Why don't more men do yoga?
- Credit: Emma Kindred @eightyone
It all started for me in my mid-40s, after a period of gout. First, came the indignation. What?! Me... gout? Surely not, gout is something that afflicts old colonels who drink too much port.
Next, the denial. If I really wanted to deal with the excruciating inflammation of my toe and ankle joints, I would have to lose weight and give up Guinness, which seemed to trigger it. But I loved Guinness, surely a few pints a week would be OK?
Then, the realisation. As I limped and hobbled around, I noticed for the first time how many middle-aged and elderly men were also shuffling about, unable to walk easily or free of pain. If I wanted to ease into the second half of my life and spend my latter years hiking in the great outdoors, as I hope to, I needed to make some changes.
Gout medication and improved diet were part of the answer, but I also needed to find an exercise regime that over time would help to extend the range of my joints and make me more flexible. My wife recommended I give yoga a try, but my first few attempts fell flat. One class I attended was too challenging, another I went to was on a Sunday afternoon – a tricky time of the week to find the motivation.
But then things began to click after I started accompanying my wife to a class held in a scout hut in the village of Long Melford on Friday mornings. It was laid back, gentle exercise with the emphasis on only pushing stretches as far as you felt comfortable.
Learning to breathe deeply and slowly had a huge part to play in helping me to extend my stretches, as well as switch off all the thoughts in my head and relax. I began to feel noticeably better – there was a spring in my step in the days after a class. There seemed to be something in this yoga lark after all.
Fast forward five years, and I am a convert to the healing powers of yoga. Until lockdown disrupted all our routines, I attended a class every week and tried to do one or two shorter sessions in my kitchen at home.
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But let me be clear, I am still not very flexible. I am what my mum calls ‘big boned’ and my attempts at the classic yoga positions – downward-facing dog, warrior, or the tree pose – will not win any prizes.
But compared to where I was, I feel fitter and happier, and I know that as I move away from high-impact sports like mountain-biking and football (although I keep my hand in, or should that be foot?) I will always do yoga.
Where are the men?
As I have attended different yoga classes over the years, one question has nagged away at me – why don’t more men do yoga? Usually, there are one or two men, but classes are typically dominated by women. It’s not a problem, we give each other a nod of recognition and get down to our practice. But I’m convinced there are many more men who would benefit from the stretches and relaxation that yoga offers.
Some of my male friends regularly complain of aches and pains but I’ve given up suggesting they try yoga – I know I’ll only be scoffed at.
A good person to quiz about this is Wibbs Coulson, a former nurse who, four years ago, became a full-time yoga teacher. He runs a private studio with his wife, Jen, in Layham near Hadleigh.
“I used to work in A&E and would see a lot of men who came in with hip pain and nondescript back pains,” he says. “A&E was the wrong place for them – there was little we could do. What they needed was to learn to move better.”
Wibbs has several theories on why men are reluctant to get involved in yoga. One is around the way yoga is perceived. “It has the stigma as being a bit fluffy and hippy where people chant and sniff incense,” he says.
There is also a perception, Wibbs believes, that yoga is not proper exercise, that it is not sweaty and manly enough. “But you can get incredibly strong and mobile practising yoga – you don’t need to lift big weights or go to the gym.”
Maybe it’s because Wibbs is a man that he gets high male attendance rates at his sessions. He also uses social media to get across the benefits of yoga to his male audience. And he delivers two yoga classes a week to players from Ipswich Town Football Club.
Wibbs started off working with defender Tommy Smith, who was recovering from back surgery. “They wanted me to help him move, to stop his back stiffening up, and it’s just grown from there. It is still a voluntary thing at the club and I work with three or four players. We do a lot of breathing work, which really helps with fitness.”
DIFY – Do It For Yourself
Maybe as the news that footballers do yoga gets out, more men will consider having a go themselves. I was certainly spurred on after reading about Ryan Giggs using yoga to prolong his prolific career, one that saw him win more medals than any other player in the modern era.
My current teacher, Sophia Howard, who runs Paper Kite Yoga with classes in Long Melford and Assington, thinks one reason there are fewer men doing yoga is simply because many work long hours and cannot find the time to attend classes.
“Men also seek out activities that are quick, fast, competitive and social,” she says. Maybe introducing yoga to boys at a young age is a
way of making them more comfortable about practising it? Sophia has delivered many classes to school children and says that boys tend to be the ones who enjoy it most.
She has also taught yoga to a group of male farmers as part of an initiative to improve the health of rural workers. She adapted the classes to make them more conversational and says they enjoyed the social aspect of the class, but the sessions eventually petered out because the farmers struggled to attend as they had to work late on the harvest.
Sophia thinks that some men may be put off by the way yoga is portrayed. Online images showing men in Lycra, contorting themselves into tear-inducing lotus positions and twisting back arches. But what she has taught me is that this is not real yoga at all. Yoga is not about performing for other people, it is about listening to your own body and improving yourself.
“The whole magic of yoga is how you feel inside, of where you are mentally and easing the aches and pains in your body,” she adds. “Of course, there’s a lovely satisfaction in completing a pose, but if you’re just doing it for others, you’re letting your ego take over – you’re missing the magic.”