More Men On The Mat
There are so many good reasons why men might want to take up yoga…the most important thing is to start. By Fenella Lindsell
As the number of yoga practitioners rises to new peaks each year (now estimated at around 300 million worldwide), the question still looms: why is yoga still perceived as a female-dominated engagement? It seems obvious that contemporary yoga practice has never excluded male or other gendered participation, yet the figures show that 72% of yoga practitioners are women, even with men’s participation increasing by a reported 150% in the last decade.
Given that men are not being overtly excluded from the practice, there must be another reason for the lack of participation, so what is it, and why? According to an Australian 2021 study by Cagas et al., men typically acknowledge the health advantages of yoga but tend to see the practice as feminine or femaledominant, and gender-related perceptions are shown to influence men’s decisions to partake in yoga. It is important to remember this study does not speak for all men, nor all cultures, but it does highlight some important points that will be tackled further in this article. Changing the perception A key way to change the perception of any activity is to have good role models and representatives for it. As more male representatives have begun appearing as yoga teachers, the idea that it is possible or normal for men to take this role becomes more feasible and this is a good progression for the time being.
One common withholding or stereotype is that men are less flexible, less in touch with their body and often, less sensitive when it comes to managing mental and physical health, or emotions. These notions may also be compounded by intimidation when starting a new form of exercise. A 2017 study by Ashton et al. found that men, in particular, have felt intimidated to attend sporting and physical engagements on the basis of fearing inferiority and embarrassment.
Beginning a practice with yoga may come with the same reluctance, but these are not necessary for such a non-competitive field as yoga. The irony of these points is that yoga is arguably one of the most inclusive engagements out there. It works for kids, pensioners, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and of course, it also works for men! The cherry on the cake is that the practice even originated from male yoga gurus in ancient India around 5,000 years ago and has relied on leading contemporary male figures like BKS Iyengar, responsible for ‘Iyengar Yoga’ to assist its development.
Despite ancient and recent influences, it is undoubtedly clear that men are not needed to make yoga a successful practice, for it is more successful now than ever with women leading the front. However, it is worth gently reminding some nay-saying males out there that the perception of yoga as a female practice is a totally misinformed notion and one that’s worth reconsidering.
Physical and mental health
It has come to light, particularly in the last decade, that men could do with some help when it comes to looking after their mental health. On top of this, physical health is also lacking with men’s life expectancy about four years less than that of women in the UK and globally less than women in most places. There are plenty of reasons that feed into these problems, but evidence suggests that yoga may be a remedy.
Yoga has been shown to be an invaluable tool for healing, for integrating into a community and for starting on a path of improving mental health. Yoga will never cure this crisis alone, but the following reasons may help enlighten us to its applied potential. Yoga is a practice that is inherently intertwined with contemplative action — defined as engagement with self-reflection and introspection to help understand our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others. A 2018 study by Bruce et al. concluded that contemplative action has a net positive for practitioners. Recent statistics have also shown that, of those who regularly practice yoga in the US, 20% of such people are likely to have a more positive self-image because of this.
The overlap with physical health also feeds into the mental side of things. Since yoga has been shown to improve joint strength, reduce the risk of cardiovascular illness, improve the healthy functioning of the immune system and also, lower stress levels through vagal stimulation (Kalayani et al. 2011) it has a net positive effect. These factors positively combine to show how participation in yoga may be a vehicle for assisting in the current mental health crisis faced by a lot of men. Thanks to its mindful elements, communitybased participation and inclusive ethos, it can act as a fantastic gateway to an involved life with others and a more loving, less stressful relationship with oneself.
The bottom line
Beyond the problems mentioned with regard to physical and mental health, it is vital to stress that yoga in itself is an inclusive, accepting and nourishing practice that welcomes all shapes, sizes and walks of life. The idea that it should appeal to one group more than another can only come from misunderstanding. There are simply so many forms of yoga and so many routes with which to approach it that, if adequately introduced, anyone is indeed capable. Everyone deserves to experience yoga and with increasing research that proves its therapeutic potential, we would be wasteful not to use it.