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June 17, 2004

Yoga Sociology

Dear Vanessa --

One goes through life ... One observes tons of things ... One tries to account for a few of them ... One wonders about so many others ...

Basic yoga sociology, for instance. For starters: it's not a secret that a lot more women than men show up for yoga classes. This fact doesn't seem like a hard one to explain.

  • Yoga classes are, after all, classes and, as many visitors here have noted, women seem to like getting their exercise in a class setting a lot more than men do.

  • The spiritual thing is v. hard for many men to take. Chanting, "om"-ing, talking about world peace, getting blissed-out -- well, why don't you just snip my balls off now?

  • You're not supposed to plow through yoga; you're encouraged to experience yoga internally instead. Find your freedom inside the posture, connect there with something larger than yourself, etc. Dare I observe that experiencing things internally may come a whole lot easier to many women than it does to most men?

  • And -- a big and underrecognized element here -- there's the whole yoga-clothes question. In a yoga class, you do a lot of stretching, bending, flopping over, etc, and you need clothes that don't get too much in the way. What's a fella to do? Sweat clothes are too thick and too hot. Regular gym shorts have no give in the groin, and regular t-shirts fall off when you're upside down.

    Gals have it much easier -- clingy stretch clothes! Women seem to like the feel of them (I have theories about why); women seem to enjoy parading around in them; and there's a big industry catering to the stretch-clothes-for-gals market.

    The occasional guy does show up in class wearing Lycra-ish shorts. When this happens, my mid-American background kicks into gear, and loudly. I look at this guy and think, "Dude! No!" Guys in stretch clothes? Rightly or wrongly -- and I can't seem to help this -- I leap to the conclusion that they're either 1) gay, or 2) from a Mediterranean background.

    What to do? I haven't solved the problem yet. When I blabbed about this conundrum to a woman yoga teacher, she laughed and told me that there really does seem to be no good yoga-clothing solution for us Real Guys.

So explaining why yoga classes nearly always have more women than men in them isn't a toughie. I wonder sometimes if the gal/guy ratio varies depending on yoga styles and schools. I notice, for instance, that more men show up for Bikram (hot) yoga classes than for a more-typical class.

This doesn't seem like much of a mystery either. Bikram classes are super-sweaty affairs -- and guys seem to like sweating more than gals do. (I know some women who despise sweating, but I don't think I've ever known a guy who has felt this way.) Bikram classes have no "spiritual" guff at all. Instead, they consist of getting ordered vigorously around, grunting your way into contortions, doing a lot of pulling and yanking, and fighting constantly against fainting and nausea. It's yoga for dumb and crude people, at least from this point of view, and probably like a bad day of military basic training. But many guys seem to crave this sort of workout. I certainly get a lot out of it.

Here's a Bikram mystery that I do have a hard time explaining, though. I've been in very few Bikram classes where there weren't a surprising number of Asian women. Come to think of it, I've never seen an Asian guy in a Bikram class. But Asian women -- and I've seen this in both NYC and on the West Coast -- just keep showing up for Bikram, often bringing along Asian-woman friends. I'm at a complete loss to explain why so many Asian women would be drawn to Bikram yoga. Any thoughts here?

Fun to take note of the various yoga types too, which seem studio-dependent to a large degree. One hippie-dippie-ish yoga place in the West Village, for instance, attracts overweight, middle-aged, frizzy-haired therapist-esque women; they generally have a hard time not talking and look like they've never exercised before in their lives. A high-pressure, scene-y studio near the Public Theater is full of willowy gals with sharp cheekbones and modeling careers. In many classes, "the boyfriend" shows up -- the sheepish-looking guy who's been dragged along by his woman, and who will never take a second yoga class.

One of my favorite yoga types is the "look at me/don't look at me" woman. One showed up in class the other day. These gals specialize in making themselves impossible to ignore and then making themselves scarce. This one was wearing rolled-down, lowslung, 10%-transparent white leotards and a scooped-out bra top. So she'd done a good job of putting the goodies on display: cleavage and arms; a long stretch of curvy tummy; a hint of buttcrack topped off with a bottom-of-the-spine tatoo. A flirty but clear hint of dark thong beneath the white leotard completed the look.

Why do I suspect she was a performer? (How canny can I be, eh?) She was pretty and slim, and she had the swiveling, protruding searchlight eyes so many born performer-women have. Before class, she made quite the production number out of gathering up props, spreading out her mat, doing some stretching, etc. She might have been the fragile, neurotic, helplessly-oversexed heroine of a Tenessee Williams play. She darted about; gave off little gasps; flushed; and made repeated public points out of keeping her feelings to herself. She made it impossible, in other words, not to register what a yummy (and vain) thing she was. But once class started? It was off to the corner for her, where she could no longer be observed. She was behaving like a star who, having made a dazzling entrance, then vanishes beneath scarf and sunglasses.

I asked The Wife for enlightenment: Where do these look-at-me/don't-look-at-me women come from? And what are they really up to? But all I got was some Wifely muttering about "mother-daughter issues" and one of those Wifely looks that I've learned signify "You're a guy, you'll never understand."

And I probably never will, but it's always fun to try. Any insights into these pressing questions?

Hey, did I ever mention that I once met the actress Ashley Judd at a party? We chatted for all of about 30 seconds, and she was friendly and downhome. Earlier that day, though, before she'd settled down, she showed off some pretty impressive "look at me/don't look at me" chops of her own.



posted by Michael at June 17, 2004


It's strange how a person can sometimes forget a profound influence from childhood. When I was studying in Delhi, Yoga was a required class for all grades. Often times, a situation calls for me to erupt, and I surprise myself by staying calm. I think those breathing exercises of four grades did actually get to me.

My point is, Yoga isn't a fad or a fashion statement. Like anything else that needs to be learnt, if it isn't respected then anyone taking classes can't gain from it.

Michael, you might want to look up Indian clothing stores. I believe there are quite a few in Jackson Heights, or so I've been told. I'm pretty sure you'll find something that won't be an obstacle between you and your Yoga.

Posted by: Neha on June 18, 2004 3:27 PM

It would be nice if others would talk about guys in yoga. Throughout the South, LA, and in Seattle and Portland my yoga classes have been roughly 1/3 men. Is New York unique, or am I finding the grotty guy-friendly yoga experiences wherever I go? What goes on in, say, Chicago? Or Boston?

This slightly violates one of my posting rules, but we have something in common, M. Blowhard - quality time with Ashley Judd.

The look at me/don't look at me thing is, I suspect, two things. It can be a sign that someone has the ego drive to demand attention but also enough social morals to calm down. It can also be, and this is only my guess, a combination of screaming ego (look at me) which is, when slightly satisfied, overwhelmed by fear.

I see no difference, by the way, in the look at me behavior of show-pony women who flutter about and the look at me behavior of deranged street people who will do just about anything for a fleeting moment of eye contact. Both types have opted out of the "be interesting and give me a reason to attend" school of social interaction in favor of childish behavior. (Cleavage is not particularly interesting to me. It seems obvious that this is a limitation of my own sex and proclivities. Blowhards and other men may well judge taut female flesh as interesting and a valid reason to engage. In fact, while I do not know what a Blowhard does it seems other men assume that any display of flesh, even if it's 400 degrees and you are sorting heavy supplies for a community building project, are designed to attract men.)

Posted by: j.c. on June 18, 2004 3:27 PM

My yoga classes (Austin, TX) are predominately female, but I'm usually not the only guy. I have to agree on the clothing thing. I'm not ready for Lycra. The solution (until I find an Indian clothing store -thanks, Neha) is black cotton shorts and black cotton underwear (tidy-whities just look bad sticking out of shorts, to my mind, and there are guys in my classes doing just that). The t-shirt I just tuck in for the inverted postures... not perfect, but it works.

This is an old established (read - pre-current-yoga-trend) studio, so we don't have any show-ponies. There is one type-A yoga woman in the class who hasn't quite grasped that it's not just maximum stretch but fluid and graceful movements between those X-treme stretches.

Posted by: Dixon on June 18, 2004 4:01 PM


“The occasional guy does show up in class wearing Lycra-ish shorts. When this happens, my mid-American background kicks into gear, and loudly. I look at this guy and think, "Dude! No!" Guys in stretch clothes?”

When I read this, I laughed out loud and went looking for my favorite description of Lycra shorts in Richard Ford’s “Independence Day.” The narrator Frank Bascombe is describing Joe Markham, a “stout, aggressive little bullet-eyed, short-armed, hairy-backed Bob Hoskins type” who is wearing flip-flops, “some sort of singlet muscle shirt,” and “tight silver Mylar-looking stretch shorts,” which Bascombe unforgettably calls “squashed-cock shorts.”

Since then, if I pass a guy on the street who happens to be wearing Lycra, I have real trouble looking him in the eye. It’s a problem in Brooklyn, know what I’m saying?

Posted by: Maureen on June 18, 2004 4:46 PM

For more 'manly' clothing that allows good mobility, but is cooler than sweats, you might look into a lightweight gi. Look for a gi designed for a striking martial art like karate rather than a wrestling martial art like judo. They are usually loose enough to breath fairly well and they allow pretty much any skeletal orientation possible without breaking bones.

Of course, they're also pretty much indistinguishable in cut from some sorts of pajamas, but I think it's OK to keep that to yourself.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 18, 2004 5:09 PM

I don't do Yoga, so I shouldn've probably put any of my .02c into the topic, BUT - why not to go to the source and look what was the habitual wear of the first practitioners? Yoga didn't started yesterday nor in New York, you know. So I think Neha's right.

Maureen: not in Bay Ridge it is not [a problem]; the only time I saw the guys in Lycra was on the bike path along the waterfront, and those were swooshing past me so fast,I didn't have a chance to see as much as color of their costume; where in Brooklyn do you live?

Michael, forgive my naive [and very subtle!]question: aren't you suppose to look inside, concentrate on your posture/inner self, &c during the session and not engage in "social studies"?

Posted by: Tatyana on June 18, 2004 5:40 PM

Bermuda shorts (or whatever they are called these days) -- and in Madras, of course -- work fine for yoga classes.

Posted by: David Sucher on June 18, 2004 6:55 PM

Trying to semi-seriously ride bicycles for exercise got me past the "Dude! No!" feelings after my first 10-miler and the resulting raw and bleeding inner thighs. I like them for any kind of exercise now, primarily for their 'lift-and-seperate' (or "squashed" - heh) mechanics, but ALWAYS underneath regular old khaki shorts.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 21, 2004 12:18 PM

FWIW, despite your lycra reservations, I think biker tight lycra outfits (for guys who have the bod to wear them) are great looking! :)

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2004 3:38 PM

I dunno, Annette: somehow reminds me of ballet.
Not that's anything's wrong with that...

Posted by: Tatyana on June 21, 2004 4:18 PM

At Bikram yoga today, one of the guys had a great bod. He wore not-entirely-opaque white lycra shorts with a dance strap beneath -- which made for one big basket, let me tell you. Moved gracefully, couldn't take his eyes off himself. A hairless torso, and even -- as became apparent when we started doing those postures with arms up -- shaven armpits. Smooth and shapely all over.

Gay or straight, do you suppose?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 21, 2004 5:13 PM

Now I never said anything about white lycra shaved yoga guys. I said black lycra Lance Armstong-y biker guys. And yes I think they look good! I am choosing not to participate in Michael's multiple choice question.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2004 9:10 PM

"very few Bikram classes where there weren't a surprising number of Asian women..."

East Asian or South Asian? One would sort of expect to find South Asian women in a yoga class; it's in their heritage, more or less. (Though I suspect a novelty like Bikram is more for the foreigners.) _East_ Asians showing up would be an interesting cross-cultural current. And which East Asians? Japanese, Chinese, Koreans? 1st/2nd generation, or assimilated?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 22, 2004 12:48 AM

Sorry Michael, but for ashtanga yoga at any rate, lycra is the only workable solution. Black cotton, though, not shiny synthetics.


Posted by: Alan Little on June 22, 2004 4:37 AM

I fear that Ashtanga yoga may forever prove beyond my range ...

Japanese women it is who seem to love Bikram. Or a surprising number of them anyway. Makes me wonder if there's some Japanese-expats publication or something that's been touting the wonders of Bikram ... Or maybe Japanese women love sweating and tugging? It'll probably forever be a mystery.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 22, 2004 12:36 PM

For some reason I felt moved to write a long discussion of Why Lycra, focusing on matters like flop prevention, coefficient of friction of sweaty knees, and failing to persuade yoga clothing designer babes to do menswear.

Posted by: Alan Little on June 22, 2004 1:13 PM

Slightly OT, but than picture summer NY subway platform, multilingual crowds, ...and Bikram practitioner...

Posted by: Tatyana on June 22, 2004 3:21 PM

I love this conversation about men in Lycra. The Hubster is doing Rodney Yee tapes at home in his boxer shorts, a practice I like to call naked Yoga. The last time I took a Yoga class it was all women. The last time I took a Yoga class with a guy, he was wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt and looking sad and very, very inflexible.

My theory on Japanese women and Yoga is that there's something about Japanese culture that aligns itself with nature. Yoga seems like something from nature, sort of, in the sense that you don't need a machine to do it, and Bikram Yoga moreso because it activates all that natural sweating and grunting. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Posted by: Vanessa on June 22, 2004 10:13 PM

C'mon, I ride my bike 12 hrs a week; lycra is the only way to go. Cuts down on wind resistance too, and we do get used to it pretty quickly. It feels like I'm wearing nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.... The female colleagues like the shaved legs too. The only people that it bothers are the guys who decide to look a little too closely and I can't be responsible for that.

Then again this is San Diego where there are enough year-round cyclists that this isn't so strange. Still it IS odd when you date women who have more leg hair / less lycra than you do.

Posted by: Chris on June 23, 2004 5:33 PM

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