By Rod Hagan | Instructor, BROGA: Yoga for Men!
I think I've heard every excuse for why a guy won't go to yoga. I teach a men-only yoga class and I'm on a mission to clear up some misconceptions about guys and yoga.
Sometimes the reasoning is valid but most of the time it's not. So I'm going to give you the top six excuses I've heard from guys who've said they'll never try yoga and my best mildly snarky responses to convince you why you should.
If you're a guy and you already practice yoga, high-five! You've experienced first-hand how yoga can strengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility and flatline stress. Maybe you had a YOLO moment and decided to see what this crazy yoga thing was all about. Maybe a friend talked you into going. However your journey on the mat got started, yoga has become a meaningful part of your life -- so much so you now wonder how you ever got along without it.
I love you, man. I really do, and I support you and celebrate your journey to better health and self-awareness.
This post isn't for you.
I'm writing this to those guys I hope will soon be my Yoga-Bros, Brothers of the Mat or whatever cool nickname you can conjure up. Those guys who have never set foot on a mat or in a yoga studio. I'm reaching out to you die-hard gym rats, weekend warriors, combat veterans, desk jockeys and other manly-men types who would rather skinny dip in the Antarctic than take a yoga class. I hope by the end of this post, you might feel a little less wary and a little more open to giving yoga a try.
Reason #6: "You can't build strength just doing yoga."
Guys are obsessed with strength. Ask the average guy which he would prefer and he'll choose the muscle car over the Prius any day. And why not? Who doesn't want to be stronger? When guys think of strength training, they usually envision multiple reps with heavy weights. Yoga doesn't fit that picture so guys think they won't develop or increase strength in yoga.
When people ask me if I lift weights, I tell them "Yes! I lift my own body weight." Utilizing your own body weight is one reason yoga is so effective in building strength. Still not convinced? Do a quick internet search for "forearm balance", "plank pose", "flying crow pose", or handstand. Go ahead, I'll wait.
I need to point out that with the exception of "plank pose", these are ADVANCED postures. You won't be attempting these right out the gate in your first yoga class.** I referenced those particular poses because they're great examples of strength. Yoga actively strengthens your muscles by putting them in orientations which require them to support your entire body weight. Unlike lifting weights, these postures also challenge your balance and flexibility. A regular yoga practice conditions your body to help protect it against injury in the tasks you do every day (sit, stand, bend, lift, reach and twist).
**(Please don't go all Indiana Jones and try these without assistance from a qualified yoga teacher. If your alignment isn't just right the results will be less "Temple of Doom" and more "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull", if you know what I mean.)
Reason #5: "I don't look like a (typical) yogi."
Don't believe the hype. There's a whole world of Yogis (and Yoginis) that exist outside of the perfectly-lit, precisely posed shots on your Instagram feed. Yogis (and Yoginis) come in all shapes, genders, ages, colors and sizes. There are yogis who are professional athletes (Seattle Seawhawks; you've heard of them, right?); actors (Robert Downey Jr.); musicians (Adam Levine, Maroon 5); studio heads (Edwin Catmull, CEO of Pixar); news anchors (journalist Katie Couric); etc. For regular every-day folk, look no further than your local gym or yoga studio.
There are scantily-clad women on the cover of most yoga magazines for the same reason there are guys flaunting impossibly ripped abs on men's fitness magazines: To entice you to buy the magazine. One thing you'll discover is that at its core, yoga isn't about how you look; it's more about how you feel -- and just in case you're wondering, no you don't have to wear tights. An old t-shirt and a pair of comfy shorts or sweats will do just fine.
Reason #4: "You think you'll look weird doing it."
Yeah, I went there -- and some of you reading this have probably gone there, too. Guys act like they don't care about stuff like image but the reality is we're all human and we don't like being in situations we think will be embarrassing for us. Stepping onto a yoga mat in a classroom full of people that have been at this for god-knows-how-long is, as I mentioned earlier, slightly less painful than a dip in the Antarctic.
This is one of the reasons BROGA: Yoga for Men! was created. It's a class for men ONLY. For your first class, you'll notice there's a sense of fellowship and camaraderie. The atmosphere is safe, supportive and non-judgmental. This isn't boot-camp; no one will be shouting at you to push harder. We don't, because that's not what yoga is about.
Don't get me wrong, some of these postures look easy but we all know looks can be deceiving. You will definitely work up a sweat.
Reason #3: "I can't do yoga, I'm not flexible."
Dude, really? That's like saying you can't lift weights because you're not strong. It's how you get there, my friend -- one core-strengthening, muscle-lengthening forward-fold at a time. It won't happen overnight -- if you've spent years sitting at a desk, don't worry if you can't touch your toes the first hundred or so times you try. It takes time. But that's the beauty of yoga. So what if your heels don't touch the floor in downward-dog? It's not important. This is about working with the body you have right now (not the body you had in college ... even though it's the same body).
Most men have tight shoulders, hips and hamstrings. Over-training in any one sport can cause repetitive stress injuries that yoga can help correct. By the way, yoga isn't just for sports enthusiasts. If you have a stationary desk job, one where you sit the majority of your day, you need to make friends with a yoga mat ASAP. Recent medical research suggests that sitting for long periods of time can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, even among people who exercise regularly (Jason Matuszak, M.D., Prolonged Sitting Leads to Serious Heath Risks)
One more thing: Holding on to tension in the head, neck and shoulders can create all kinds of problems in the body, everything from headaches and insomnia to decreased lung capacity. Practicing postures like Forward Fold not only increases flexibility, over time it can also lower your blood pressure.
Reason #2: "I don't understand what they're saying."
Even though this is relatively easy to address it's number 2 on the list because I hear it so often.
If I offered you a free trip to France would you turn it down because you don't speak French? No, of course not -- so let's break this one down.
Those odd-sounding words and phrases you hear in a yoga studio are in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a foundational language in the same way Latin is the basis for the English language. Most yoga teachers use some iteration of Sanskrit during class and it can definitely be confusing the first time you hear it. Surya namaskar. Adho-mukha savasana. Nama-what-the-heck-did-he-say?
Using sanskrit terms in a class depends on the teacher and the style of yoga you decide to practice. Ashtanga classes are sometimes taught using sanskrit terms because this practice adheres closely to the original form taught by its founder, Sri Pattabis Jois. Some teachers say both Sanskrit and English names to help students become familiar with the formal name of the posture. For this post, I chose to refer to "downward-dog" instead of "Adho Mukha Savasana" because I feel it's easier to understand. Is it good to know the Sanskrit names? Sure, if you want. Do you have to memorize all this stuff in order to practice? Not really.
Your typical BROGA class will focus on helping you understand your body and how to move in to, and out of postures safely. Along the way, you'll probably hear a Sanskrit term or two but don't feel you have to memorize them. We learn through repetition; two or three classes in your mind will have already made the word-to-posture connection and will naturally cue your body on what to do.
Reason #1 (drumroll, please): "I don't like/want to do any of that mystical stuff."
"Let's get mystical! Mystical! Can you hear my mala talk?" -- with apologies to Olivia Newton-John
If the idea of getting in touch with your spiritual side makes you uncomfortable, you're not alone. Human beings are conditioned to be wary of things that are different or that they don't fully understand. Teachers sometimes take for granted that students (a) want the experience of chant, mantra, etc. and (b) understand the form, language and intent behind these practices.
Yoga by its very nature is more than just a physical practice. Everything you do in yoga has a deeper purpose. The word "yoga" means "to yoke; join together". In traditional teachings, this means bringing balance and harmony to mind, body and spirit. When a teacher suggests meditation, chant or some other method that sounds strange or even silly (just wait until you try "Lion's Breath"), remember that these are just tools you can use to help you explore the deeper elements of your own psyche.
I'll expand on this here and say that even those forms of yoga that exclude its more meditative aspects will have an impact on your spiritual makeup. How does this happen? The key word here is "focus".
During practice your breath, body and mind are engaged on different levels. By focusing on the steady flow of breath your mind begins to quiet, allowing you to experience greater levels of concentration. During class, you'll often be reminded to "focus on the breath". The trick is to try and keep the breath steady and smooth throughout, but that's why we call it "practice"! Maintaining a steady ebb and flow of breath helps you know when you can relax more deeply into a posture. In the same way, if you're struggling in a posture and breathing too quickly, this is the breath telling you that you need to back off.
As for the mystical stuff, that's not something I can really explain. It's something that has to be experienced and it's different for everyone. I can tell you that yoga has completely transformed my life in ways I could never have imagined the first time I took a class. It's made me happier, healthier, calmer and more self-aware than I've ever been at any time in my life. My old nemisis, stress is still there, but he just hangs around the far end of the playground. He's not the bully he once was.
So there you have it, my soon-to-be Brothers-in-Aums (it'll make sense after your first class). Qualified instructors are standing by to help you get on a mat and get on the road to a healthier, stronger, happier you.
Think it over. I'll be in the Man Cave with a mat and a helping hand whenever you're ready.