Men and Yoga, Part 3: Starting a Yoga Practice

If you’re a guy and you’re thinking about beginning a yoga practice, it’s helpful to know the answers to a few key questions, so you can walk into a class feeling certain that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. While we encourage a home practice, if you’re new to yoga, checking out a class might be the best place to begin. (And if you’re in the Triangle area in North Carolina, you can take classes with me and Sage at Carolina Yoga!)

Why should I do yoga?

Yoga is a form of movement, exercise, and meditation all in one. It’s generally low-impact and it’s easily adaptable to any injuries you may have. Having a regular yoga practice now means that you’ll still be playing sports with your kids (and grandkids) later. Yoga helps you build strength, flexibility, and stamina. It’s also abundantly helpful for less-physical but just as important things: stress relief, for instance. Research shows again and again that yoga helps with ailments like back pain and depression. Movement is powerful: having a regular movement practice keeps you fit, well, and happy.

What if I can’t do a pose?

The first time you do anything, there are parts you might skip, watch, or modify. Yoga is no different. If the instructor cues a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply stand or rest seated on your mat. No one will stare at you or think it’s strange that you are opting out of a pose or movement: that’s part of the practice. In a smaller class, your instructor might come over and ask if you need modifications. You can choose to explain what’s going on or just say, “I’m good.”

A common concern I hear from guys is a fear that you’re not flexible enough for yoga. There’s no such thing: you’re there, in part, to get more flexible! Still, as you build flexibility, you might modify common poses to make them more accessible for you. If you have tight hamstrings, for instance, there may be certain poses you need to adapt to your body.  You can ask your instructor if you’re unsure what to do to make things work for you. Bottom line, though: if a pose doesn’t feel good or possible, don’t worry about it. Letting go of having to do everything (and letting go of your ego!) is a big part of the practice.

What if I don’t understand what’s going on?

If you’re in a class, you’re there to learn. Approach the practice with a beginner’s mindset, so when things occur that you don’t fully understand, you can access curiosity, not frustration. Depending on the class, the instructor might use Sanskrit words or chant. The instructor might touch you to offer assists. The instructor may burn incense or use essential oils. You can prepare yourself for what generally happens in a yoga class by reading blog posts (or purchasing our book, which offers a helpful overview) or calling the studio in advance to inquire about the type of class you’re attending. Regardless of preparation, you still might encounter new ways of moving, breathing, or being. Remember, that’s part of yoga: you get a chance to break out of what you’re used to and try things that may change you for the better. While it’s never easy to not know what’s going on, the experience of being new and a little confused won’t last long. After a class or two, you’ll have a good sense of how it all works. A few moments of psychic discomfort are worth years of physical health and comfort.

Men and yoga
Donnie B., 44, started practicing in 2012 as a way to complement his running and biking. This year, he became a certified yoga teacher. These days, men make up more than a quarter of all yoga practitioners—and male teachers are more and more common.

What do I wear? (And what else do I need?)

You can wear what you’d wear to any type of workout or outdoor activity. Sweatpants or gym shorts are fine, as are T-shirts. (Take a look at the guys from one of my recent yoga classes to see what’s typical.) If you have the inclination and the budget, you can get fancier with yoga-specific clothes for guys from an outfitter like PrAna.

In addition to comfortable clothes you can move in, you can bring a yoga mat if you have one. If you don’t, nearly every studio has mats available for use. You might choose to bring a water bottle, but you don’t need anything else.

And a bonus: many studios have “first class free” specials. Call ahead to check, but you may not even need your wallet!

What if I’m the only guy?

You probably won’t be. Even if you’re the only guy in a particular class, your female classmates won’t find your presence strange. These days, men make up more than a quarter of all yoga practitioners. Still, if this one concerns you, you could find a class specifically for men.

Keep in mind, though, that the ancient yogis were men, and the practice was largely male-dominated until the last hundred or so years. Yoga is by no means for one gender or the other.

One of my favorite guy yoga students told me that his biggest concern when he first started yoga was “being the dude that farted in yoga.” If this is a concern you share, rest assured that passing gas is common. (In fact, there’s even a pose called wind-relieving pose!) If it happens, it happens: no one is going to look horror-stricken, I promise, and it will probably be ignored. Certainly don’t let that hold you back from attending a class!

In my next post in my Men and Yoga series, we’ll look at some of the best poses for guys for long-term health.

—Alexandra

 

Men and Yoga, Part 2: Tight Hamstrings

“My hamstrings are really tight.”

If you’re a guy in a yoga class, chances are you have uttered this phrase at some point, whether to yourself, a friend, or your yoga instructor. The complaint of “tight hamstrings” is pervasive in yoga, and it’s a comment we often hear men make. In part 2 of my series on men and yoga, let’s look at why tight hamstrings are more common in men and what you can do to make hamstrings-heavy poses friendlier for your body.

Why

Generally, women are more flexible than men, but this is certainly not the only reason men experience tighter hamstrings. An additional exacerbating factor is sitting (a common element of modern jobs.) Sitting for long stretches, over time, results in tighter, shorter hamstrings muscles. But genetics play a role, too: if you’ve been plagued by less flexibility in the backs of your legs since you were young, then you may simply have shorter hamstrings than your peers.

The sensation of tight hamstrings can also be a symptom of tightness or imbalance in other places, like calves, hip flexors, glutes, or your lower back. Sometimes stretching these other areas can create noticeable space and loosening in the hamstrings. The good news is that yoga targets your whole body, so your yoga practice over time will serve a goal of creating more flexible hamstrings.

What to do

If you have less-flexible hamstrings, forward-folding poses might be uncomfortable. So here’s what not to do: don’t just push through, shaking and sweating and gritting your teeth. Instead of pushing your muscles into submission (which won’t happen, anyway, but could result in injury), patiently coax them to slowly and steadily relax and release, by asking less of them. How? Bend your knees.

Bending your knees is the simplest fix for tightness in the backs of your legs. By bending your knees, you can control the intensity of the stretch. Aim for a level 3 or 4 intensity (out of 10), at least for the first half of your yoga practice. As you feel warmer, experiment a little, but always stay below the shaking, teeth-gritting point. (There’s greater risk of injury when you push. Practice patience—make that your intention for your yoga!)

When you bend your knees in a pose, you’re still doing the pose! You’re doing a version that is appropriate for your body and your needs. It’s not cheating to modify. It’s not weak or wimpy. It’s intelligent yoga to make wise decisions that better serve your body.

Here are three common poses modeled with bent knees. This allows your hamstrings to release gradually over time. Less is more!

Downward-facing dog

IMG_7734
Bob L., 59, models a strong downward-facing dog with knees bent.

By bending his knees in downward-facing dog, Bob can get the full effects of the pose in his upper body. The integrity of the pose isn’t compromised by this modification. The bend allows his hamstrings to gently stretch, and he probably also feels a stretch in his calves here, too.

Standing forward fold

Men and yoga
Bob in standing forward fold.

In this version of standing forward fold, Bob’s bent knees allow his glutes to stretch, too. Notice that he’s brought his hands to his elbows. Don’t worry about touching the ground in your forward folds. There’s no need to arrive at any particular destination.

Seated forward fold

In the picture on the left, Bob is showing what not to do. Don’t sacrifice your back (rounding it, as he’s doing here) in order to keep your legs straight. Instead, follow his modeling on the right: deeply or lightly bend your knees. Be sure to sit on a blanket. Lean forward from the chest, keeping your back long and your spine straight. Don’t worry about where your hands go. (No one cares if you touch your toes. Don’t compare yourself to the 21-year-old. You’re not her.)

In my next post on men and yoga, I’ll answer some common questions you might have if you’re a guy beginning a yoga practice.

—Alexandra

Men and Yoga, Part 1

My 70-year-old dad is my favorite yoga student. He is vocal about how good yoga makes him feel and he’s good about knowing his limits in a practice, resting when rest is appropriate. Whenever he’s in town, he comes to one of my weekly Yoga for Healthy Aging classes. He agreed to attend the first few classes with some trepidation—he was concerned he’d be the only guy on a mat. That has never been the case, of course, and in most of my classes at least half the students are guys about my dad’s age.

The demographics have changed since I first started teaching, and I see more and more men in class. The research agrees: according to Yoga Journal‘s recent study, men now make up 28% of all yoga students—and their numbers are growing. Considering that this same study tells us that 38% of all yoga practitioners are over 50, there’s a reason to celebrate: there is more gender and age diversity in yoga.

Men and yoga
Carl, Russell, Ray, Bob, Tom, and Tandy: all men in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s who regularly attend Yoga for Healthy Aging.

While yoga’s roots are male gurus and sages, in the West yoga has long been women’s territory. That’s changing, but what does it mean to be an active, aging man doing yoga today?

In my next few posts, I’ll be writing about considerations, modifications, and specific poses and sequences for men in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. If you’re an active, older guy with a yoga practice, I’d love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you have? Has yoga helped you physically or in a more esoteric way—or both? What resources do you consult for your home practice?

—Alexandra