Myths and Misconceptions Keep Many Men Away from Yoga Studios
By Chelsea Hohn
I am settling into my breath. I am on my mat, in a yoga class, lying down before it begins. Eyes closed, I hear the door open and several pairs of feet pad their way into the warm room. When I finally sit up and glance around, I see I am surrounded by women — where are all the men?
In my experience, this isn’t unusual. Most classes that I attend are almost all women, almost all the time. In a world where many forms of physical activity are dominated by men, why aren’t there more men taking yoga classes?
According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, 37 million Americans are actively practicing yoga (a practitioner is defined as someone who has practiced within the last six months). Of the 37 million practitioners, 72 percent are female.
According to the American Osteopathic Association, yoga can increase flexibility, increase muscle tone and strength, improve respiration and athletic performance, and prevent injury. Yoga provides tangible benefits that should attract anyone interested in bettering themselves physically. So why is it that mostly women are reaping these benefits?
I can speculate. For me, my yoga practice is personal and deeply feminine. While I’m on my mat, I feel that I’m embodying the characteristics I see my ideal woman self as having: strength, grace, awareness, patience, and self-love. Yoga for me is a time to dive deeply into myself and my strength, mentally and physically. It is a time to connect my body with my mind, and one of the only times out of the day when I can truly turn off my thoughts. My practice is raw, strong, beautiful, and something I constantly work at as a living thing in my life. I suspect many other female practitioners view yoga in similar ways.
I spoke with Risa Gotlib, owner of Tiny Buddha Yoga, a newcomer to Ann Arbor’s long-standing yoga scene but a positive space and my personal place of practice. Classes at Tiny Buddha are mostly women; the classes I attend typically have no more than four men, compared to about 20 or so women.
Gotlib shared a thoughtful perspective on why men are more reluctant to tap into the benefits of yoga. “I think it’s more a conversation about how men are socialized in this country rather than yoga. It’s more about what men and boys are taught to value and aspire to,” she said.
In our culture, most men are taught that it’s not okay to be soft, to be emotional or even spiritual. This idea is reinforced by everything from mass media to peer pressure: men are supposed to be strong, period. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that yoga, which actually builds strength and stamina, tends to be avoided by men. So we must ask ourselves whether yoga classes that are primarily women are inadvertently perpetuating the idea that men don’t have a place in them. Is that the message we want to send? As women who practice regularly, what can we do to make yoga studios more welcoming for men?
Gotlib finds that the best way to get men on a yoga mat is via a male friend or someone they’re dating. Even so, she has found that once you get them to a class, getting them to come back may be the hardest part. Making yoga seem welcoming is one thing, but making it enjoyable and worthwhile is another one entirely. This responsibility falls more to the teacher than the students.
“A man may feel more comfortable with a male teacher,” speculated Ann Arbor yoga instructor Scott Carter, who can be found at A2 Yoga, Red Yoga, The YMCA, and ProFit. Carter has been teaching since 2005, and before that he was an athlete. Hockey, motocross, dirt biking, and other fast-paced sports were a part of his life, and that influences the way he teaches now. It could be why he has so many men attending his classes.
“The speech that I use is not full-on hippie,” Carter said. “The verbiage I use is what I would want to hear as an athlete that doesn’t know much about yoga but wants to move my body.”
This is different than the approach I’ve seen from female teachers in all the classes I’ve personally been to. I can see where Carter’s style would appeal to men, when athleticism is most likely what they’re more familiar with. But Carter isn’t convinced that his gender alone is enough to draw in more male students: “I don’t know that I offer something that is much different than a woman teacher; people say I hold the same energy.”
I asked Carter why he thinks so many more women than men are drawn to yoga. He had a simple answer: “I think the reason is because it’s promoted as yoga is a women’s thing.”
I think he’s right. Take the popular magazine Yoga Journal — an overwhelming number of their covers feature women. Almost every yoga-centric clothing brand features a woman in their ads, and all of the marketing is directed to women. Companies like Lole, Beyond Yoga, and Athleta don’t even offer men’s clothing. Even Lululemon, Prana, and Onzie, companies that do offer men’s yoga clothes, rarely feature a man in their ads.
Carter continued, “When you say yoga, the first thing in your mind is a woman that is soft and flexible — it’s not masculine.” Softness and flexibility aren’t exactly priorities for most men, and in fact, women do have the upper hand in terms of flexibility. According to a study done by Katherine Whitcome of Harvard University, the female spine has evolved to accommodate pregnancy by being more flexible. In addition, most women have less muscle mass than men, making flexibility more accessible to women on average.
So while men go to the gym and build muscles, women go to the yoga studio and build flexibility in a gentle, low-impact way. But despite this perception of gentleness, anyone who has taken a hot vinyasa class and left with legs made of Jell-o and a completely soaked shirt can attest that yoga isn’t all soft. As Carter said, “There is strength and there is power.” Yoga can build strong beautiful bodies, confidence, and mental stability — qualities that compliment both genders.
How do we “sell” yoga to men, then? Carter does it by framing it as injury protection, a supplement to rigorous physical activity and a way to ensure longevity. He has friends who are professional athletes that do yoga, and he finds that once other men catch wind of that, they realize yoga can be both athletic and beneficial.
In actual practice, there is nothing that makes yoga an inherently “male” or “female” discipline. It wasn’t until the Western world got a hold of yoga that it started to get handed over to women; yoga was actually developed by men. Some five thousand years ago in India, it began as various forms of meditation, and was written about in ancient scriptures by male Vedic priests. The body wasn’t even a factor in yoga until two thousand years later; asanas (poses) and physicality were late to the yogic game. The yoga we practice now is primarily due to the efforts of well-known yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, who popularized it in the U.S.
So let’s turn the question. Why are there fewer women in a sport like football? Strength, bulk, speed, and power are important components of being a successful football player. These characteristics are typically more common in men. Is yoga less attractive to men because it’s harder for them?
Tom Waters, 32, started practicing yoga when he was 20 years old, and he said it was much harder than he had ever anticipated. Waters kept practicing because he wanted to take care of his body, and now his practice is helping to keep him in shape. He finds it calming, and he enjoys both the physical and mental aspects.
“It’s a total reset,” he explained. “It’s the easiest and most productive, healthy way to shed a bad day or week.” For him, yoga is a way to release thoughts and emotions and get a new perspective on things, but he understands the stigmas that come with yoga for men and why others may be unsure about it. For instance, going into something new can be intimidating, especially as a man in an activity dominated by women. “It’s pretty exposing,” Waters acknowledged.
I agree with him: yoga can expose your weaknesses — to classmates and to yourself. “The discipline in yoga and the postures require you to push through and not sacrifice your posture, which means the only lever you can release is your mental ability to deal with pain,” Waters said. “I think guys don’t think about that.”
Waters also made a point about yoga classes that I was completely blind to. He is sensitive to the fact that he is in a room full of attractive, healthy women that often wear semi-exposing or tight clothing, and he doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. Take, for example, a full class doing a wide-leg forward-fold. If mats are parallel, your head comes into close quarters with another’s behind, and it can be awkward. Waters’ awareness comes from a place of wanting to make sure everyone feels comfortable, and hoping classmates understand he is there for himself, not for a look at anyone else.
The physical strength of yoga brings some men into the practice, but what about the spiritual part of yoga, the “hippie verbiage” and all the benefits that can’t be seen on a surface level? According to Harvard Medical School, yoga can cause one to develop a better body image through inner awareness; it can boost weight loss, lead to healthier eating habits, and provide cardiovascular benefits. However, this connection to “inner awareness” can seem off-putting to some people.
Yoga began as meditation and was a key part of religious texts. Ancient yoga is flushed with religion and prayer — things modern men and women aren’t as familiar with. When asked to sit silently, many of us struggle to turn our thoughts inward, and to turn the mind’s volume down. Most of us are simply not used to slipping into quiet reflection or prayer to find a spiritual connection. Combine this lack of inner awareness with a completely new space dominated by the opposite sex, and it’s easy to see why accessing yoga’s spiritual dimensions might be especially difficult for men.
This is unfortunate. For me, the spiritual element of yoga is cultivated inside and manifests in my life as patience, understanding, the ability to love others without judgment or competition, and to celebrate the successes of others without jealousy. I come to the practice because it releases the burrs of life that stick to the outside of my brain. When someone asks me why I do yoga, my answer is usually, “It’s cheaper than therapy, and just as good for my mind, and better for my body.”
Carter recognizes that everyone has this same mind-body-spirit connection, whether they’re tapped into it or not, and he encourages them to develop it. He works closely with his students in each pose, making adjustments and cueing deep breaths. He asks his students to ask themselves if they need more or less in a given pose. That starts the conversation within the self, between mind and body, which opens a connection that is spiritual by nature.
“Once you start asking ‘What are my needs?’ it starts to create intimacy within the physical body,” said Carter. He tries to remind his students of their power and their strength. Through this empowerment, he also teaches them to be okay with sensation, to be okay with themselves, and to be okay with forging a spiritual connection. This can ultimately lead to a student being okay as a man in a yoga studio full of women.
Carter is confident that yoga has something to offer every student, regardless of gender and regardless of the level on which they approach it. “At the end of the day, at least you are breathing and moving your body,” said Carter of yoga practice. “If you get something more — awesome.”
So what will it take to bring more men into the rewarding practice of yoga?
First and foremost, it will take better awareness of the myths and misconceptions that overemphasize women’s participation while overlooking men’s. In other words, it takes ordinary men being open-minded enough to give yoga a chance.
It takes men like Scott Carter, who lead classes in a supportive way that allows men to open up to their bodies and to their spirituality in a comfortable setting.
It takes men like Tom Waters, who are comfortable enough with themselves to defy society’s norms, to introduce other men to yoga, and to show that manhood and yoga can coexist.
More than anything, it takes the women who make up the classes. If we’re open, receptive, and supportive of men joining our community, men might be able to experience the benefits women have claimed — and we would all benefit from that.