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?
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 twelve 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 Resort in Costa Rica, Seven Centers Yoga Arts in Sedona, AR, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA when I was taking yoga classes at these places, and the teacher training sessions 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. Today yoga in India is practiced by both men and women.
Indian man practicing yoga 1949. Photographed by Eliot Elisofon.
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 on the internet to find a 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?
The lone male is in the back of the class. He is 20% of the class. I think that’s about the national average of men to women in U.S. yoga classes.
How Yoga Became Feminized
It’s odd that yoga has become such a female-dominated activity in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. It was practiced mostly by men in India. It was brought to the West primarily by male gurus. Maybe the gurus from India in early 20th century America attracted women followers who were interested in their spirituality.
The father of modern postural (Hatha) yoga was T. Krishnamacharyi, who directed the yoga school at the Mysore Palace in south India the 1920s/30s. His one famous female student was Indra Devi, who was actually a Latvian with Russian heritage who spoke perfect English with an accent. She migrated to Los Angeles in 1947, set up a studio on Sunset Boulvevard in West Hollywood, attracted some film celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson, and published some popular books that became best sellers, which raised the interest of women. Then having yoga gurus leading 30 minutes of yoga on daytime TV back in the 1950s and 1960s got women homemaker viewers into it. In the fitness craze of the 1980s and 1990s maybe yoga was something that appealed to women more than lifting weights or running on treadmills. In the process yoga became primarily asana (postural) practice. This had the effect of changing the character of yoga from an experiential philosophy of mind-body connections centered on meditation (the purpose of the asanas was to still the body for meditation) to a physical fitness routine. A practice that had developed with male bodies was being taken up by women as a fitness regimen for them, increasingly taught by women, and inevitably it became more geared toward the needs (and abilities!) of female practitioners.
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 Baron Baptiste (power yoga). I tried Bikram Yoga for a while and sampled Baron Baptiste’s Power Yoga a couple of times just for the experience. There were definitely more men in these classes, but the majority of students were still women. Some men like Bikram Yoga or some form of Power Yoga because it seems like a real workout. Practicing 90 minutes in sauna-like conditions is indeed a physical and mental challenge.
One advantage men have in Bikram or other hot yoga classes is that no man in his right mind would wear a shirt in sauna-like conditions. In female-dominated classes, men are encouraged (even required in the YMCA) to keep their shirts on. No prana bath allowed (the energy that comes from a breeze evaporating sweat).
One other issue we should consider is that in many cultures around the world, both East and West, bodily and earthly realities are associated with the “feminine” and the spiritual and metaphysical realities with the “masculine.” All you have to do is look at initiation processes in traditional societies. Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, who wrote the first Western scholarly work on yoga, wrote in Rites and Symbols of Initiation that traditionally girls learned the lore of the natural world and boys learned the lore of the spirit world. At the onset of menstruation, girls were separated from the tribe and sequestered into a hut to be taught the customs of the tribe by the older women. At the onset of puberty boys were separated from the world of women and children, taken into the wilderness, subjected to ordeals, taught the mysteries of sexuality and cosmology, and incorporated into the male warrior society by having a rite performed on their body, such as circumcision or branding. Eliade would also point out the initiatory character of yoga, especially in its Tantra background.
Initiates after circumcision in South Africa
In investigating male initiation Jungian analysts Robert Moore and Doug Gillette, in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of Mature Masculinity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990), found that the characters in male legend, myth and story circle around four dominant images: the king, the warrior, the magician or guru, and the passionate lover. We should not be surprised that these images shape the male “soul” in both mature and immature ways.
We see these images in yoga history. The ancient yogis were fierce naked warriors who served local kings for a time and then returned to society to get a regular job, become a householders, marry and raise a family. Later in life he no longer had social responsibilities he might go off into the forest or a cave in the mountains to become an ascetic meditator who was sought out for his wisdom.
Hindu naga sadhus (naked holy men) jousting. These matches are a remembrance of the ascetic warrior yogis of past centuries.
A yogi renunciate in the Himalayas
Images of ancient yogis include naked warriors, kings sitting on lotus thrones, magicians who could perform remarkable feats like flying through the air or taking possession of other bodies, wise gurus dispensing wisdom, and passionate lovers formed by Tantric initiation to manage sexual energy (see “Frank Answers About Yoga, Tantra and Sex”).
Updated in our contemporary cultural context, these images would surely appeal to men. The king represents the energy of a just and creative ordering of life. The warrior represents the energy of aggressive but nonviolent action. The magician or guru represents the energy of initiation and transformation of mind/ The lover represents the energy that connects one to another and to the world.
As yoga became female-dominated in terms of both teachers and students, yoga became feminized. Women have found their own dominant yoga images in Shakti (the divine feminine) and yogini power. Recovering a feminine basis for yoga practice may have been a necessity since women practitioners dominate a practice once dominated by men. But the result of the feminization of yoga is that men have stayed away—a situation not unlike churches. Neither the dominant images nor practices of many yoga studios appeal to men.
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 (perhaps in flexibility, but also dealing with the expectations of men in today’s world) don’t get addressed. My hunch is that classes that attract men are going to have to tap into the male images of king, warrior, guru, and lover. And while men should also be interested in body and earth, they will be drawn to cosmology and metaphysics — the big picture. (See my five Frank Answers dealing with the five elements of earth, fire, water, air, and space.)
Yoga Classes for Men
Yoga classes have been springing up over the past decade that appeal primarily to men. Some studios offer classes just for men. One example is Yogasmith in Seattle, which is directed by Joel Benjamin, and offers a classical Hatha yoga practice for men of all abilities each week.
Joel Benjamin is giving these men a “sound bath” during savasana at Yogasmith.
Men’s naked yoga classes can be found in many American cities (although there are also naked yoga classes for women and a few that are co-ed). Those who practice naked like the freedom of movement, the feeling of empowerment, and the increased flexibility that comes from moving one’s body without being encumbered by clothing. Men’s naked yoga classes have good teachers who know the needs of the male body. The classes attract men of different ages and body types and sexual orientations who are serious about yoga, respect the body, and encourage one another. And, quite frankly, many men enjoy opportunities for social nudity in locker rooms and showers and saunas.
For those who 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?
When men come together for yoga, issues of masculinity and male sexuality are likely to emerge that can best be dealt with in a retreat format in which men can share their stories in a safe and non-judgmental space. Craig White offers a 3-day Men Without Masks Retreat at Hridaya Yoga’s international center in Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico that explores what it’s like to be a man in today’s world.
Thus, there are new opportunities and reasons for men to consider taking up the practice of yoga. Today with even professional football players practicing yoga, you’d think men would 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 A 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: 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). Chanting creates vibrations in the body that connect with the vibrations in the universe (cosmos). It’s a powerful experience hearing a group of men chanting together—loudly—as the ancient yogis undoubtedly did as battle cries.
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 (who represents awareness or consciousness), is pretty neat and the goddess Shakti (who represents the energy of the body) wants to hook up with him. Getting them together is what Hatha Yoga is all about — connecting body and mind, energy and consciousness.
But I’m not aware of any worship of a yoga god in ordinary American yoga studios, and YOGA IS NOT A RELIGION. 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. That’s basic. But there are all kind of mats on the market today. How do you know which ones are of good quality and are just right for you. Reviews.com created a comprehensive guide detailing the most important features in a yoga mat, as well as key materials to keep an eye out for (and which to avoid). What is suitable for a yogi depends on a variety of personal factors, and this guide makes recommendations for a range of preferences and needs: https://www.reviews.com/best-
Most studios are equipped with mats, blocks, straps, blankets, cushions and other aids used in modern yoga.
You mention other equipment. Are props used?
Answer: Yes. B. K. S. Iyengar, the son-in-law of Krishnamacharya 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. Krishnamacharyai taught yoga to the boys and young men in the Mysore Palace compound, without aids. But there’s no way that a 75-year old like myself 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.) 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 photo below this article of me and my Indonesian friend 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.
This outfit will do nicely. Warrior II pose.
Perfect attire for wheel pose.
You could also practice shirtless if the studio is OK with that. It’s actually better. 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 lower 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.
These guys boldly removed their shirts for yoga practice. No reason not to.
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 like. 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 the practice 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 in the pose, you’re getting the benefit it offers. 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 a permanent ostomy) and he has dedicated his life to teaching yoga to others. He has also become an Ayurveda practitioner. 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.
Namaste. Yogi Frank Senn
Me on the right with my friend Emil Salim from Jakarta doing partner tree pose at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL (Nick and Lela Beem, co-owners and teachers) and having fun. Men can approach yoga with humor.