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An Ironic Stigma of Men Practicing Yoga

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

There is often a stigma and certain reservations attached with men practicing yoga which is pretty ironic given that yoga was first developed and practiced by men in India since 600 B.C. Less than a hundred years ago, yoga was not even practiced by women; yet over time, yoga has become a predominantly female practice as it became introduced to the west.

In our society, the topic of surpassing gender boundaries has become quite prominent where you can find men dance ballet, women play football, men are gymnasts and women are bodybuilders. Given this, you would think more men would be open to practicing yoga. Could it be that men may not know the benefits and history behind this ancient practice?

Some of the common hesitations men have towards practice yoga include it is not ‘manly’ enough or does not give one a real work out, it is for the female taste especially the ‘cringeworthy’ spiritual bit, it can be embarrassing to be in a class full of women, stretching seems like a waste of time or we are not ‘flexible’ enough. Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of these concerns and tackle the myths men have been led to believe regarding yoga being a feminine practice.

When men think of yoga, there are images of women in leggings, soft background music, incense and oils all of which do not sound like a typical workout for a man. Sure guys, there’s the spiritual aspect and calming effect yoga has but if you are more interested in the physical facet of it, it can indeed make your body stronger and more flexible. As most yoga poses are held for longer periods of time than other traditional forms of exercise, this causes your muscles to tense further and this pressure increases your muscular endurance. Additionally, yoga expands your range of motion and flexibility, which enables you to lift heavier weights (if that’s your thing). The practice helps to create length in your muscles which creates space for muscular growth if you want larger muscles. So in a nutshell, having a regular yoga practice WILL make you stronger.

Not that women do not love a challenge, but men are historically known to have strong competitive spirit. Yoga, however, teaches us to strive away from an attitude of competition with others. It can nonetheless, bring this idea to a whole other level where the competition is with yourself. How can you use your patience and ability to let go, surrender and calm your mind? Yoga allows us to extend our boundaries, pushing ourselves to find new ways of being which in turn strengthens the mind.

So why did yoga attract the stereotype of being for women? There are many different claims of who brought yoga to the west. From a spiritual perspective, Swami Vivekananda introduced it in the late 1800s where an increase in confidence and faith in humanity needed revival after the American Civil War. Over time, new ways of teaching and presenting yoga began to emerge and change people’s view on the practice. Instead of being a spiritual practice, it turned into a new modern workout, where physical strength, balance and flexibility became more of a focus.

After World War II in the late 1940’s, yoga became more widespread in the west by Indra Devi, a Russian female celebrity who learned from a legendary teacher, T. Krishnamacharya. He thought teaching yoga to women was absurd but let’s just say she was too famous to turn down. After her training in Mysore, Indra Devi travelled the world and using her knack for languages, she mostly taught yoga in America, China and South America. Initially, the practice of physical yoga postures was taught to female celebrities as in the 1950’s, the standard male would not even think to learn how to exercise from the opposite sex. Henceforth, much of the advertising for practicing yoga was geared towards women. Looking forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s, a hippie stigma started to become attached to yoga which also was not very ‘manly’. The incense, music and chanting further lent itself towards labels of femininity rather than masculinity.

Sri T. Krishnamacharya teaching at Mysore Palace in 1920.
Indra Devi circa 1949; Russian born Eugenie Peterson was also known as the First Lady of Yoga.

Understandably, some men can find yoga intimidating especially feeling like they do not belong in a class of full of flexible, bendy women. In truth, a lot of women are not even as flexible as you might think. Firstly, women’s bodies are designed differently to that of men’s and secondly, everyone has their own rhythm to help their body find evolution in movement. After all, every beginner has to start somewhere! Besides all of this, having that mental strength to keep focused on your own practice goes a long way; less comparing and more accepting. Most importantly, yoga is not about flexibility rather it is a practice of turning inwards and appreciating the journey both on a mental and physical level. Hey, and someday the spiritual aspect may also call out to you.

Finding a balance between anything in life, as we know, is essential. We all have some level of both gender qualities within us and this is completely natural so let’s allow ourselves to embrace our feminine and masculine sides no matter our gender. To all the men out there who think yoga is only for women, yoga was created by men who were once the only ones considered able and suitable to practice. Women, can thank Indra Devi and the likes, who have paved the way for us to practice yoga throughout the world. Let’s cut through these self-created boundaries and make yoga an all-inclusive practice, for all genders, all sizes and all abilities.

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