By Ed Staskus
In the mid-1980s the number of men to women in any yoga class anywhere in the United States was about 1 out of 10, or about 10%. “When we started you’d see one or two men in a class,” said David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.
By 2002, almost 20 years later, the number had gone up to 12%, according to Mathew Solan, a senior editor at Yoga Journal at the time. “It’s growing,” he said. In the latest survey done by Yoga Journal the number has grown to approximately 17%. In other words, in the past 30 years the participation by men in yoga has gone from about one man in every ten people to about one-and-a-half men in every ten.
At that rate there should be as many men as women in attendance at yoga classes sometime late in the next century.
A hundred years ago it would have been rare to see even one woman in class. The practice used to be all male all the time.
Today’s practice is mostly based on postures with a sprinkling of breath work and mindfulness adding some splash to the mix. There is much more to the discipline besides those elements, but as practiced in the 21st century sequenced poses rule the roost.
“There is so much body consciousness in this country,” observed Sri Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga.
Classical yoga can be traced back more than five thousand years and old-school hatha about a thousand years. It was for most of that long time a meditative or awareness practice. Posture yoga, or what today is called vinyasa, is primarily traced back to one man, Krishnamacharya. In 1931, well into his 40s with a wife and children, he was hired by a local Indian prince to teach it at a Sanskrit College.
He claimed an ancient birthright for postural yoga and claimed that the text for it was written on a leaf thousands of years old. Unfortunately, he said ants ate the desiccated leaf right after he read what was on it.
All ants are omnivores, like people, but they were probably leaf cutter ants, which chew up leaves and spit them out, creating a substrate for fungus to grow, which they later feast on.
Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois, who went on to popularize Ashtanga Yoga, and B. K. S. Iyengar, who popularized Iyengar Yoga. He also taught that yoga was incompatible to women and for a long time refused to teach them.
“It was not even considered for women then,” explained Don Steensma, a Los Angeles teacher. When Indra Devi first asked if she could study with Krishnamachyra he said no. “No women are allowed.” It took the Maharaja of Mysore’s intervention to get her on the mat.
This was because the yoga he was crafting was largely a blend of Indian wrestling, Danish Primitive Gymnastics, and a little of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was targeted at boys and young men and bound up with the Indian independence movement. It was about strength building, discipline, and nationalism. It was not for the faint of heart.
When B. K. S. Iyengar finally began teaching women it was a modified, less aggressive form of vinyasa, and he instructed them in segregated classes.
Today the tables have been turned. The only segregated classes nowadays are men’s classes, such as Broga and Yoga for Dudes. “It’s not for sissy’s anymore!” exclaimed New Men’s Yoga.
When yoga was first exported in the late 19th century it was in the person of Vivekenanda promoting pranayama and positive thinking. But, before and especially after World War Two, postural yoga began to make its way across the ocean and was wedded to physical culture and physical therapy. It integrated into the gymnastic practices popular among women of that time.
“These were spiritual traditions, often developed by and for women, which used posture, breath, and relaxation to access heightened states of awareness,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern’.
Stretching was a key component of the Women’s League of Health and Fitness in the 1930s and 40s, while in the 1970s Jazzercise ruled the world of female fitness. All through the 1980s Aerobics was the craze. When those fads faded is when the drift towards yoga accelerated.
The rest is history. It has been mainstreamed and nowadays upwards of 20 million Americans do yoga. Most of them are gals, not guys.
“At crowded yoga classes rooms can be filled wall-to-wall with 60 or more students – but it’s likely that fewer of those people are men than you can count on one hand,” wrote Carolyn Gregoire in the Huffington Post.
Yoga is not a man’s world anymore.
It is a “women’s practice” a recent Washington Post article pointed out. Although the practice was created by and for men it has been largely feminized.
“There’s been a flip,” said Loren Fishman, director of the Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic in New York City. “ Yoga has become a sort of gentle gym, a non-competitive, non-confrontational thing that’s good for you. Yoga has this distinctive passive air to it.”
In less than a hundred years yoga has morphed from men building better bodies in order to build a better nation to the slender and taut female body paraded on the covers of innumerable yoga magazines, web sites, and advertisements.
“The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, the elongated feminine form,” said Karlyn Crowley, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Why do so many women practice yoga?
Although anybody with any kind of body can practice yoga, in all its forms, there is an undeniably archetypal image conflated with being on the mat. Classes are full of women so the classes must be for women.
“If you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends,” said Phillip Goldberg, author of American Veda.
Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, or at least lithe and toned?
Women who routinely practice yoga have lower body mass indexes and control their weight better than those who don’t. In addition, according to a study at the University of California in Berkeley, women who practiced regularly rated their body satisfaction 20% higher than those who just took aerobic classes, even though both groups were at the same, healthy weight.
There are varied reasons why women are drawn to yoga, which are related to what women look for in a workout, which is often a mix of aerobics training and mind-body practices.
They are more likely to engage in group activities, like yoga classes, rather than hitting the weights alone.
“It’s because they’re interested in the social aspects of working out and because they feel more comfortable when they’re with other people,” explained Cedric Bryant, Chief Exercise Physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Women are also better built for many of the poses that make up asana sequences, no matter that men designed so many of them. There is a difference, especially when it comes to hips, between what women can do and men should do. Yoga poses are unisex, but the problem is there are two very different sexes.
“Women who tie themselves in knots enjoy a lower risk of damage,” wrote New York Times science writer William Broad in ‘Wounded Warrior Pose’. “Proportionally men report damage more frequently than women. Women tell mainly of minor upsets.”
Men do yoga more often than not for the workout, but the top reasons women give for starting the practice are stress relief and flexibility, as well as conditioning.
“It basically balances the body,” said Coleen Saidman, who has been called ‘The First Lady of Yoga’. “It gives you literal balance, but it also brings balance into life and gives you perspective.”
So many women practice yoga there is even a Yoga Teacher Barbie available on Amazon, complete with an outfit, mat, and mini Chihuahua, for $59.95. There is no Yoga Teacher Ken at any price.
Why do so few men practice yoga?
Part of the problem may lurk in the concept of no pain no gain.
“If it’s flaky and too new-age, soft and touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff to a male audience,” said Ian Mishalove of Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC.
Even though yoga studios today are often exercise rooms in which hard work on a sticky mat is done, it remains a mind-body practice, and that makes men hesitate. They like the body part, but are uneasy with the mind part.
They view fitness through the lens of physical challenge. Fathers play competitive sports and coach their sons in Pop Warner leagues. They jog faster than the other guy, gnarl mountain bikes, and pump iron.
More than 70% of American men watch NFL football. Less than 1% of American men practice yoga. Many men regard going to a yoga class the same as being dragged off to a wedding against their will.
“Men work out because they like to be bigger,” said Vincent Perez, Director of Sports Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center.
Men have no problem walking into a sweaty gym full of mirrors reflecting themselves lifting weights. However, walking into a studio full of women doing crow and headstand is another matter. The sight of it would unnerve any man. No one wants to fail in front of fifty or sixty women.
“Most men prefer athletic-based activities that don’t require overt coordination,” said Grace De Simone of Gold’s Gym.
Macho expectations are rife among men when it comes to fitness. Since yoga intrinsically has nothing to do with the no pain no gain school of thought, and since it’s a holistic practice, they sidestep it.
But, when it comes to no pain no gain, it may be that yoga needs to do only one thing, even though it might be Eight Limbs of Yoga subversive, to attract more men. That one thing would be to tap into the concept.
“Pain gets a bad rap in our culture,” said Swami Vidyananda, who has taught Integral Yoga since 1973. “Pain has many positive functions.”
Since so many men bemoan their lack of flexibility, simply ask them to do Pada Hastasana, otherwise known as touching your toes. That should be painful enough to point the way to a yoga class.
A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.