Why Men Don’t Do Yoga


Russell Wilson July 29, 2013 Photographed by Peter yangAn article entitled “Why yoga is still dominated by women despite the medical benefits to both sexes” recently appeared in the Health & Science section of the Washington Post. The author’s overarching theory is that men shy away from yoga studios because they believe ‘myths’ about yoga such as “yoga isn’t a decent workout, that it’s too touchy-feely, that it’s not made for men’s bodies…” etc. The underlying premise of the article is that more men would do yoga if they just knew more about it.

I disagree. The reason more men aren’t going to yoga classes is not because they’re ignorant of yoga’s health and fitness benefits, it’s not because flaky New Age touchy-feely-woo-woo hasn’t been explained to them in a way that’s suitable for their understanding (good luck with that), and it’s not because they have misconceptions about yoga. On the contrary, men are reluctant to take yoga classes on account of a correct conception based on easily observable data: yoga is for women.

Women have, for all intents and purposes, appropriated modern yoga. Most of the studio owners are women, most of the teachers are women, and the vast majority of practitioners are women: in modern yoga, women rule. So it’s reasonable for a man to think that the class he signs up for will result in his being subjected to entreaties to melt his heart, to give himself permission for emotional healing, to flow into his authentic self, and to do ‘Goddess’ poses and marinate in ‘juicy’ hip-openers. And do you know how guys respond to that sort of thing? I do. ‘Cause I’m a guy. And the response goes something like this: “AAUUUGGHHH – I HATE IT!!!!”

This is not to say that I dislike hip-opening poses. Actually, they’re among my favorites. But when I hear a teacher call them ‘juicy’…. C’mon, man!

I recently had the privilege of being a featured teacher at the Iowa City Yoga Festival. The hotel where the festival took place was surprisingly suitable for yoga; the ballrooms were not too cold, the lighting was not too odious, and the hotel complex was not too far from a natural foods grocery store.  There was even a nice place in the back for sunrise meditation.

On Sunday afternoon, as the festival was winding down, I wanted to take one more class before the closing ceremony. Perusing my options, I chose a 2-hour Chakra workshop. The description was familiar: de-mystifying energy centers, recognizing constraints to personal growth, realizing your potential, etc., and it was being lead by a teacher whom I’d met during dinner the night before. It seemed safe enough but, in keeping with my standard precaution when venturing into uncharted yoga territory, I placed my mat toward the back of the room near the door just in case I felt the need to bale.

As the room filled up I noticed that there was only one other guy in the room along with about 50 women – the familiar demographic, business as usual, no cause for concern. We began by listening to the teacher mix the mutually exclusive philosophies of Materialism, Raja Yoga, Tantric Yoga, and Absolute Non-dualism into a convoluted non sequitur, an elaborate goulash of subjective speculation served up as objective fact. No problem: by now I can handle 60 minutes of self-authorized New Age touchy-feely-woo-woo without breaking a sweat. But the handout foretold of the kind of self-affirming mantras and meditations that spelled trouble ahead for anyone who wasn’t born with ovaries.

Sure enough, the levees that were holding back the ocean of estrogen broke when we stood up to begin the practice. I got through the first chakra okay but at the second chakra, the chakra of sensuality, we were directed to place our hands over our lower abdomen as if cradling an unborn child, rock our hips from side to side in an undulating figure-eight pattern and repeat the mantra ‘I deserve pleasure’.

And I thought, ‘yes, she’s absolutely right: I deserve pleasure’. So I left my mat behind, slipped quietly out of the room, walked to the bar, ordered a club soda, sat back, and watched football. Guy stuff. Pleasure indeed.

I’m sure that most of the women in the class enjoyed it. But I’d bet the other guy in the room was sorry he didn’t put his mat closer to the door. As a general rule, men would rather have root canal surgery without anesthesia than be trapped in the yoga class I walked out of (gay men whose gender identity skews toward the feminine are exempt from this generalization). Given the odds of finding oneself in a class so conspicuously oriented to women it’s easy to see why guys wouldn’t want to risk it.

Which is not to say that men shouldn’t do yoga: I think that men should most definitely practice a style of yoga that works for them with teachers that can orient the class in their direction. In what has become an industry of women, by women, and for women, the challenge for men is in finding the right teachers and the right environment

But once found I think men will find the practice of yoga to be both physically rewarding and personally fulfilling. Some guys have already found the teachers and the environment that have made yoga accessible for them. And those guys are experiencing extraordinary benefits of yoga in ways that are unique to the male experience.  And do you know who those guys are?

They’re professional football players.

Photo credit: ESPN (and a photographer who apparently doesn’t know the one place NOT to put your foot in Vrksasana)

10 Comments

  1. Posted October 24, 2013 at 8:19 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Hi HKD! Thanks for commenting on this article and furthering the discussion about gender inequalities in yoga. As a female yoga teacher who teaches primarily men in my private practice I thought I’d offer my thoughts and reactions to your blog. I think you are right; I am sure many men feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or intimidated by a yoga class full of women. I think the situation you described from the yoga conference is not the best example though. From someone “born with ovaries” the problem with that class didn’t seem that it was that it was taught “for women only”, but that is was (excuse my language) fucking CHEESY. I would have been outta that room with you, investigating the dharma of the NFL & drinking a beer. Maybe American men (generally/stereotypically) have less tolerance for CHEESE (and unskillful dharma talks) then women? I think as teachers it is our responsibity to distill the spiritual teachings to their most potent and accessible themes so that we can reach ALL people better, regardless of their gender. Maybe then we would see more men (and cheese resistant) women in class. A gender inequality I am also interested in discussing is a disparity I see in the leadership of the American yoga scene. While most of the American practioners and teachers are women, I see many men positions of power. Men are running the YA, the IAYT, many of the festivals, and holding “senior teacher” positions in significantly disproportionate numbers.
    Yours in Service of Deep & Spirtual but Cheese-Free Teaching,
    Francesca

    • Posted October 24, 2013 at 3:07 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Francesca. Your point about men being disproportionately represented at the top of the yoga food chain is well-taken. I suspect it will go the way of the issue of ‘too few black head coaches in the NFL’ in due course of time. Speaking of the NFL, you may be interested in a previous blog post I wrote called ‘Superbowl Gita’ that explores the dharma of football. The rest of my reply to your thoughts are included in the reply below that consolidates all comments to date. – Hkd

      • Posted November 3, 2013 at 8:35 PM | Permalink

        Thanks for taking the time to write these thoughtful responses HKD. 🙂

  2. Posted October 24, 2013 at 10:27 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Some men do… Me. And so do monkeys!

  3. Posted October 24, 2013 at 2:44 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you all for your comments, including those of you who commented on Facebook.

    I’d like to clear up some misconceptions that may have arisen due to my having written a word-count conscious blog post rather than a long form essay. First, I’m not complaining about the fact that the yoga-verse is, for the most part, a woman’s world; I’m just offering an explanation as to why more men don’t go to yoga classes. In fact, I’m very happy about the fact that modern yoga has become women’s turf*. The world would be better off if there were more such areas where women held sway. After all, male-dominant culture has produced the world we currently live in, complete with exploitative economic systems, alienation from nature, and senseless, brutal conflicts. Sarah Connor called it right after she (admirably) couldn’t bring herself to blow away Miles Dyson: If men ran yoga the way we run almost everything else, yoga would suck.

    Generally speaking, I think men are guilty of chronically undervaluing the legitimacy and importance of the essential nature of women on both material and, even more importantly, spiritual levels (more on that in a moment). The fact that yoga showcases the upside of women’s essential nature and gives men an opportunity to appreciate it is one for the plus column.

    And yes, I believe in ‘essential’ natures: it’s not all about social conditioning.

    Which brings me to my inadvertent implication that all women like classes with girly-girl language and flaky New Age philosophy. Generalizations can easily take on the appearance of stereotypes and my post was no exception: many of you ladies were quick to point out that ‘juicy woo-woo’ is not your bag and you would gladly have joined me at the bar for the game. Women are usually more forgiving than men and I assume that there were at least some women in the workshop I described who politely tolerated the cheese factor, which, believe it or not, I significantly understated in my post. Francesca, you are right: this one was pretty over the top and therefore somewhat atypical.

    I also did not mean to denigrate women who like their poses juicy: if that kind of characterization works for you, great: I wholeheartedly support you from a safe distance. I only meant to point out that most men have a rational fear of such classes. At least one straight guy laid claim in his comments to being an exception to the rule. Congratulations, Simon: your disinterest in televised sports will surely catapult you to the top of many a woman’s short-list of desirable partners, but I’m fairly confident that I left most of my ignorant sexism in the drawer of my desk at the American Beverage Corporation about 30 years ago (thank you, Sophia Collier).

    Nor did I mean to imply that all female-oriented classes are, by definition, cheesy. Obviously, this is not the case; feminine-skewed classes minus the cheese factor abound in yoga studios near and far. In either case, ladies, I will insist that your yoga philosophy be free from internal contradictions: nobody gets a pass from me on that one.

    Regarding issues of identity, I’m painfully aware of the fact that my conception of my self as a football watching, Pink Floyd listening, straight American white male is, as Vikram pointed out on his FB comment, a function of my false ego. Anyone who’s been to my classes or workshops knows that it won’t be long before they hear me explain how traditional yoga philosophy makes a clear distinction between the eternal, conscious, spiritual self and the temporary, unconscious, material body: we are riding on a machine through which we experience the world according to our conditioning. In other words, we are not our bodies and identifying with the attributes of the body – male/female, black/white, this ethnicity / that ethnicity, etc. are all symptoms of avidya; ignorance of our eternal identity, which has nothing whatsoever to do with our current body. I’m a man in this life; in my next life I will almost certainly take birth as a woman because we go where our minds take us and my mind is profoundly heterosexual. See the film ‘Dead Again’ for details: arguably the best cinematic example of how karma and samsara work that you’re ever likely to see.

    To elaborate a little further, while Vik used the example of the ardhanarishwara principle in the Tantric tradition, the Bhakti tradition that I subscribe to proposes that there is only one male, Krishna, the supreme enjoyer, and everyone else is female; meant to be enjoyed by Krishna. Gentlemen: this is not a metaphor you can use to justify male-dominant culture; it’s meant to be taken as a literal truth: spiritually speaking, your essential nature is female: the joke’s on you, Mr. Macho.

    And ladies, don’t freak out on account of thinking I’ve just offered a metaphorical reinforcement for male-dominant culture; it’s meant to be taken as a literal truth. The misappropriation of the metaphor is an indication of ignorance on the part of men who are caught up in the mis-identification of themselves as being men, a symptom the bodily conception of life and a hazard of yoga philosophy when it’s been co-opted and subsequently compromised by modernity and its wholesale rejection of literal interpretation.

    Finally, I really liked Deepali’s comment about language and how we, as yoga teachers, use it in a class. Making language inclusive doesn’t mean we have to negate differences; I think we can and should acknowledge differences in positive ways. The ‘heart space’ is not feminine by definition but the language men use to access that space is not the same as the language that women use. It’s not all one: as we say in Sanskrit, ‘vive la difference’.

    Again, thank you all for your ‘likes’ and thoughtful comments. – Hkd

    *By ‘modern yoga’ I mean yoga as it’s practiced in yoga studios and operated as a business as opposed to yoga as it’s practiced by renounced yogis living caves or temple ashrams and operated as a non-profit enterprise, an important but oft-overlooked distinction.

  4. Posted October 24, 2013 at 11:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

    So I wonder, what is the language your would use to describe opening one’s anahata -chakra?

    • Posted October 28, 2013 at 1:04 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your question, Miriam. There are unspoken assumptions behind your question, such as that ‘opening’ one’s heart chakra is something useful or desirable or a part of yoga and that I therefore might encourage someone to do it in a yoga class. The very fact that we assume ‘opening’ one’s heart to be part of yoga in general and asana in particular is worthy of examination: Where exactly does Patanjali direct aspiring yogis to ‘open’ their heart? Where does Krishna make this recommendation in the Bhagavad Gita? Is opening one’s heart part of the yoga process described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika? If I open my heart, what will pop out of it? And what might I be letting in? Why would anyone want to ‘open’ their heart? What purpose is served by it? And now that we’re on the topic, what does it even mean to ‘open’ one’s heart chakra? How do you do it? Do you just say ‘open sesame’ while doing a back-bend and abracadabra: your heart is open?

      Do you know why we assume that ‘opening one’s heart’ is a natural part of a modern yoga class? Because yoga is for women! Only women would come up with this idea.

      I don’t recall ever directing anyone in my class to ‘open their anahata-chakra’, but assuming that the purpose of your question is to ascertain how I would address the issue of ‘heart-opening’ with men who might ask the same questions I’m posing (as opposed to women who might think the reasons are self-evident), I might begin by explaining what exactly is being opened and to what end. Guys are more about fixing problems than they are about sharing feelings about problems so if there’s a problem to be fixed by opening the heart then we can address the mechanics of how it’s done. In other words, when we address the issue of language, it’s as much about the context and mood as it is about the choice of words. If I tell men that we’re going to ‘clear a pranic traffic jam’ or ‘balance the energy in the anahata-chakra’ then they’ll know what the purpose is and then I can describe how to do it. A healthy connection to feelings will follow automatically. But if a woman teaching a yoga class says ‘open your heart’ during a backbend then women are going to think about being receptive to feelings of love and compassion and guys are going to think ‘what the fuck am I doing in this stupid yoga class?’.

      Anyway, I wasn’t asking rhetorical questions: please offer me an answer to them when you have a moment. I think that if you examine what you mean by ‘opening’, why you would want to do it, why you assume it’s part of yoga, and the mechanics of doing it, some of what I’m saying may become self-evident. – Hkd

  5. Posted November 9, 2013 at 7:20 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Hey, thanks for this! I’d never thought about whether my teaching language was gender specific…and after reading this, I’m pretty happy to realize that it’s not. Well, I think. You’ll have to come to one of my classes in Nashville and let me know… Love to you. h*

    • Posted November 10, 2013 at 6:52 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, Holly – I’ll be happy to give you some gender specific language feedback next time I’m in Nashville. Hope all’s well there – love back. – Hkd

  6. Jason (Subalananda dasa)
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 1:00 PM | Permalink | Reply

    My name is Jason (Subalananda dasa). I’ve been a practicing Gaudiya Vaishnava for many years and studied the philosophy with my teacher, as well as broadening my scope and studying analytic philosophy and philosophy of religion with an emphasis on Indian philosophy (epistemology, mind, etc) academically.

    I was introduced to the philosophy of yoga this way. I recently lost over 80 pounds, so prior to the weight loss, asana was a challenge. I’m only now coming to the mat and developing an asana practice.

    I appreciate everything you’ve written here, but as a side note, I wanted to mention that after about a year of practicing at a few different studios, it’s painfully obvious that many instructors, “…mix the mutually exclusive philosophies of Materialism, Raja Yoga, Tantric Yoga, and Absolute Non-dualism into a convoluted non sequitur, an elaborate goulash of subjective speculation served up as objective fact….” without considering that there may be practitioners on their mats who step back into downward facing dog and cringe.

    This banter may fly over the heads of many, since they came to yoga via asana (and perhaps that’s all they care about, and that’s fine), but for those men and women who came to the mat via philoosphy, it can be counter-productive to stilling the mind when there is questionable commentary accompanying the practice.

    I’m a dualist through and through. That said, I’m comfortable in a class where that’s *not* the approach, so long as philosophy being discussed is doing so correctly. It’s the woo-woo, fluffy, hodge-podge, “everything is the same” nonsense that often turns me off.

    I know it’s a bit off-topic, but thanks for the article. I enjoyed it. I’ve even “flipped” it into my Flipboard magazine called “Forward Fold”.

    https://flipboard.com/section/forward-fold-bnl6b0

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