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Ways of Seeing: Hey, real men, don’t fear yoga

Here is one of my favorite sayings about yoga: “Not practicing yoga because you’re not flexible is like not taking a bath because you’re too dirty.” When I meet someone at a party and they find out that I teach yoga, a common response is, “I could never do yoga — I’m way too stiff.” That’s when I get to pull out the pithy little statement above.
It’s funny, but often the person who thinks they’re too musclebound to practice yoga is a brawny guy. The kind of person who would have no trouble helping you stack your firewood, lug a bunch of two-by-fours up a steep staircase, or dig a recalcitrant stump out of your garden. In other words, a strong, courageous person. But for some reason the idea of attempting downward-facing dog pose in a room of mostly women makes him quiver in his Timberland boots. Perhaps because he knows he will have to remove said Timberland boots when he steps into the studio.
When I put myself into this hypothetical potential student’s boots, I think I know how he feels. He feels like I would feel if I accidentally signed up for the mostly male basketball team — out of my league and knee-knocking scared! But if he moves through the trepidation and tries a few classes, chances are he’ll experience some much needed spaciousness in body and mind.
Many guys make their way to the yoga room after years of competitive athletic endeavors. Whether they played team sports in high school or college, or just like the thrill of pushing the body, hard, to the next level, yoga offers a radically different approach. Mindful yoga practice asks us to slow down, pay attention to subtle movements and actions, and, most importantly, to observe the breath.
I asked some of my male students to share what brought them to the yoga room. One, a burly former contractor, says he came in memory of his wife, an ardent practitioner, who had been urging him for years to take up yoga. She must be smiling down from Heaven at the way her husband has progressed in his practice. On the rare mornings when he is not in his usual spot in the studio, all the other students immediately inquire, “Where is Frank?”
Another of my male students, who comes from a weightlifting background, tells me that he likes that yoga is a physical discipline performed without the use of a mirror. While he likes the idea that each person does their own yoga, and focuses within, he confesses to admiring the older students in class, who are strong and limber into their 60s, 70s, and beyond. I too, am frequently inspired by my older students — I want to be like them when I grow up!
Another student says that joining a class of mostly women was a stumbling block for him. He didn’t want to be the only guy in the room. What finally got him to try yoga was a specific class addressing back pain. This student says the friendships he has made through yoga have been an unexpected benefit.
In yoga’s birthplace, India, the practice was almost entirely performed by men until quite recently. In the 1940s, B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of the lineage I practice, took the radical step of offering public classes that included women. He trained many teachers, and his yoga, Iyengar Yoga, has spread throughout the world. While it is true that most group classes today are 75-percent female, I look forward to the time when we have greater gender balance because all of us benefit from yoga’s physical and spiritual gifts.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats. Feedback for this and other columns warmly welcomed: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com.

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