At a yoga studio in Washington recently, practitioners breathed, bent, twisted and stretched their way to a happier state. They left more relaxed, more energized, with better posture and a renewed outlook. But there was one curious thing: Of the 24 people in the room, only four were men.
Studio owners and teachers said that this disparity is not unusual, no matter the time of day. Typically, they said, the ratio of women to men rarely goes much below 80-20. In fact, a 2012 survey by Yoga Journal found that of the 20.4 million people who practice yoga in the United States, only 18 percent of them are men.
Why don’t men do yoga?
“My husband said he felt bored,” said Praneetha Akula, a 36-year-old Silver Spring, Md., resident who was visiting the studio on a day off. “He didn’t let himself enjoy it.”
Akula is like many women who do yoga and want their spouse or partner to give it a try. But the many myths about yoga stand in their way: Yoga isn’t a decent workout; it’s too touchy-feely; you have to be flexible to do it; men’s bodies just aren’t built for pretzellike poses.
Adrian Hummell has heard all the excuses.
“What happens is, a guy who doesn’t know about it, he associates it with things like Pilates or aerobics, and they think of it as a chick workout,” said Hummell, who has been doing yoga for the past three years and now teaches Bikram yoga, a particularly strenuous form of the practice, in Bethesda, Md.
“It’s almost a joke when guys say, ‘I don’t think I should do yoga because I’m not flexible,’ “ he said. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m too weak, so I can’t lift weights.’”
Hummell and many other yoga practitioners extol its many benefits beyond a pleasant post-class buzz. Several studies linked a regimen of yoga classes to a reduction in lower back pain and improved back function. Other studies suggest practicing yoga lowers heart rate and blood pressure; helps relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia; and improves overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of
Health. Still, despite numerous studies, no firm evidence has been found to show that yoga improves asthma or arthritis.
The center is funding research to determine whether yoga can benefit in the treatment and care of diabetes, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple sclerosis.
Loren Fishman, a Manhattan physician who sees patients suffering from a variety of ills, said his prescription is often yoga.
Fishman recalled one of his recent patients, a subway track worker with a back injury. The man’s primary-care physician suggested physical therapy, but the man requested yoga instead, so Fishman started him on gentle stretches to ease his pain.
Among those who reject the idea that yoga is just for women is Danny Poole, a Denver teacher and trainer who uses yoga to help athletes; in 2009, his students included about a dozen members of the Denver Broncos.
Poole came to the practice reluctantly himself. A basketball player at Grand Valley State University in Michigan four decades ago, he was dragged into a yoga class by his girlfriend.
“All I knew is that there were hippies doing it, and I was intimidated because I didn’t know what it was,” Poole said. “Then I got hooked on it because I never felt so good.”
Poole kept up with yoga and said it helped him avoid sports injuries as he grew older. About 15 years ago, he went full time as a teacher.
No chanting, no music
Poole decided to drop some of the elements of a traditional yoga class that could turn off guys: no chanting, no Sanskrit terms for poses, no music, no headstands or handstands that are difficult and prone to causing injury. “I keep it easy and gentle, and I avoid trying to make the client not look good,” he said.
Poole has taught yoga to such football stars as Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Evans, Brandon Marshall and Willie Roaf. He said pro athletes like yoga because it keeps them loose and focused before a game and helps ease post-game soreness.
When men say they are bored with yoga, Poole thinks there may be something else going on.
“Our egos are deflated because we can’t do some of the poses,” he said.
That’s a pretty common attitude among some men at the Flow Yoga Center in Washington, according to co-owner Ian Mishalove. He suggested that men look for a beginner class, talk with the teacher beforehand about any past injuries or physical limitations, and don’t insist on trying to do every pose.
“As with anything, there are beginning phases of poses and advanced phases,” Mishalove said. “All the asanas (or poses) in theory are approachable by anyone. There are ways to approach each posture; there can be a baby-step way to approaching them.”
New Age nightmare
The spiritual side of yoga can inspire some people, while it’s a New Age nightmare for others. That’s particularly true for many men, according to Mishalove.
“If it’s flaky and too New Agey, soft or touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff unless it’s explained in a way that is understandable to a male audience,” he said. Mishalove said men often respond better if yoga is presented as a way to relieve stress rather than a way to find spiritual contentment, for example.
Men are more likely to push into a position rather than relax into it or avoid it completely, according to teachers.
Yoga is generally low-impact and safe “when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor,” according to the Web site of the National Institutes of Health,.
Sherrod Smith, a 26-year-old Washington resident, said he practices yoga because it helps him play better basketball.
“It helps me stay loose and limber,” he said.
Sebastian Lopez, 36, has been doing yoga on and off since 2000. He says it helps control his anxiety and relaxes him. For him at least, there’s another benefit about being one of the few men in a yoga class.
“You want to be where the women are,” he said. “You don’t want to be over there with the guys watching football.”