The Army and Marines are beginning pilot programs to take up yoga and meditation in their training. Now that the military is putting soldiers in Downward-Facing Dog, it might be time for today’s man to consider it, too.
As many as 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. It’s in virtually every gym and rec center, and many cities have studios that are dedicated solely to the practice of yoga. However, when today’s man first glances into a yoga class, he’s immediately going to encounter his first psychological barrier: most yoga classes are overwhelmingly composed of women.
Today’s man isn’t intimidated. He steps right in, probably armed with the first yoga mat he found at Target (or, when all else fails, a towel). He doesn’t like the idea of putting his hands together at his heart, because how’s that supposed to help him get magically better at everything? It kind of feels like a weird religion at this point, but he’ll sit through if it helps him get to the magic stretches.
Today’s man then discovers a new problem, and this is where most men are going to falter: he realizes that he’s really, really inflexible. While all the other students are effortlessly putting their palms on the floor in their forward folds, he’s managed to spring little leaks all across his body and from the corners of his eyes, and yet he can’t even hope to get his fingertips to the floor.
It’s at this point that, most of the time, today’s man decides yoga is bullshit and goes back to lifting heavy things.
I’m here to tell you that today’s man may want to get back in the yoga studio. Because yoga is a practice for men, too. Today’s man doesn’t need sheer lululemons or a $70 mat; that Target mat will do him just fine. Until it came to the West, yoga was a boys’ club, with everything except the treehouse and a sign that read, “No girls allowed.” Yoga was practiced not just by priests, but by warriors—and if it’s good enough for the warriors in not just ancient, but modern cultures, then it’s good enough for today’s man.
Let’s start simple. What is yoga?
There are a lot of answers to this—the word “yoga” translates into the verb “to yoke,” as in to take oxen and align them by binding them together; in this sense, it also means “to unite,” and many scholars refer to yoga as uniting or yoking the body and breath. The other popular definition comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, who was pretty much the first guy to sit down and write about yoga (c. 150-200 BC). He said yoga is “the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”
So why should today’s man practice yoga?
The health benefits of yoga are widely available and should not need a defense. However, as was pointed out, some people like doing things to yoga, like practicing in superheated rooms—these are not always as healthy. This sounds contradictory, but think of it this way: hot yoga is to yoga what Nascar is to racing—it’s a type, a brand, merely one kind of exploration into a much bigger concept. There’s Formula 1, rally cars, even illegal street yoga. Er, racing.
This isn’t to say today’s man should give up lifting weights or cycling or doing anything else—even in India, there were very few people who were strictly “yogis” and nothing else. Today’s man can use yoga as a complimentary practice to almost any other physical or mental discipline. Whether he is an Ironman Triathlete or in Starcraft’s Grand Master’s League, a mere one or two hours of stilling the fluctuations of the mind per week can, over time, give today’s man a new edge when compared to those who do not practice.
What can today’s man expect from today’s yoga class?
If today’s man was to actually take that yoga class, let’s say in his gym or rec center (today’s man starts with familiar turf before he branches out), it would typically consist of this: an hour long series of movements that flow together in a style not unlike an aerobics class, pushing him to the limits of his flexibility, all while the teacher asks him to keep breathing, keep breathing, keep breathing. There may be an “Om” thrown in for good measure, but that’s not always the case.
From there, yoga doesn’t really change much. There are minor atmospheric differences, such as the fad of practicing in superheated rooms, or by candlelight, but these are not the ways all classes are run. There are also different styles, like Yin, Ashtanga, Restorative or Bikram to name a few, but let’s just talk about that gym yoga for now.
What can today’s man hope to gain from a regular yoga practice?
Yoga helps with balance, alignment and flexibility. It also develops discipline, focus and mental acuity. The most common misconception that today’s man makes is that yoga requires these things in order to begin. This is not the case.
I’ve seen men who were unable to reach past their knees in standing forward folds. I’ve regularly crossed paths with men who groaned or grunted going from seated to standing up. There’s an inspiring yoga-changed-my-life story of a paratrooper whom doctors told would never walk unassisted again. But these do not and should not stop today’s man. Saying one is too inflexible to do yoga is like saying one is too dirty to shower. Today’s man never says that he is too dirty to shower.
As there are bad gyms and bad trainers, so are there bad yoga classes and bad yoga instructors. There are also good instructors and good classes that are designed for different purposes that may not be in alignment with today’s man’s goals—these must be considered. A bad experience doing hot yoga at the insistence of one’s girlfriend/boyfriend/family member/what-have-you is not enough. I will, however, admit that not all yoga is for everyone, just as Insanity or P90X are not for everyone.
The biggest challenge today’s man will face is going to be finding the class or the teacher that’s right for him. Yoga is going to acknowledge its primary audience, and as such, is going to appear to be geared towards women between the ages of 18 and 44. Fortunately, most students take classes at multiple studios. The best way to find a studio is similar to finding a personal trainer: personal recommendation is still the best form of advertisement. Strike up a conversation—a lot of it sounds like a new language to today’s man (some of it is).
Today’s man is probably not a yogi; he is a weight lifter or a cyclist, or perhaps a boxer or a football player. Perhaps he is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or an aimless 20-something. Whatever he is, today’s man probably has tight hamstrings. He cannot reach the floor, and he thinks and stresses about way too much. Through yoga, he has the power to change that, much the way yoga itself changed when it came to America. As he reaches for the floor and stills the fluctuations of the mind, perhaps today’s man becomes a yogi on top of everything he was before. But certainly, he also makes himself tomorrow’s man.
—Photo The U.S. Army/Flickr