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November 30, 2014

— by Richard Scheinin

What yoga can do for men physically and mentally

San Jose Mercury Feb 1999

Jim Scheer used to "hem and haw" at his wife's suggestions that he sit in on her yoga class. "It was kind of like walking into a nail salon or something," he says, recalling how he felt at the time. "There were only a handful of men in that group of 20 or 25 people, so I hesitated. You know: 'Is this a guy thing?' "

That was 12 years ago, and Scheer, 73, now attends yoga classes every week in Capitola and Felton. He takes special pleasure in flying up into headstands and enjoys "the sense of relaxation I feel after the class."

Blake Lueders, 22, describes yoga's benefits in more technical terms: It enhances "functional movement" by building "core strength," says the defensive end for the Stanford Cardinal football squad. "As far as making you a better athlete, and as far as injury prevention goes, you really get the bang for your buck."

Standing at opposite ends of the age spectrum, Scheer and Lueders emblemize the coming of age of the men's yoga movement.

Millions of American men -- about 3.6 million, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal study -- practice yoga. Most have gotten past the attitude that "yoga is a girl thing" to embrace the idea that yoga simply is a good thing: good for destressing, good for establishing balance, strength and flexibility. It can be an antidote to the physical tightness and mental fatigue that plague so many men, often exacerbated by endless hours sitting in front of a computer. And for those who can't yet twist themselves into Cirque du Soleil swami poses -- well, so be it. After all, LeBron James does yoga; he sees value in a good basic stretch, so why not you?

Place to destress

 
 

"The first thing guys are looking for is some stress reduction, a place where they can destress from work," says Tom McCook, a yoga teacher since 1995 and director of the Center of Balance studio in Mountain View. "And luckily the information is out there that it's also a solid workout, rather than just some navel-gazing. So they find out that you can do a full-body workout in half an hour, and then they see that it's in a focused environment -- not in some distracting gym where it's just another way of stressing themselves. So there's physical benefit and there's a mental benefit, as well."

 
 

Especially for men over 45, yoga "is a way to keep your body healthy, by getting to know your body better," says Myles Spar, a UCLA integrative internist and physician at the Southern California Men's Medical Group in West Hollywood. He recommends that men practice yoga to help relieve chronic lower back and shoulder pain; to prevent injuries when preparing for a triathlon or marathon; and for feeling calmer, generally -- a feeling that can flow out into the home and office. "I truly believe in it. It has so many benefits for the men I see."

The irony is that through the centuries in India, yoga was largely "a guy thing," handed down as a practice from father to son. The Indian innovators who brought yoga to the West -- Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and his famous students, including B.K.S. Iyengar -- were men. Yet in the West, women have dominated yoga. According to that same Yoga Journal survey, men -- even as their numbers increase and their attitudes change -- remain an enlightened minority. Of the estimated 20.4 million Americans who practice yoga, only 17.8 percent -- those 3.6 million -- are men.

"It has become a women's world," says David Moreno, a well-known Bay Area instructor who specializes in yoga for men. He finds that women "have a doorway, a portal, that's much more organic to them about opening to silence, to feelings, to the sensation of their bodies. Women are much more likely to come into yoga as a collective, while men are much more likely to come in alone, or to see it as a sport. Men are from Mars, really. We have different needs."

And the fear factor still can kick in when men arrive for class and look out on what appears to be a sea of supple women on their sticky mats: "Men are traditionally not as flexible. So we're all of a sudden in a public situation where we feel that we're underperforming. And that can be intimidating and can bruise the ego."

Paul Gould teaches a yoga class at Namastay Yoga in Felton on Nov. 19, 2014.
Paul Gould teaches a yoga class at Namastay Yoga in Felton on Nov. 19, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

Just for men

Which is why Moreno is writing a book on the subject, tentatively titled "Men and Yoga: Stories and Status." And it is why he has established an all-male class at Yoga Tree in Berkeley: One Sunday a month, at 7 a.m., 15 to 30 men arrive for the "Men's Kula," a two-hour session of asana (physical poses), pramayana (yogic breathing) and meditation.

Participants range in age from their 30s to their 60s, and include "a lot of dads who have three daughters and a wife at home, and they just want to be with the guys and have that energy around them," Moreno says. "Just to be in a room full of men practicing together, in a circle, facing one another -- it's powerful."

Instructors collectively guide the men toward "the kind of practice that suits men, that challenges men without overwhelming them." Poses are often modified; no need to stress and strain. Keep it safe. Do what feels right, and do it correctly. Sit on a block or a couple of blankets to help those tight hips to open.

"Someone with huge quadriceps and tightness through their hips -- it's going to be harder for them," says Nanci Conniff, a yoga and Pilates specialist for Stanford University's athletic program whose students have included Lueders, the defensive end. "They simply can't get all their flesh out of the way. There's just more of them to move around. So it comes down to meeting people where they're at. You start at Point A and you build it up. You do a lot of preparatory work."

Calm exploration

"Explore your own edge," suggests Paul Gould, who runs NamaStay Yoga in Felton with his wife, Jenni Fox. Teaching triangle pose -- a classic, Iyengar standing pose that involves extensions of the legs, arms and torso -- he often encourages a male yogi to "do a modified version with his body aligned, and then let's keep it aligned and see how deeply we can get into it." His goal: Bring the student to "a place of calm," while exploring.

Gould teaches men-only classes, too: "What happens is, we have a blast. I don't think yoga should be a dour undertaking. I've been to a lot of yoga classes where it's like, 'Whoa! This is not a lot of fun. Can we smile here?' "

Scheer agrees that he feels freer to let loose among men: "The moaning and groaning is kind of at a minimum in a co-ed class," like the one he attends in Capitola with wife Christa. But at his "all-guy class" with Gould in Felton, the atmosphere opens up: "We were all joking one time that we should make a CD, like the whales singing. We'd call it 'Men Doing Yoga.' "

Macho aspects

Spar, the UCLA integrative internist, finds that men can be drawn to yoga -- and go on to see its benefits -- if he uses "guy language" to describe it. For instance, headstands and shoulder stands -- the so-called inversion poses -- can be understood in terms of gym-rat resistance training, because "you're pushing against your body weight." Likewise, a standing warrior pose "works the quads and the glutes." Sometimes he encourages men to attend Bikram "hot yoga" classes for a sweaty workout that becomes a yoga gateway: "Oh, this is kind of a macho thing!"

Allan Nett, a Napa-based instructor who teaches in San Francisco and the East Bay, has created a class titled "Yoga with Your Boots On." No sticky mats. No lotus poses. A former contractor, he often teaches yoga to construction workers -- at the worksite. He instructs them in standing poses, stretching and pushing against walls to improve balance and alignment, thereby helping to reduce spinal constrictions and the attendant pain.

He teaches co-ed classes, too, but finds that with men he "treats it a little more like we're on a team, and pushes it a little differently. —‰'Come on you guys, you can do it. How come your arms aren't straight? I know you're stronger than that. I can see it!' I talk more personally with a man, in a sense, about what his body is like than I would with a woman."

And he tells the men to remember this motto: "You've got to be out of your mind to do yoga. That's not crazy out of your mind. It's thinking less and feeling more."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

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