men on the mat: yoga & the gender divide

maybe this is why more men aren’t doing yoga… (image via chiropractic-help.com)

The old “where are all the men in yoga class” conversation is making a quiet return in the popular press and the blogosphere lately. Even the most casual observer of yoga culture would notice that women outnumber men in the average yoga class, despite the fact that many of the highest profile teachers in North America (and traditionally) are men.

As an article on Yoga Modern last week noted, women make up 72.2% of the 15.8 million people who practice yoga in the US and thus the yoga community feels a need to reach out to men. The title of the article asked, Does marketing yoga to men reinforce gender stereotypes? “Surely there is a way for the yoga community to be inclusive without falling into reductive and overgeneralizing gender stereotypes. After all, are men and women so different that they can’t practice yoga together?” Staying true to the name of the website, the article gives a historical overview of women’s place in the world of yoga, and cites “the non-dualistic philosophies of Vedanta, Yoga, and Tantra.”

A post on Teachasana, 6 Ways to Bring Men to the Mat, lists the reasons why men may be uncomfortable with yoga, with suggestions to remove the barriers. Written by a co-founder of a new brand of yoga, Broga (which is awesome, actually)  addresses marketing that targets women and offers tips to create a class “vibe” and sequencing that appeal to men. While the author admits that his generalizations are just generalizations, there are a lot of assumptions: men don’t like to look like fools, men want a workout, men think yoga is for women, men don’t want “mushy” language in class…

And then there was an article in the Canadian national paper, The Globe & Mail, a few days ago, ‘I’m a guy and I practise yoga.’ A regular guy – not a teacher or marketer or somebody trying to reach out to the male masses – wrote a reflective and thoughtful essay publicly declaring his love of yoga and the subtle changes that he’s seen in himself since he’s practiced, along with his often unsuccessful efforts to persuade the men in his life to try it out. “A door opened to a previously inconceivable reality. Before long, I was breathing release into my hips, thighs and chest… My yoga time became sacred; my mat was my sanctuary. Clichéd or not, I was living and breathing the lingo and I loved it.”

Perhaps this is what’s needed: not marketing, not a trademarked style or special classes or different languaging/sequencing/branding. But men who are courageous enough to tell their stories and share their experiences.

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  1. As a male yogi, I can honestly say that what used to keep me away from many classes was the assumption that teachers and the fellow students would be speaking some sort of psycho-babble that was not based in anything I could relate to as reality, and which would be so wordy and ethereal that none of it would serve as useful when it came to practically applying it to my life. That assumption was partially justified, it turns out. Many classes I’ve attended have left me wanting much more from the teachers, and yet others have brought me to a place where I felt motivated to continue to seek out incredible teachers and spaces. What the bottom line is this: I want to be spoken to in words I can understand, regardless of whether the concepts are new or not. I don’t want to feel like I’m being asked to buy into something that isn’t an extension of my own energy. This may sound like I’m nit-picking, but I’m really not. I’m an intelligent, intuitive guy, and my bullshit radar is finely-tuned. If a teacher is simply repeating what he or she has learned without conviction, passion and an element of their own experience, I’m out. Speak to me like you have something to share, like you have knowledge and insight that will open my eyes and awareness to something that may have been right in front of my face the whole time, but was obscured. This is the way I teach, and the way I like to be taught.

    • Interesting, Bram! I’m curious: did you find that more women teachers tended to speak psycho-babble and ethereal language in the classroom? Did you need a male mentor to finally commit to the practice? In the classes you teach, do you notice a difference between your men and women students? And do you think that men need something like “Broga” to draw them to the practice?

      Would love to hear more of your thoughts!

      • When I first started my impression was that I was there for something other than Yoga. It must have taken at least 5-6 weeks of showing up to prove that I wasn’t cruising the class for chicks.

        I don’t know how to appeal to the men to get them to show. I figured that people like Diamond Dallas Page would have drawn more guys to the mat. I mean, he went to the Middle East to help there and the publicity should have taken the practice by storm.

        Maybe it’s the new agey speak that takes place afterward but let’s face it, women are definitely more connected to who they are and by the time a guy gets there he is usually 45-50 and most of those many feel like its too late to start anything let alone Yoga. It may be the intimidation factor. The majority of the population can’t touch their own toes and you see bodies that are contorted into unimaginable positions and think, “well, damn that’s not for me.”

        Yoga takes time and folks wanna spend quick and want what they want now.

        I happen to like my practice, but Lululemon doesn’t make anything that fits me or is in my price range. No, you won’t catch me wearing any designer apparel but I may show up in just shorts and a tee shirt and be fine with that.

        How to capture that market? For most, but not all guys, unless there’s some beer involved all I can say is good luck…

      • Given that I usually encounter more female teachers than male, I did get the psycho-babble moment more from the females, but that’s not really indicative of how women or men teach, it’s just indicative of the ratio of women-to-men teachers (much like that of the students)…I didn’t need a male mentor, however…the teachers who I have most related to have always been women. As for my classes, I often see a larger-than-average number of males attending classes (sometimes up to 40% of the total # of students), and from what I can tell, they’re attending because of my approach in communicating ideas that are relevant and helpful to their daily lives…I think Broga would probably alienate them…they don’t come for the male bonding moment, but rather for the experience I try to offer…

  2. My evening classes are about 50/50 male-to-female, about which I am delighted and feel very fortunate. My approach is common-sense, with most of my instruction focusing on the physical (what is interacting with what, what muscles the pose affects, why the poses are sequenced they way they are, etc). I figure they will start to experience the mental eventually, without me having to tell them what to feel–maybe just a suggestion to keep their minds in the present. I think that approach, coupled with an even mix of sexes, is what makes the class seem more welcoming to men. Or at least not threatening.

    I really like the energy of a mixed class. It’s not particularly competitive, but there is a seriousness that is nice. My morning classes are primarily female and there seems to be more of a social element with that group (not unwelcome, but different). I think a conscious effort to attract more men would probably backfire (for me), so I just let things grow by word-of-mouth.

    It’s a fascinating topic, though, and one I think the community should address. Yoga should feel accessible to everyone who is interested…

  3. Roseanne, thanks for continuing this conversation. The days since the publication of my G&M essay have been really interesting in terms of the feedback I’ve received (both personally and in cyberspace).

    I think Brenda P. has found the ideal approach (this is apparent in her 50/50 class mix; I’ve rarely attended a class that was more than 20% men). I started with a focus on the physical, and the philosophy started seeping in over time. My big learning was that the two are completely intertwined, and you’re missing out big time if you focus solely on the physical asanas.

    One interesting bit of feedback (from two male acquaintences) is that they’ve started yoga as part of their P90X program, a “get built quick” workout system anyone can do at home with some free weights and a pull-up bar. Yoga is a significant part of the program to counterbalance the days focusing on “back and shoulders” and “abs and legs”.

    I haven’t seen the P90X DVDs and can’t attest to their effectiveness, but I hope the yoga sessions have adequate focus on proper alignments and strongly recommend that users attend at least a few classes to attain proper instruction.

    My final thought in response to the Broga concept: I agree that (generally speaking) guys prefer to work hard, then rest. As recently as two weeks ago I attended a yin class at a hot yoga studio and was disappointed in both the pace of the class and in the reduced heat of the room. Neither were a surprise as both were advertised as parts of the class, but it made me realize that I want my yoga practices to be fairly intense, followed by a big deep well-earned savasana.

  4. While living in London(UK), most of the yoga classes I took (especially at the Great Russell St Central Y) attracted a very high percentage of male practitioners.I definitely got a sense of a more accepting attitude towards yoga practice. Men from all walks of life simply seemed to view yoga class as an organic part of their week. Not as a workout, but as a part of self care and life balance. Perhaps this is just my personal experience, but the coming together of the sexes really changed the dynamics of practice to a much more profound level.

  5. yep, i gotta say that in my experience there are barriers stopping men from practicing yoga. At the same time, I think they’re disappearing slowly but surely and more men are practicing.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve also been a little concerned that there would be some weird backlash and switch to the other extreme of the stereotype- beer and yoga and chicks. (like how Lululemon had that ‘men only’ sale where girls in bikinis sold beer and chicken wings while only guys were allowed to shop in the store…. yep it happened).

    I agree with you Roseanne, c’est les témoignages sincères des gars qui feront une différence. 🙂

  6. Hey Roseanne,
    I’m going to send this post to my Dad who has been practicing Yoga in Summerland, B.C. thanks to the recreation services offered through the city there. Maybe I’ll learn more about what got him on the mat and share!

  7. When I decided to try yoga one year ago, it was a personal choice – taking care of myself. Not something you will hear often from a man. I was looking for a calm and neutral environment where I could forget about all the other aspects of my life and concentrates only on me.

    It was hard at the beginning. I was unable to sit a long time for the meditation part. I had difficulties to breath and stay long enough in each position.

    I didn’t mind if I had to stop, even if all the others where able to continue. No ego, no need to perform for others. Only listening to my body and mind.

    It still hard sometimes. I’m not flexible at all, but I’m getting better. And it’s all that I need.

  8. I think everyone should try yoga!

  9. i’ve come to this page via a link on yogamodern with a similar post via a link from Seva Soule Yoga on facebook

    the questions of the sexes seems not to have lost any of its touchy-ness i’ve witnessed and experienced all my life, and appears rampant through out history –

    maybe this is how nature intended? to force us, finally, to re-concile what seems is each sex’es view that the other sex is definitely different in thought and preferential mode of living, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, with apologists and rebuff-ners in each camp

    my standing stance is we’ve all (sexes, races, ethnic groups, and even political groups!) have much more in common than not

    should men be targeted for inclusion in yoga classes?

    my only response that makes sense is unfortunately more questions?

    should seniors be targeted? larger size participants? substance abusers? emotionally or physically abused? children? teens?

    and my only response i can think of to all that is, i don’t mind spot targeting of specific groups of people, if included are reminders that probably any, if not all of us, can probably relate to the target group’s specific-information

    certainly most of us guys can benefit from a pre-natal yoga class, or grown-ups from a children’s developmental class, or anyone who knows someone who’s a senior or plans on being one 😉 from a seniors or de-conditioned class

    and from all that, i give myself some upfront compassion, that if i don’t have the “right” handle, or quite the correct balanced view on life between men and women, i give myself credit, i’m learnng, i’m trying, and i’ll always try to include what i believe as for all of us, all people, and adjust as i learn 😉

    btw, is that guy in the picture at the top of the article working with a blindfold? 😉 and why does he looks like how i feel sometimes? 😉