Because of the way Yoga is often portrayed in the media, I regularly encounter people that still think of Yoga as something of a ‘pastime for women’: a soft and gentle practice that ‘is just not intense enough to appeal to men.’ We do get men into our classes, of course, but the ratio is of one guy for every five women more or less, and this, I must confess, surprises me a little, because as a former Pro athlete and 400meter runner, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what makes for a ‘challenging practice.’ And Yoga most definitely makes the cut.
I have run and competed my fare share in life, and so, before I moved on to Yoga, I thought I had experienced physical challenge in almost every form. Committed Yoga practice, however, has proved me wrong, because Yoga can be incredibly demanding and challenging and not just because of physically complex work.
Ask yourself this: how much do you know about the movement of your body in space and the way you breathe? What about your values? Your worldview? Your stance on things? Not just when you’re exercising, but generally. How do you move and occupy space? How do you breathe? How do you react to things? Can you breathe your ujjayi breath evenly, for example, while holding a warrior III pose? And what about when you are leaving that asana on the exhale to move in on the inhale into the next one? Does your breath break in bits, or falter, or fail you in between the different rounds that takes to complete work within a pose? What about your head? Where’s your head at when you are practising Yoga? What are you thinking of? Most importantly: how do you react and behave when faced with challenge in your everyday life? What’s your go-to reaction? Is it anger? Fear? Stress? If so, have you thought about the reasons for it? True Yoga is about all of this; and these things ain't necessarily 'not challenging' if you think of it.
Very often, the subtler aspects of Yoga –those that are actually harder to notice, let alone master– are what makes the difference between 'just doing asana’ and actually doing Yoga. So, many people come to a class, fail to notice these subtler bits, and leave thinking something like “well that wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be.” I get that a lot; especially from men. They come to a class, do the movements, sweat a lot less than they’re used to –because, there’s somehow the belief that for ‘exercise’ to be effective you have to sweat a lot–, and then come tell me why they think this ‘Yoga thing’ is not really for them. They want something spiritual, but a bit more ‘challenging,’ meaning physically challenging; something that may appeal a bit more to standardized views of ‘men working out like men.' And I understand it. I was a male athlete in a mainly ‘manly athletic world’ until not that long ago.
It is true that it takes for men to step a little out of their comfort zone in terms of gender associations to try out an activity such as Yoga, so socially perceived as ‘feminine’ at least in the West. And so, when I get these type of comments, I always reply the same thing: “don’t come to Yoga just looking for a physical workout. Get your workout elsewhere. Come to have a spiritual practice.” But I can never be sure the message really hits. Perhaps I’m not saying the right thing. To me it makes sense; but then again, I’ve experienced enough Yoga to know better.
At the end of the day, all I can do is assure these men that, first of all, their masculinity does not depend on the type of activity they perform, be it Yoga or anything else. That’s a first. But also, that once they learn to notice nuance and practice Yoga with attention to detail, then they’ll be in for a treat –and a tough one at that! They will discover a one of a kind type of challenge that depends entirely on their ability to achieve control over subtlety and detail –both with regards to their body and their mind. And this is the type of control that can turn the ‘easiest looking pose’ into a mind-bending nightmare!
But all I can do is hint at it with words. I cannot provide the experience for them unless they’re willing to go to that place on their own, by themselves, bit by bit, breath by breath, pose by pose; and not everyone is ready for that just yet.
Still, perhaps because I’m a guy doing yoga, I do notice that I attract a lot more guys into my classes as well, and I’m glad to see this happen. Because Yoga is also for men. There is a way in which glossy magazines, television, and all sorts of social media ads and so on, have contributed to something of a ‘feminine take’ on the looks of modern Yoga which just fails to accurately represent the actual genderlessness of this practice. So, yes, Yoga is for women, as it is also for men. And in fact, any look into its history and tradition will actually reveal how, for centuries, men were the only ones allowed to practice the teachings of this tradition –something that, on the other hand, makes no sense whatsoever either, but that’s a different conversation.
My point is that, if you are a guy, and you're looking for a physical challenge and then some, come try out Tantric Hatha Yoga –preferably at The Practice! But do so with an open mind. And if you're looking for your usual 'sweaty workout' just go out first for a run. At the studio, we may not necessarily cue you into super intense and highly physical power-poses or flows, but rather work at the micro level, at the level of nuance, to open you up little by little to the spiritual qualities most inherent in this type of work. To things like dynamic breathing, or mantra, or the internal movement of your awareness from here to there… Everything that can possibly leave you with an energetic blueprint of what you need to consciously work on, be it something physical or not. And all of this while remaining in control. But not your usual understanding of ‘control,’ but a subtler form, the type of control that requires no tension but attention. Because that is the real challenge for us in today’s world: to remain attentive to qualitative work while surrendering to the spiritual aspects of any experience that goes beyond the mind and the physical. That is real Yoga and anyone willing to make the effort to give it a shot is most welcome.