves to the practice and even to the teaching of yoga, like this young yogi in Essen, Germany.
Patrik Bitter is a young yoga teacher. The practice of yoga helped him to transcend a serious illness and radical surgery when he was 23 (requiring an ostomy) and he has dedicated his life to teaching yoga to others. He has also become an Ayurveda practitioner. I enjoyed having a private session with this gifted young yogi in his home town of Essen, Germany. See his website at www.patriqio.com. It’s in German but you can tell that he exudes a youthful enthusiasm for yoga and sees the practice branching out from the studio into the wider community. Für die Leser meines Blogs in Deutschland, sage ich: Besuche Patrik Yoga Essen.
May his tribe increase! And may more men get themselves on the mat.
Nameste. Yogi Frank Senn
Me at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL (Nick and Lela Beem, co-owners)