A while back, Pilar requested that I participate in the five yoga classes she would be teaching at Bodhi during the next week’s Bodhi Sessions surf and yoga camp. Realizing that I had completely abandoned my yoga practice in favor of surfing everyday, I accepted Pilar’s invitation and decided to shift my attention toward taking care of my body rather than continually beating it up. “It would be nice to have a male presence in class,” Pilar had said. “Someone who can set the tone for the other men.”
Men’s “complicated relationship” with yoga
I wouldn’t label myself as a spectacular yogi or even a consistent practitioner. My relationship with yoga has been on and off for eight years now. However, I do firmly believe in the healing power of yoga, and have always viewed the practice in a positive light. So when Pilar asked me to join her class, I was more than happy to do so, but the reason she asked me to join — to act as a role model for other men — gave me mixed feelings.
You see, it’s very frustrating to me that men in the West, particularly in the United States, view yoga as a feminine pursuit (over seventy percent of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are women). Fearing that yoga will strip them of their hard-won masculinity or that their male peers will label them as “soft”, many American men prefer to hit the gym to bulk up. Protein shake, anyone?
However, I hope to offer men an alternative viewpoint, one that debunks the aforementioned social stigma and argues that yoga should be practiced in unison with other physical pursuits — such as weightlifting or surfing — to increase longevity and mindfulness.
Yoga for male athletes
I was first introduced to yoga as a college baseball player at the University of San Diego. Baseball players are notoriously tight and injury-prone, so our team started taking yoga classes three times per week during the offseason. I remember feeling very excited to begin practicing yoga as I had always wanted to gain more flexibility, but what I didn’t expect was the mental shift that occurred when I began my practice.
Not only did I reap the physical benefits of yoga, which resulted in improved range of motion and less injuries, but I also became calmer in otherwise stressful situations. I had never experienced much stress leading up to my college athletic career, but when I got my first taste of the extreme workload I would be dealing with for the next four years, I was overcome with anxiety. Being a college athlete is like having a full time job in that it’s a huge time commitment: conditioning, weights, practice, games, travel, study hall, etc. Looking back at this time period, I now realize that is was my budding yoga practice that helped me handle all the added stress.
Yoga and mindfulness for men
Yoga is an activity that demands mindful awareness of the breath, something that was novel to me as an 18-year-old college freshman. Before practicing meditation, fear and stress would often manifest as anger and aggression, as they do in many men. After learning how to meditate, however, I was able to simply focus my attention toward my breath when I needed to calm myself down.
Let me be clear, mindfulness is not about being aloof and zenned out all the time — men often turn away from yoga because the practice is perceived as overly spiritual or woo-woo. Mindfulness is simply about having the capability to act with discretion. For example, if my tendency is to lash out when I am tired or stressed, mindfulness at least allows me the self-awareness to realize why I am acting that way. It is my firm belief that men will benefit greatly from cultivating a yoga practice in order to remain calm in situations that would otherwise cause them to act with aggression.
The interconnected benefits of yoga for men
Furthermore, yoga is about finding balance, both literally and metaphorically speaking, and I believe that balance is harder for men to achieve than women. When men go to the gym we tend to isolate one particular muscle group at a time, whereas yoga focuses on getting all the different parts of the body to work in unison. Yoga teaches the interrelation of all things within the body — mind, breath, muscles, joints, organs — with the ultimate goal of teaching the practitioner the interrelation of all things outside the body as well.
Improved body awareness and mental clarity are just two of yoga’s myriad benefits that contribute to a more wholesome individual, and with more men seeking these benefits, the world will undoubtedly be a more peaceful place as a result.