For many men the mere thought of getting into a downward dog is enough to leave them running to the comfort of the weights room. But, writes Joe Minihane, if you can brave the yoga mat, the benefits for both body and mind will improve all areas of your health and fitness.
Practising yoga regularly has become a key part of my fitness regime. But aside from making me physically stronger, the process of focusing on my breathing and allowing myself to go inward has boosted my mental health and made me calmer in the process.
However, despite research showing there are over 10,000 yoga teachers in the UK, reaching more than 450,000 people every week, practising yoga remains a predominantly female pursuit. That despite the fact that its benefits are increasingly understood, with the potential to help ease the growing mental health crisis among men, as well as acting as the perfect supplement to other forms of exercise.
“For some, there is a stigma that yoga is just for women,” says Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene fame. “Simply put, it’s not and never has been.”
Mishler’s popular YouTube channel has 5.4 million subscribers. Her mantra is ‘a little goes a long way’, making her videos the ideal introduction for men keen on shorter practices and unsure about attending a studio-based class.
“In my experience, practising for five to 20 minutes regularly is going to yield more benefits than just hitting a 90-minute power class every once in a while. Regular yoga practice offers you the time and space to connect to your breath and body in a way that keeps the systems of the body happy and healthy.
“Especially in a world of fast-pace, high-octane screen time, we need daily practices that calm the nervous system and connect us back to ourselves. Not an image of our self, but to a true feeling of peace.”
While the benefits Mishler lays out are clear, rolling out the mat or attending a class for the first time is still challenging for many men. For Charlie Dark, the founder of London-based running club Run Dem Crew and a qualified yoga teacher with 250 hours training, that’s because yoga itself has an image problem.
“One of the things about yoga is that it’s very inaccessible to a lot of people, particularly men,” he says.
“People see it through the lens of Instagram. And what you’re seeing through that lens is people who are hyper flexible, a lot of ex-dancers and gymnasts. It gives people the idea that it’s a purely physical practice, as opposed to a spiritual or mental one.”
Dark started practising yoga as part of a rehabilitation programme, having got injured while running. Now, though, it has become his passion. He specialises in teaching absolute beginners, running classes specifically for men at the levelsix studios (levelsixstudios.co.uk) in Peckham, south London.
“I tell all my male friends who are a bit suspect that it’s like being a Jedi,” he says. “If you think about it, you’re moving energy and breath around – it’s a bit like Yoda being levitated in The Empire Strikes Back!”
Dark says what he loves about yoga, and what men can gain from it compared with other exercise, is the need to check ego and targets at the door.
“Whether you’re running or lifting weights, what you’re trying to do is better who you were yesterday,” he says. “Yoga is all about the idea of being present and accepting the now.”
No Walk in the Park
That’s not to say it isn’t physically demanding. “Men look at yoga and they think, ‘That’s really easy, you just lie around on the floor.’ Then they come into class. You get people who go to the gym and lift really heavy weights, but come to the yoga studio and can’t even lift their
He says that he sees this a lot when offering students different stages of various poses, whether it’s a standing forward fold, or downward dog.
“If you teach a group of men and you present the options, they always choose the hardest one. A lot of the time people go to the yoga studio with a very big ego. One of the first things you need to do is ignore what’s going on on every mat other than yours.”
Beyond feeling greater strength and flexibility, Dark says the changes it has brought to his life, especially in terms of his mental wellbeing, are accessible to any man who takes up yoga:
“As men, we are encouraged to wear masks a lot of the time and not to be our true selves. We are not necessarily allowed to show weakness or vulnerability. Yoga has allowed me to feel a lot more at peace with who I am.”
And while your flexibility will improve the more you practise, you’ll also feel better for taking time for yourself, adds Dark.
“As a man, everyone wants your help. At the yoga studio, it’s an hour where there are no emails, no sense of time, it’s just yourself, your mind and body. It’s your time again. It’s not about performance. It reminds you of that teenage curiosity, bringing fearlessness and a sense of play back into your life.”
How To Get Into Yoga
Start with two classes a week
One is good, but two is optimum. Men are going to see changes and results if they’re practising twice a week or more.
Head to the studio
There’s a lot of benefits to the group setting, because you get the energy from the class, demonstrations from the teacher and hands-on adjustments.
But practice at home, too
Even if it’s just 15 minutes built into a daily routine, there are a lot of benefits to be had from doing it. If you’re a swimmer or a runner or you just do lots of walking, it’s a big complement to your regular exercise. It’s really good to have yoga as part of a balanced workout week.
Try a ‘yoga for sports’ class
These are mobility-focused classes that focus on hamstrings, tight shoulders and lower back – anti–desk postures, basically.