Downward dudes: The past and future of men and yoga

Men and Yoga
Illustration by Jared Jewell
In the past ten years, exactly one man has made the cover of Yoga Journal. Matt Pesendian’s March 2011 cover, featuring the California-based yoga instructor seated in lotus pose, is one in 90 female-dominated covers over the last decade of the most popular yoga magazine in the world.

Only 26 percent of those who practiced yoga in the United States in the past year were male. Today, yoga practitioners are more likely to be white, female and college educated (which, it should noted, precisely describes this author).

Multiple studies suggest yoga improves wellbeing, regardless of gender. Why, then, is the gender imbalance in yoga so pronounced? To answer this question, I joined a local support group for fathers, to investigate in what I assumed to be the epitome of masculinity: a circle of men.

Every Tuesday night, a pack of men gathers at the Dream Center, a nonprofit family center located south of Highway 6 in Iowa City. The men call themselves the Fathers United Now group.

If suspicion concerning my arrival existed, the fathers disguised it in indifference. They gazed at the walls, at the pens in their hands or at any subject but me: the lone female figure in the room. A frank, sixty-something man named Jerry finally interrupted the silence. “And who are you?” he asked. I introduced myself, admitting I was not, in fact, a father.

At these first fathers’ group meetings I met Darin, the group coordinator and a single father of two boys. I met Fred, the Dream Center’s founder, who brought a box of Oatmeal Cream Pies every week. There was Carlos, a cook and part-time student hoping to gain visitation rights to his children. There was Jack, who wore camouflage religiously. And there was Nate, a concrete worker, clean of meth for six months—the age of his son, Gary.

The yoga we commonly practice today was created for men in India.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is considered the father of many modern yoga techniques. His students included B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, who largely developed the popular Iyengar and Vinyasa styles of yoga. In the 1930s, Krishnamacharya created postural sequences for young male gymnasts in India. He designed strength-building movements like the chaturanga (a sort of half push up) and flowing, vinyasa-like motions aimed to promote physical fitness.

For years, Krishnamacharya refused to accept women as his students, until begrudgingly allowing a Russian woman named Indra Devi to study with him. Indra would later teach yoga to movie stars in Hollywood, becoming a founding mother of yoga in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s.

A 1965 U.S. law revision removed restrictions on Indian immigration, inviting a wave of Eastern yoga teachers to the United States. Yoga boomed, and by the 1970s the practice had spread from coast to coast.

I was reluctant to make my yoga motives known to the fathers’ group. My job there involved learning about being a man and eating Oatmeal Cream Pies.

At each meeting, Darin passed out workbooks called 24:7 Dad Fathering Handbook. Some of the workbooks were recycled––the top right corner of mine was labeled “Tony” in black pen.

The National Fatherhood Association created 24:7 Dad in the hope of decreasing the number of children growing up with distant dads. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one out of every three children in the United States lives in a biological father-absent home. Children raised by single mothers see higher rates of poverty, incarceration, teen pregnancy and suicide.

Many of the Fathers United Now members grew up without their fathers. Darin calls them “first generation dads.” Even those raised in two-parent households recalled their dads as figures of income and discipline, but rarely more. 24:7 Dad suggests men tend to shy away from showing emotion or concern for their physical and mental health. Studies indicate that men are more reluctant to visit doctors and therapists.

Not until 1972 was Title IX, the law requiring equal physical education rights for men and women, signed into law. Previously, female and male students were assigned separate physical education classes that offered specific activities for girls, such as aerobic dance, and contact team sports for boys.

This tradition trickled through the years following Title IX’s implementation. Some schools continued to reinforce gender segregation by scheduling football and aerobic dance classes at competing times, or by requiring women to pass a skills test to participate in contact sports. Despite the intention of the law, group exercise developed a largely feminized face.
Aerobic dance inspired rhythmic group exercise classes like Jazzercise and barre. Yoga, which emphasizes flexibility, form and incremental skill development, fit into the picture nicely.

Today, female dominance in group exercise persists. “We’re not drawing in male participants,” says Matt Stancel, assistant director of group exercise at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center (CRWC). Pat Kutcher, associate director, adds, “This is not unique to us. In [group] fitness, this is so common.”

Group exercise at the CRWC encompasses everything from Cycle Insanity to Gentle Yoga. But Stancel and Kutcher estimate that less than five percent of group exercise participants at the CRWC are male.

Says Marcie Evans, owner of Serenity Yoga and Pilates and previously a yoga instructor at the University of Iowa, “Unfortunately, Western society tends to expect the male psyche to be drawn to competitive sports and goal-oriented activities rather than activities like yoga that are more process-oriented.”

To generate increased male turn out, Stancel and Kutcher hired more male group exercise instructors. They re-named classes to seem more rugged. Stancel says he figured a class called Semper Fi Fitness would draw in more men. But, he admits, “The strategies that we’ve been using, I’m going to be honest, they’ve failed.”

One week, I brought a photo of a muscular, 6-foot-8 black man to the fathers’ group. Firmly standing in Mountain Pose on a white sand beach, his palms lifted toward the sky, he exposed a mural of tattoos across his bare chest and biceps. The fathers inspected the photo. “Is that … LeBron James?” Darin guessed.

Bingo. Last June, James led a beach yoga session for the Nike Basketball Camp in Santa Monica, California. In a Sun Sentinel interview, he said he does yoga to “try to stay above the curve.” The New York Giants follow suit with regular team yoga sessions to prevent injuries. Closer to home, the University of Iowa swimming and diving team practices yoga on a weekly basis.

Suddenly, the fathers had questions, like, “What is the hardest pose?” and “What do you wear to class?” and “Where is a good place around here?”

The fathers and I discussed the benefits yoga provides men. For example, Nate, who develops tight shoulders after a day of concrete work, could find relief for his upper back muscles in yoga. Darin told the men he regularly practiced online yoga during a difficult time in his life, and it helped lift his mood.

Icek Ajzen’s theory of planned behavior suggests behavior change comes from the belief that an activity is a good thing to do. When men learn about the good yoga can do for mind and body, there is a greater chance they will embrace it. Change is also easier when peers or mentors practice that behavior. Darin set an example for the fathers when he shared his own yoga story with the group. Meanwhile, LeBron James sets this example for men nationwide.

24:7 Dad indirectly promotes yoga, too: Section 1 asserts: “The 24:7 Dad takes care of himself. He eats the right foods, works out to stay in shape … [He] is aware of himself as a man … He knows his moods, feelings and emotions; capabilities, strengths, and challenges.” This is similar to what yogis have been saying for thousands of years, minus the Sanskrit.

Later, I admitted to Fred I was taken aback by how open-minded the men were during my time with the fathers’ group. “There’s just something different about being here,” said Fred, “We’ve created an atmosphere where you can be yourself. We’re not gonna be judged, we’re not gonna be talked about. So when they come here, men can just be men.”

“Stigmas have been created saying yoga is not hard enough or challenging enough,” says CRWC’s Stancel, “It’s a hard thing to change.”

Evans adds, “The process of yoga can be a long and challenging one for men who may already be less flexible due to male hormones and body type. It would be great if more classes could be offered just for men, or for a specific purpose like sport performance.”

Male-only yoga classes may catalyze gender balance and reverse the effects of dated physical education practices. At Balancing Healing Arts Studio in Sioux City, Iowa, men of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to try a class called “Old Fat Guys Yoga.” The company Broga offers online and in-class yoga programs nationwide specifically tailored to men, “where it’s okay if you can’t touch your toes.” Last year Lululemon, a popular yoga apparel brand, opened its first standalone men’s store in New York’s Soho neighborhood.

On the other hand, Kelli Slocum, owner of Downward Dog Yoga & Fitness in Coralville, says she doesn’t differentiate between genders. “We don’t separate the two at all, we just treat everyone as equals.” While Downward Dog rebuffs any yoga affirmative actions, they remain a destination for men seeking yoga in the Iowa City area with an athletic, vigorous style of class.

In Sanskrit, the word yoga means “to unite.” Synchronizing breath with movement allows for deeper connection within a pose. At the end of a yoga class, it is common to recite the word Namaste, meaning “we are one.”

Easier said than done.

Some of the names in this article have been changed. Helaina Thompson is a yoga instructor who teaches clients ranging from student athletes to senior citizens. She offers a $2 all-levels yoga class at Public Space One at 5 p.m. every Wednesday. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 192.

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