Men, Yoga and Limiting Beliefs

by Jonas Plass.

Last month we offered our first annual Men’s Spiritual Health Week here at The Practice. Aside from free presentations, sharing circles, a three-day retreat, and a variety of related ‘treats,’ we also offered free Beginners and Meditation classes for men throughout the entire week. It was precisely on account of this occasion that this was the first time that we at The Practice had as many men students joining those classes as we had women. The split here at the studio is normally around 20/80 in favour of women; and if you’ve ever joined a Yoga class in a studio in your area, you’ve probably had a chance to notice that women normally make the bulk of Yoga students pretty much everywhere. So, our first reaction to those rising numbers of men in those classes was one of sheer gladness. It’s always great to have people try out something new, and to see so many men joining us on that exact week was a real blessing. Still, once the initial joy and surprise wore off, we were left with an important question to ponder. If men feel ready and willing to join Yoga classes when they’re offered for free and admit that they really feel the benefits of the practice after a few sessions, then, why aren’t men joining more frequently regular Yoga classes?

The first thing we did was to rule out economical factors such as an inability to pay for a regular drop-in. And in fact most men actually confessed that money wasn’t really the issue here. So fees being out of the picture for the time being, this could only mean one thing: there must be a problem with men’s perception of Yoga as a practice in general, a spiritual practice they perceive as ‘too slow and gentle’ or, put differently, as ‘too feminine.’

So it became quite clear to me that stereotypes and limiting beliefs about Yoga as a ‘female-friendly practice’ were really the heart of the matter here. And this is how two main groups of men became easily identifiable in this regard.

On the one hand, there are the ‘Yoga-is-not-really-for-me’ type of guys. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. They’re the type of guys that don’t even give Yoga a try. As a former professional 400 meter runner, I have had my fair share of experience with macho attitudes towards things perceived exclusively as ‘exercising.’ But if physical expertise were all there is to either Yoga, life, and running, our ability to go beyond our limits, break new records, and develop further would be greatly compromised. So, if I may be fully honest with you here, I’m getting a bit tired of this type of limiting belief. There are no activities that are just for men or just for women, just people (and cultures) intent on thinking about them in such dualistic ways. But to be fair, however, this is not entirely these guys’ fault.

The way Yoga is often portrayed in the media today is in part responsible for this type of black-or-white interpretation of the practice. After all, Yoga is often depicted as something of a ‘pastime for women,’ a soft and slow practice not too different from gymnastics or dancing, for which one seems to have to be super-flexible. But think of this for a second: after retiring from my professional sports career as a sprinter, my body couldn’t have been any more apparently unsuited for Yoga. I had short hamstrings, tight glutes and hips, a stiff lower back, and basically zero mobility in my thoracic spine. But that’s exactly why I came to class. As a sprinter, I was super specialized but lacking a healthy and natural movement pattern; and this is precisely what Yoga has brought back into my life. And so, while my practice of Yoga may look nothing like that of many ‘Instagram ballerinas’ out there, that’s not the point of why I practice. I practice to grow and evolve, to become more open to all there is to life. I practice because of that. But many men never get this far.

On the other hand, there’s those other guys who, being still up for a challenge, dare to step into a Yoga shala relatively open-minded. Many times, however, particularly after a more internalising type of practice (which is actually the type of practice men are often more in need of) they come over to say thank you at the end, but argue that they’re actually looking for something ‘a bit more of a challenge.’ ‘Challenge’ here is, of course, code for ‘physical challenge’; because, for those men who are not very familiar with the spiritual side of practice, physicality is pretty much all there is to Yoga as a means of exercising.

In my opinion, these men, like the ones in the first category, fail to realize that the practice was probably sufficiently challenging, though probably in ways most of them have never been encouraged to explore before. And so, I ask them: How was your breath as you moved in and out of the poses? How were you breathing throughout the entire practice? Was your breath smooth and even or was it coarse and hiccupy, failing you at times even? Where was your head at during the practice? Where you totally immersed in the present moment, focused on contemplation of whatever was suggested, or was your head out and about, here and there, wandering? What were you feeling throughout the practice and where? Were you aware of your emotions and their correlated sensations? Or was it all just move and move from here to there? All of this is not only part of the practice, it is the core of practice, a core that can’t be captured in pictures.

This is why I’m so happy that so many men joined our first annual Men’s Spiritual Health Week here, so we could have plenty of occasions to discuss and experience deeper ways of relating to Yoga and to our practice. At the end of the day, Yoga is a spiritual practice. As such, it is all about self-exploration, about getting to know and fall in love with your real Self. For only from this place of truth can we really ever be of service to others, to our family and friends. It’s time for men to engage in the conversation and consider what they really want to experience more of and also grow out of. For me, this means growing out of our ‘manly comfort zone,’ looking inside, and taking off one mask after another till our authentic Self is fully exposed. The good news is that this will probably come hand in hand with more of the feel-good physical stuff: as in hips that move and feel open, greater flexibility in the legs, and a fuller, more open heart.