By Clint Carter
“Looking good, ladies!” says my yoga instructor, in her sweet, sing-songy voice. “And you too, gentle-man,” she adds, giving me a nod.
I’m being singled out for my testicles. Not that I mind, but it makes me suddenly aware—and not for the first time—that I’m the only dude in the yoga studio. The instructor has to break her script just to accommodate me.
At the moment, I’m bent 90 degrees at the waist, balanced on my left leg with my right poking out behind me like an unreliable airplane rudder. I look up to give my instructor a courtesy smile—thanks for seeing me!—and my rudder betrays me by curling into a scorpion tail. Suddenly I’m off balance, bouncing sideways. I swerve from one edge of the mat to the other, throwing off the entire zen-thing that’s going on in the class. And then my leg stomps down just in time to save me from a crash landing—just a regular day at the yoga studio.
Despite the rising popularity of yoga, the workout’s still largely dominated by women. In a survey of 1,830 people, one in five females reported going to a yoga class in the past year. For men, that number is just over one in twenty.
The reason, in part, is that men feel out of place. We’re burdened with ideas about masculinity that forbid vulnerable body positions like happy baby. Imagine Don Corleone or Dirty Harry doing that shit.
But then there’s this: Men aren’t comfortable being bad at something. And at first, most of us feel bad at yoga. “I can’t touch my feet over my head,” says Mike Aidala, a holistic coach and yoga advocate. “But I know a lot of women who can.”
If touching your feet over your head is your measure of success, then yeah—yoga’s going to suck for you. You’ll be one of the 19 in 20 men who don’t go. But bend-ability isn’t the right yardstick, says Aidala. “Guys should be doing yoga specifically for the internal practice,” he says. “The benefit comes when you're focused on how you feel and your ability to relate to that feeling every time you come to your mat.”
What often sells yoga for men is learning that those delicate poses activate stabilizer muscles that are typically ignored in the gym. And guys like learning that NFL teams are increasingly using it for injury prevention, Tom Brady included. But the real reason to do yoga, says Aidala, is mental. And that can be a struggle for men. It’s hard to quantify mental gains, and many of us have been habituated to use competition as our fuel for self-improvement.
When I’m riding bike laps in the park, for instance, I tend to focus my energy on somebody up ahead, who I can overtake. And after I curl a 45-pound dumbbell in the gym (okay, 25 pounds), I scan the room to see what everybody around me is lifting.
With yoga, once you stop worrying about other people’s poses, there’s nobody to compete with. “You can’t see how someone else feels,” says Aidala. “If you’re doing it right, there’s nothing to compare yourself to.”
And yes, there are good reasons to get it right. The mental benefits of yoga are almost impossibly far reaching—especially for men.
In one review of 13 academic studies, published in the journal Mindfulness, researchers looked at how yoga could impact young, impulsive people who’d landed in the criminal justice system. Not surprisingly, 99 percent of the offenders were men, and the review found that after completing a yoga program, they emerged feeling more optimistic and less stressed. Of the eight studies that measured emotional control, five found significant improvements. That means yoga could literally help people avoid becoming repeat offenders, and it can help us all avoid emotional and impulsive behavior.
Similarly, people with generalized anxiety disorder see improvements in depression, sleep, and quality of life when they add yoga to traditional therapy. And in a study of people who were on burnout-related sick leave from work, yoga proved more effective that traditional therapy.
Some of the effect could come from the way going inward physically rewires your brain. In a study from Germany, people who agreed to do one weekly yoga session—just one!—lowered their blood pressure and developed a greater density of neurons in their hippocampus, a region associated with creating new memories, after 10 weeks.
Studies have shown that yoga can improve your body image, and a study of older adults proved it be as good as strength training for improving functional fitness. And if you like sex, you’ll love yoga: In a study from India, men who underwent four months of yoga reported having better sexual satisfaction.
But if you can’t get over feeling like every workout is a competition, then you won’t have access to yoga’s strongest benefits. And man, that’s a bummer.
“One of my personal life missions is to be the guy who's lifting 400 pounds over my head in the gym, but then afterward, I'm lying in the corner doing a savasana,” says Aidala. Savasana is a totally still, flat-on-your-back position commonly called “corpse pose.” It’s usually done at the end of yoga class to slow down breathing and heart rate, and it’s the best opportunity to totally silence the brain. On a good day, you might let go of all the thoughts in your head. Your ego vanishes, and for a brief moment, you can experience the simplest state of being.
In some regards, savasana is the most important moment in yoga, says Aidala. “You do the poses for the benefit of tiring out the body, so it's easier for you to do a savasana at the end of class.”
As a trainer and wellness coach, Aidala aims to merge the internal with the external—to show that the polar opposites are in fact two ends of one powerful battery. “You have these guys who view masculinity as this one paradigm of just being strong and jacked,” he says. “So I use my own physicality to say, ‘Hey, the reason I can lift this weight over my head isn't because I'm bigger than you—which I’m not. It's because of the mental focus and clarity that I've gained from having an internal practice.’”
This is the counterintuitive thing about yoga: By focusing inward, you can increase your outward power. Yes, you need to ditch traditional ideas about how men are supposed to move. And you need to stop being so competitive—especially with yourself. There’s no yogi equivalent of a PR or max lift. It’s a practice in the truest sense of the word. “No one can be bad at it,” says Aidala. “As long as you can breathe, you can do yoga.”