Sadie Chanlett-Avery goes easy on the guys with fluff-free yoga.
When stiff, middle-aged Bob keeps showing up to my yoga class, I’m flattered. The poses aren’t easy but his biggest obstacle may have been walking into the studio the first time. Although yoga is sold as peaceful stretching, the flexy Om club can intimidate and the sequences demoralize an average Joe. Guys often stumble over their ego just to get into yoga.
As a yoga insider I like attending fast-paced, vinyasa classes. The music, the heat, the crowd—feels like a yoga party. But when the bare-chested teacher sings in Sanskrit and bangs the tambourine against his tight shorts, I imagine explaining the scene to my dude friends:
Dressed in your basketball shorts, you sit “Indian-style.” (You didn’t remember it being so uncomfortable in kindergarten.) The class starts with chanting to some god you’ve never heard of and alternating the breath between nostrils. The 100-pound, vegan instructor calls out, “Exhale, Chaturanga Dandasana, Inhale, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Exhale, Adho Mukha Svanasana. Now melt your heart center and breathe into your sacrum.” Huh? You can’t even touch your toes. Struggling to keep up, you try not to fling sweat onto Miss Hottie Pink Pants on the next mat.
There are sound reasons why guys resist signing up for Power Flow. While the self-help psychobabble and hippy science might be hard to stomach, I’m more concerned with combining a stiff body with a compensatory mentality. I know when I slop through a sun salutation, but for a newbie the pacing and cavalier alignment bait the ego.
Many men first learn formal movement in the context of sports, i.e. competitive performance. In All Levels Hatha the rules of the game change. Spread your legs, bend over backwards, put your butt in the air. These vulnerable postures invert athletic norms. One of my Clif Bar brogis, a black belt in jujitsu and former rugby player, jokingly said yoga made him feel like a terrible athlete.
As we peel off stress and defenses, yoga exposes us. Our physical thresholds reveal our emotional orientation. In particular, the student/teacher dynamic requires humility and openness. As a student, my mind resists authority I don’t trust. Yet my brain chatter quiets when I surrender into skilled teaching. We need a safe context to break out of our limitations and habitual thinking. As a teacher, I strive to create a haven especially for anyone sidelined from yoga culture. When teaching I:
- Emphasize movement skills over poses. I don’t assume that everyone can or should bend like a 25 year-old noodle. Pain-free range of motion trumps complex, “trophy poses.” I focus on unencumbered breathing, optimal loading of the spine, and mobility especially in the shoulders and hips.
- Go easy on the new age sermons. Although I’d take classes with articulate spiritual themes, I space out with too much transformation, manifestation, actualization, blah, blah, blah. I’d use my instructions to ensure foot positioning and external rotation of the femur bone. When the mind and body connect, magic happens. No need for me to lacquer on my spiritual beliefs.
- Provide strong leadership. A student reported back to me that once a week, for hour and a half, there is only one voice in his head and it was mine. When students open their psyche to me, I enter with clarity and respect. I do my best to edit out wishy-washy rambles.
- Use levity as a release valve. When struggling with a challenging pose or a mini existential crisis, laughing at ourselves discharges anxiety. A bunch of bare-foot people in bizarre positions: Yoga is so absurd. If we take it too seriously, we’ll end up more uptight.
- Challenge to spark intelligent adaptation. We can sweat through a killer workout with hunched shoulders, erratic breath, and restricted hips. I want our work to blaze an improved pattern instead of triggering habitual reactions.
When Bob playfully finishes class and reports how much better his back is feeling, I’m thrilled. With brave introspection and skillful self-organization, men are showing up to yoga. Stressed tech workers belt out kirtan chants on the mat next to me and retired executives revive their fascia in my Saturday morning class. Broga proves that the male ego isn’t fragile, it’s actually quite resilient.