By Tresca Weinstein
The first time Sam Chase went to a yoga class, he hated it. Growing up as a bookworm who suffered from asthma, he thought of his body as little more than a vehicle for his brain. In his twenties, he decided he finally wanted to get fit—and his first goal was to touch his toes. Since he’d never been athletic, Sam figured that yoga was an easy place to start.
It didn’t turn out that way. “I was sweating, and I didn’t expect to be sweating. It was hard, and I didn’t expect it to be hard,” he recalls. “I was being asked to pay attention to all sorts of things I wasn’t used to paying attention to—the breath, the sensations in my body. I just wanted to be able to touch my toes!”
But, lying in Savasana after that first class, Sam felt his breath deepen, his body relax, and his mind grow quiet in a way he’d never experienced before. It was enough to bring him back for another class, and another, and another—and eventually to yoga teacher training at Kripalu. Today Sam not only can touch his toes, he’s also been free of asthma medication for 10 years, and has developed a thriving yoga-teaching career that’s included leading programs for the United Nations and the National Guard.
But many men never get past that first class—or never get to it at all. Last year’s Yoga in America study, released by Yoga Journal in December, found that 82 percent of the country’s approximately 20 million yoga practitioners are women. What keeps men off the mat? Here are five myths that may be part of the problem.
Myth #1. Yoga is all warm and fuzzy.
“For some men, their hesitation about yoga is that it’s going to be boring—just sitting around stretching, and talking about opening your heart,” says Robert Sidoti, cofounder and creator of Broga Yoga, designed specifically for men (that’s “bro” as in yoga for “bros”). Robert says that one of the biggest pitfalls when it comes to men and yoga is how the practice is marketed. Broga Yoga’s website is designed to appeal to guys with phrases like “strong, energetic, and challenging” and “an amazing workout.” Once the men show up in class, Broga teachers make a point of using straightforward language that won’t make guys roll their eyes—particularly because most Broga students are beginners.
Myth #2. You have to be flexible to do yoga.
When people think of yoga, they think of flexibility: Can you put your foot behind your head? Can you bend like a pretzel? The stereotypical image of a yogi is either a flexible young woman or a skinny Indian man bending into seemingly impossible shapes. Neither picture represents a realistic goal for most men to aspire to.
Part of that may be due to a tendency for men to have tight muscles and weak backs and abs because of the time they spend sitting—at a desk, driving, and relaxing after work. Kripalu Yoga teacher Rudy Peirce, who’s been teaching men’s yoga retreats at Kripalu for 22 years, addresses these issues in three stages, first stretching the tight back muscles, then engaging the stomach muscles, and finally building strength in the back muscles.
Myth #3. Women are better at yoga than men.
It’s true that, on the whole, women tend to have a broader range of motion in the hip joints, while men have broader shoulders and stronger arms. “The emphasis for men needs to be on not forcing the movement,” says Rudy. “Many men have a wonderful gift of strength, and we tend to work things too hard and to override pain and discomfort. Using their strength to push through a challenging posture can lead to a greater incidence of yoga injuries among men, according to a recent New York Times article by William J. Broad, author of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.
The solution: Focus on what’s working, says Sam. Many men may not be comfortable in Split, Lotus, or Forward Fold, but they can feel masterful in postures such as Crow, Side Plank, and Chaturanga.
Myth #4. You can win at yoga.
Let’s face it: Most people, men and women alike, are competitive. But—whether as a result of conditioning or biology—that can be especially true for guys. But coming face-to-face with your competitive side can be a good thing, Sam says. “There’s a part of the mind that’s hardwired to compare yourself to other people. You can let it run the show, or you can let it take the backseat. As much as men come in predisposed to compete and compare, the yoga practice is a great opportunity to put those competitions and comparisons in their proper place.”
Myth #5. Yoga may change your life. (This one’s true.)
Men typically show up at a yoga class because they want to improve their flexibility, lose weight, or heal an injury—and then get back to their “old” life. But, more often than not, something else happens along the way.
“Little do they know what they’re getting into when they step in the door,” Robert says. “I just present the practice in the most simple, accessible way, and let the magic of yoga take over from there.” As the weeks go by, he sees his students’ priorities, ethics, and lifestyle choices shift. “They used to go out after work for a few drinks, watch the game with the guys on the weekend, and drink some more. Now these options aren’t as appealing to them. They’ve come into their bodies.”