Of course you’ve heard of yoga, it’s been a rising trend in western pop-culture since the ’60s. Chances are you’ve done a downward dog or two, likely at the behest of a fitness class instructor or your partner trying to get you to stretch. For most of us, yoga isn’t what we grew up doing, nor something we were encouraged to do as young men. It’s a physical and mental exercise that is internally focused, where competition is virtually absent and self-reflexion is a focal point. Sounds a little soft right? We’re men, we like showing off our strengths; comparing how much we lift or how fast we run to our peers (check out our physical confidence article). However, much to our own chagrin, improving personal performance and our overall health is a more wholistic endeavor, not one singularly focused on muscular strength. Sure lifting weights and doing intense metabolic conditioning will get you stronger, but size and body comp are only part of the battle. Mental state (happiness), balance, mobility, and the ability to move pain-free are just as, if not more, important when it comes to overall health. Yoga can help with all of this. In general, the benefits of modern yoga are widely known to include: increased mindfulness and flexibility, reduction of and recovery from injuries, improved joint stability, stress relief, increased strength, the list goes on. Who doesn’t need more of that in their lives?
Why I Practice Yoga
Personally, the most impactful benefits I’ve seen with yoga have been mental clarity and injury avoidance/recovery. I started off using yoga as a way to simply increase flexibility, but after practicing for about a year, I’ve shifted to mainly using yoga as a morning mental scrubber and movement kickstarter. The breathing-intensive, low-impact movements create a mental cleansing effect that allows me to parse out the immediate stressors that arise when I wake up and provides me an opportunity to sort them out rather than pushing them to the side as I do with a high-intensity workout. It also serves as a great balance and remedy to the tightness, soreness, and injuries caused by my fairly intense Crossfit workout regiment.
Beyond serving as a morning pick-me-up, yoga has been one of the most effective ways for me to carve out time to do some self-work. I’ve found that clearing my head through controlled breathing and slower challenging movement is an impressively effective way to cut through the top-level mental maelstrom and temporarily quell my intense internal issue avoidance. It allows me to get to a deeper place within myself where I can discover my more authentic feelings and make more personal realizations. This is super difficult and, to be honest, scary at times. Being able to turn in on yourself and get to a state of self-discovery takes consistent practice and the results aren’t always positive. However, once I get there, I find out a lot about who I am and how I truly feel by asking myself questions like What mood am I in today? Why am I in that mood? Is that mood positive? If not, what’s causing the bad mood and what can I do to change it? These are all questions that are incredibly useful to answer and asking them is a practice I know I should do more regularly, but making time and putting in the effort on my own to find the answers is a challenge. Yoga gives me the time, space, and physical distraction to do that. Essentially, giving me a way to look at my own internal compass and figure out what kind of day it’s going to be and how hard I feel I can push myself mentally, creatively, and physically that day.
Outside of the mental benefits, yoga has done wonders for my flexibility, joint strength, and balance. I have been littered with shoulder injuries over the past 3 years and I’ve noticed most of my re-injuries have usually been during a period when I wasn’t doing yoga. Beyond that, my ankle mobility, hip mobility, and overall joint stiffness have all improved immensely, leading to better posture, not only while standing and sitting, but in heavier lifts as well- getting your ass to grass in a heavy squat while keeping the weight in your heels is tough when your hips and ankles are tight. In short, yoga has kept me in the gym longer and moving with a more full range of motion- you can’t ask for much more than that.
If You’re Thinking About Trying Yoga
If you’re ready to give yoga a shot, you should be ready to feel silly for at least your first 5 yoga classes. You have no idea what the movements are or what the positions are supposed to feel like. This is normal. I found that introducing myself to the instructor, telling them I’m a newbie, and then sitting in the back in order to see what everyone else was doing was very helpful. The instructor would be more detailed in their descriptions of the movements, and I had people to mirror when the instruction got confusing.
I highly suggest starting out with Vinyasa Yoga, this is the standard position-to-position yoga. Leave the Bikram and Iyengar yoga sessions for a later day when you’ve grasped the basics. With that in mind, every instructor is going to be different. Some focus on getting you sweaty, some get very spiritual, some go very slowly, others have a heavy focus on form, while some focus on inversions and stunts. The type of instructor that is right for you depends on what you want to get out of it. For me, I don’t really like the spiritual stuff and want to move at a pace that gets me sweaty, but not so exhausted to the point that I can’t focus on my breathing and hit a flow. Think of this as a therapist search… it has to be the right fit.
When going to your first few classes, realize two things, it will be much harder than you think, and you will likely be one of maybe three guys in the whole class. Holding static positions for an extended period of time is much more difficult than it seems, even without weight. Your pride and ego will take a bit of hit, so just know going in that you are going to suck at it. Also, most yoga classes are typically 70+% women, but more and more guys are starting to practice yoga so be prepared to feel outnumbered. Many guys (myself included) feel out of place at first, but after a few classes you’ll realize that gender has nothing to do with the practice; yoga is hard regardless of gender and the benefits affect both sexes just as much.
For me, and for many other practitioners, yoga serves as a sort of self-therapy session that has direct physical benefits. It has improved my general mood and outlook, and helped me figure out who I am, and reduced the lengths of my injuries all at the same time. Real men strive for high levels of both physical and mental health, so in my opinion, real men practice yoga.
If you are in the Philadelphia area, there are plenty for free yoga classes to take advantage of, and most are beginner levels since they are open to the public. Examples: The Art Museum hosts yoga in a gallery every Wednesday throughout the year, Race Street pier does free yoga every weekday morning at 7am and evening at 6pm (except Fridays). So go to a free session and try it out! You’ll likely be doing a lot of this: