Yoga: It's not for ladies only
When some men think of yoga they picture women gently stretching in cute lululemon outfits or fake gurus spouting new age nonsense. But men who get into a downward facing dog on a regular basis acquire health benefits that extend through the entire body and mind, say yoga studio owners, casual practitioners and a physiotherapist.
“Most men tend to think of it as ladies’ work. Until they try it,” said Dwight Ergang, owner of Kamloops Hot Yoga. "And then they realize that they can get all the strength building -- and all the stuff that they get from other forms of exercise -- in here.”
Even the medical community has begun to recognize the physical benefits of yoga. Physiotherapist Cathie Levin said she advises men to take up the practice because being flexible is “important for men to feel comfortable in their own bodies.”
Male professional athletes and celebrities have become vocal yoga enthusiasts as well.
Steve Nash, who defied all logic to become a better NBA player in his early 30s is a practitioner. When asked by one of his Twitter followers if yoga helps his basketball skills, Nash replied ‘it helps all my skills, homie!’
UFC commentator and comedian Joe Rogan wrote a blog where he discussed overcoming his preconceptions about yoga. Rogan said he took to yoga when he realized it helped his stand-up because, as he said, it “is a real repeatable method to attain higher states of consciousness.”
While male yogis remain a sizable minority, a growing number of men are striking yoga positions.
According to the North American Studio Alliance NAMASTA, 27 per cent of Canadians practicing yoga in 2005 were male. Ergang said that his studio’s evening classes are 20 per cent male.
Aside from thinking its for women, Levin said her male clients often don’t want to go to yoga because it is out of their comfort zone. One of her clients, for example, "didn’t want to be in the front of the class, because he thought he would stand out because he was so inflexible. And he didn’t want to be in the back, because he thought he would make the women uncomfortable by staring at them.”
Levin said that she had another male patient who once told her that he thought he couldn’t take a yoga class because he was too inflexible.
“I told him ‘That’s like not taking a piano class because you don’t know how to play piano’,” Levin said.
Levin said that men who feel uncomfortable about starting yoga should seek out types of yoga that “are more strength and action oriented.”
Stephen Webb, owner of Bikram Yoga in Kamloops, said his theory on the origin of the gender gap in yoga started when yoga was introduced to the west (PDF) in the 1960s. He said it became associated with hippies and was seen as a soft, feminine thing to do, adding that yoga practice itself became watered down into “gentle, easy stretching class.” But that's changing.
It's a real workout
Greg Curnow started doing yoga in March after having a major back operation and being urged to try yoga by his physiotherapist. Until then he thought it was for women and something that he wouldn’t be interested in. But he said his opinions of yoga changed immediately after trying it. Curnow said yoga not only helped his back heal, but also provided him with a solid physical workout.
“I (realized) how hard it is to hold some of the poses, that it (isn’t) just standing there and hanging out,” Curnow said.
Levin said it’s important for men to get over their biases and discomforts about yoga because a lot of men have sensory motor amnesia due to the sedentary nature of North American lifestyles and can end up with structural injuries.
“We forget how to use certain parts of our bodies,” Levin said. And yoga helps this problem because yoga works every muscle, joint, organ and system in the body.
Webb said when a man does yoga he does “something that’s directed towards (his) health as a whole.” Because of this his body will need to use less energy after yoga, and he will therefore have a higher, more sustained energy level.
Not all men love the practice, Webb said. But even then, they see the results. He said he has had men come into his studio after their first yoga experience to him that they hated it but slept well for the first time in 20 years after doing it.
Webb said the energy and sleep-related benefits of yoga come from the “spine and the glandular operations of the body” which helps increase the body's overall distribution of energy.
Ergang said it can also help balance men's nutrition and free them from the gym.
He said that he went to the gym for 20 years and ate every three hours to try to maintain his strength while doing it. In the nine years since he discovered yoga and ditched the gym, he said he eats about a third of what he did and has reduced body fat.
“Yoga works you from the inside out,” Ergang said. “It improves your digestion which means you need less food to do your daily activities.”
Claims like these are difficult to prove and quantify, Levin said, but added yoga can definitely help with spinal alignment, something that can have profound effects on the entire body.
Brant Olsen, like Curnow, had yoga recommended to him by his physiotherapist and took up his practice in June. He said he used to do weight training and physical sports but his body started to take a beating. He went to yoga with no preconceived notions or biases and is now a regular at the studio.
“The first time I did it, I was totally hooked,” Olsen said. He said he has noticed major changes in his body since he took it up. “Way stronger, better balance, unreal change in my flexibility.”
Olsen said he now relies on yoga as his main form of exercise and has more muscle tone and less body fat than when he was hitting the gym.
Olsen said yoga has done more than change his body but has also changed his mental state and the way he views the world.
“I find that yoga helps me stay focused, it keeps me relaxed and level-headed," Olsen said. "I’m not always feeling like I should be doing something or I have to be doing something. It totally chills me out.
“Going to the gym, it’s ‘go hard all the time’, it’s ‘go-go-go’, which then transfers into the rest of your life. In yoga, you step back and you kind of see things from another perspective, I find. I would recommend it to everyone.”