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July 21, 2005

Yoga Notes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Alan Little explains something key about yoga that many people -- including many people taking yoga classes -- aren't aware of: The practice of the physical postures (the "asanas") is only one part of what yoga is. Me, I'm an enthusiastic novice. Alan's a serious -- even scholarly -- yogadude. BTW, that Patanjali fellow Alan mentions? One of the fathers of yoga philosophy, and a major genius. Yoga philosophy, like the Indian school of philosophy known as Vedanta, makes me completely happy -- as well as completely happy to leave all Western philosophy behind.

* Yoga classes in my neighborhood average at least 3/4 women. (Singleguys-eager-to-meet-chicks: Why aren't you taking yoga?) Felicia Tomasko asks, Is yoga different for men? Her general thesis:

Yoga is a practice that creates more of a state of vulnerability, according to Miller. He, along with other teachers, hypothesizes that women tend to naturally have an easier time with the emotional vulnerability inherent in yoga practice. Miller finds that yoga practice, particularly the challenging forms like the ashtanga he teaches, is transformative by nature. The practitioner then has to navigate unfamiliar territory and states of being. While these were values supported culturally during the development of yoga, Western cultural ideas do not support male vulnerability.

OK, so maybe that's why a lot of singleguys aren't taking yoga ... Still: Wusses.



posted by Michael at July 21, 2005


Felicia Tomasko's observations are interesting, but I'm not so sure if male antipathy toward yoga is due to anything particularly deep or philosophical. I've been a regular at a busy suburban gym for over two years. One thing I noticed right at the beginning, and which has held true ever since, is that traditional gender roles are alive and well. Exercise classes such as aerobics, spinning, "kardio kickboxing" and yes, yoga, are almost entirely female. Women are also much more likely than men to be seen hamstering away* on the treadmills, though the gender gap isn't quite as great. In contrast, the bench press area and squat racks are the proverbial men's club, with women in the weights area generally limiting themselves to thigh-toning and abdominal machines. Okay, this is not a particularly upscale gym, indeed it has a high Guido population, but I suspect these gender stereotypes hold true at many other places.
* = I'd like to be able to claim credit for "hamstering away," but alas I read it elsewhere.

Posted by: Peter on July 21, 2005 10:25 PM

Michael, here's the Bryn Mawr article on Bikram yoga:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on July 21, 2005 10:32 PM

So, here's the question:

Why Indian Yoga primarily a male thing (as I understand it), but primarily a female thing in the US?

A rough guess is that gen-you-wine Indian yogic practice resembles either individual instruction or solitary practice moreso than an aerobics class. So what's the appeal of yoga to US females then? I'd say about the same as Kabbalah to Madonna.

Posted by: . on July 21, 2005 11:15 PM

. (whoever you are)

You're right absolutely about traditional Indian yoga practice. In ashtanga vinyasa yoga, led classes where everybody does the same thing at the same time, with the teacher standing at the front telling them what to do, were invented when senior Indian teacher Pattabhi Jois first started teaching large groups of western students in California in the 70s.

Before that it was always taught with students practicing at their own pace with the teacher moving around, assisting and guiding. Still is most of the time in authentic traditional ashtanga schools.

However, don't underestimate the presence of women in traditional Indian yoga practice. A minority, yes, but there have always been some.

More to follow on this in a blog posting - next week some time, as I'm off to the mountains for the weekend.

Posted by: Alan Little on July 22, 2005 4:07 AM

By the way, Ashtanga yoga (at least as we see it in NYC) is tough! I've heard it referred to as "yoga for people in their 20s," and my own favorite yoga teacher (who's in amazing shape) tells me it's too tough for her. So if anyone's looking for a particularly butch form of yoga to try, head straight over to your local Ashtanga place. You'll get a heckuva workout. I'm more of a stretching-and-toning (and feeling good) guy myself ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2005 7:47 AM

I have to agree with the analysis about men and yoga. I'm about as wussy as a male can get, and even I found yoga a little too "feminine" for my taste. I don't mean this is any derogratory way. It seemed that the movement of energy was to get things going inside of your, rather than the typical male urge to push something outside of yourself -- if that makes any sense. I would like to try it again. Maybe if I found the right teacher. And besides, like you mentioned -- there are a lot of single women taking yoga...

Posted by: Neil on July 22, 2005 8:46 AM

Does yoga seem femme-y to us because A) it's femme-y, or B) because we have rather extreme ideas about what it is to be guys? I dunno. I enjoy the "internal" quality of yoga these days. Working out at the gym in the usual way makes me feel like I'm being barked at by a drill sergeant, even when it's just me giving myself the orders. Yoga: it arises from within, etc. Which preference in my case is probably a function of age too. My own stock of energy is getting smaller, and my urge to push it out of myself is vanishing rapidly -- I'd much rather conserve it, tks. But does all this just mean that Indian men (at least the kind who do yoga) are ... I dunno, more secure in their manliness than we are, because they aren't upset or thrown off balance by Going Inside?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2005 12:54 PM

The small yoga studio that I frequent has one ashtanga yoga class. There are 4 to 6 students, and only one of them is male - me.

The most popular ashtanga yoga studio in Montreal attracts young people in their 20's and about 30 to 40% of the class is male.

I still remember one class there when there was only one male, me, out of 30 students. As much as I was comfortable with my body (due to years of martial arts training), I felt freaked out when I realized that I was the only guy in the room! Felt like I intruded upon women only yoga class.

Posted by: Bob Yu on July 22, 2005 4:56 PM

And what a sweet feeling that must have been.

Hey, yet another set of good reasons to go to yoga class.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2005 8:40 PM

I personally enjoy yoga, but I don't need a lot of philosophy thrown in. I stopped taking classes with one teacher because she was always explaining the yoga philosophy and her philosophy generally while the whole class was teetering on one leg.

We were only able to complete a few exercises because she talked so much and we stretched so little.

Posted by: Miriam on July 23, 2005 10:45 AM

Excuse me--I meant the class was teetering on one leg each, not collectively. Sigh!

Posted by: Miriam on July 23, 2005 10:46 AM

I took only one yoga class and I was determined to be as open-mined as possible and listen.

It took conscious effort to ignore ridiculousness of watching grown-ups ommming and umming at the beginning of the session, but than I just gave up and enjoyed the entertainment: directions to "retreat to your special peaceful place" while simultaneously "stretch your big toe(?) on the left foot standing on your right placed in 90 deg to you torso", or some such, met with straight faces...Priceless.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 23, 2005 11:45 AM

I took a yoga class once, just as I once took an aerobics class. Didn't like either. In each case the benefits were too time-consuming to attain as compared to alternative forms of exercise (stretching, running). There was also, to my taste, too much emphasis on attire, on synchronizing one's movements to those of the group, on following the instructor's directions. IOW it was a chick thing.

As for getting in touch with my inner whatever, that's the opposite of what I want to do with free time -- I want to do something that gets me outside and engaged with the world. Introspection has its place, but it's inherently a private and unstructured activity rather than social and directed, at least for me.

BTW, taking yoga/aerobics/cooking/syncronized swimming classes as a way to meet women may be a dumb idea unless you enjoy the activity for its own sake. Otherwise you tend to meet women with whom you have little in common.

Posted by: Jonathan on July 24, 2005 1:30 AM

I am a guy and find yoga a very good part of a balanced exercise program. The emphasis on flexibility is a really useful corrective to the tightening and shortening of muscles that can occur through other forms of exercise. I sometimes lift weights right before yoga class and then enjoy how the yoga poses stretch, relax and lengthen muscles that I have tightened while doing weights.

Yoga can also work smaller stabilizing muscles very well, generally muscles that are missed by weights or running. Balancing poses can be especially good for this. Yoga poses did wonders for my weak ankles for instance. Since muscle imbalances created by weak stabilizing muscles are a big cause of injuries, this is a good thing.

I think I only scratch the surface of the meditative benefits of yoga referred to in the posting, but it does make me feel very calm and relaxed in a somewhat different way than other exercises do. Emotional stress is a real, objective phenomenon and it does damage the body.

In a good yoga class, by the way, there will not be much emphasis on doing poses in exactly the same way as other members of the group, since good teachers understand that bodies are different. On the other hand, good teachers will correct your form as yoga poses do not work well unless the proper muscles are engaged.

In my opinion one big reason that men do not do yoga (besides men generally not being into directed group exercise), is that on average men are simply much less flexible than women and therefore the poses are more difficult. At least that has been my experience. I doubt I will ever be as capable as some beginner women in doing some standard poses.

Posted by: MQ on July 24, 2005 2:06 AM

I used to take a yoga class at a wonderful place in Chicago called the Yoga Circle that has been around for years, the teachers go to India every year, and does a good job of teaching the non-aerobic and spiritual parts of yoga without being overbearing or freaking out people who would be uncomfortable with too much spiritual stuff (my teacher was a Christian, but said that she loved the peace that came with saying ohm and the quietness of her practice). Gorgeous room, a big loft space with lots of plants at one end and all sorts of props needed for Iyengar yoga. I tried taking yoga at some gyms after that, and I hated it. It's just an aerobics class, and guys don't take to the aerobics, so why should they to this type of yoga? Anyway, the best part of it for me - the quietness - is missing in a silly, sweaty, "God would you quit checking me out, it makes me uncomfortable" type-gym.

As to why men don't want to do yoga, well, it's because girly-fied in the US what with the candles and pretty matts and general Oprafication of it. Or am I just reading it all wrong?

PS: my sense of the guys who came to the Yoga Circle were that they had back problems, or in a few particularly resourceful cases, thought they could pick someone up. Really, it was an interesting maneouver to watch - I found myself almost admiring the guy interact with said girl. What chutzpah...

Posted by: MD on July 24, 2005 12:38 PM

Ok, I just hated what I wrote in my last comment, but what can you do? Anyway, the gym yoga classes that were hard core had a lot more guys in them (and it was definitely a twenty something crowd, of which I am not one, so maybe there's some generational thing going on?)

Posted by: MD on July 24, 2005 12:43 PM

OK, at the risk of coming out as completely un-spiritual/hopelessly unenlightened person and all that - MD, do you really need someone from outside to get you in quiet mood? And what is the principal difference in "ohming" rather than, say, clutching the rabbit foot or spitting 3 times over your left shoulder?

For lenghtening my muscles I think I'd rather trust Pilates - at least they don't try to sell religious content (completely alien to me) in "healthy exercize/spiritual awakening" package.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 24, 2005 2:18 PM

Pilates and yoga have definite similarities in terms of what they do for you. Pilates is a relatively recent invention; I wonder if the inventor of Pilates might have incorporated some yoga stuff. If the Pilates style works better for you then I would think you would get a lot of the benefits of yoga.

Posted by: MQ on July 24, 2005 3:21 PM

Pilates is older than most people think, having been developed not long after the First World War as a means of rehabilitating disabled veterans. It didn't really catch on as an exercise program until much more recently.
Tatyana - sorry to disappoint you, but there is no way of lengthening one's muscles. The length of any particular muscle is determined by the points at which tendons attach to bones, which is genetic.

Posted by: Peter on July 24, 2005 7:11 PM

Shortening my muscles, than. No, wait, increased flexibility and lower back pain - something I can use after working in the garden. Where I prefer to retrteat for my inner peace.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 24, 2005 8:21 PM

Tatyana, unfortunately I do need help with 'getting quiet', sorry to say :)

Actually, I think that is why I love to read fiction so much - my brain has to calm down and focus to read, which is lovely. And I was raised a Hindu, so I think the ohming bit just seems comfortable to me, whereas it might seem alien to others....

Posted by: MD on July 25, 2005 10:20 AM

In each case the benefits were too time-consuming to attain as compared to alternative forms of exercise (stretching, running). There was also, to my taste, too much emphasis on attire, on synchronizing one's movements to those of the group, on following the instructor's directions.

Posted by: Pen on July 27, 2005 4:51 AM

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