In major cities there's a yoga studio in every neighborhood, if not on every block. The styles of yoga vary so greatly that it would be difficult to compare a Yin class with a Bikram class and call them the same thing. But however you define yoga, whether for strictly physical training or mental and spiritual awareness, or both, the wide-ranging benefits are obvious for the modern individual. Countless people around the world have undertaken the practice, but there's a major demographic that has remained on the outside looking in: men.
Ironically, the benefits of yoga for men are arguably more diverse than for women. Men who have played traditional sports tend to have strength in the major muscle groups, but have neglected the connective tissue that strengthens the smaller muscles and tendons around their joints.
Men also have societally imposed stressors, which studies have shown to increase the risk of heart disease. So why don't more men do yoga? From personal experience, I can tell you why.
Here's what men will tell you: “I don't want to bend over in front of other people.” “I don't want some dude bending over in front of me.” “Men lift weights, women do yoga.” “I can stretch at the gym.” “I'll just watch a power yoga dvd.” “How's that gonna help my bench press?” “I can't wear those pants.”
As a man who struggled with these same excuses (similar to Wayne Campbell), I can tell you what they really mean: “I'm not flexible.” “I don't want someone correcting me.” “I don't like struggling.” “I don't want a woman to tell me what to do.” “I don't like following instructions.” “It's not my type of fitness.”
And all of these, from experience, seem to fall under one category: “I don't want to be vulnerable.”
I neglected trying yoga for a long time for the same reasons. Even when I was told my knee pain would subside if I did simple balancing poses to strengthen the muscles around the joint, I elected to isolate my quads and hamstrings on machines in the weight room.
Only after my sports career ended (because of the same nagging injury) did I discover how impactful the benefits of yoga for men can be. I started simple, addressing my injury directly, but after attending classes for a few months I'd developed a practice I still can't go two days in a row without doing. So what are those benefits exactly? Let's get into it.
`1. Injury Prevention
Traditional sports and weightlifting tend to address major muscle groups: biceps, pectorals, triceps, deltoids, trapezius, abdominals, quads, glutes, calves—if they're popping, you look strong, and unfortunately that's all a lot of men care about.
Having played baseball, basketball, and football from a young age, and lifting weights on a daily basis in pursuing a college career, I understand firsthand that traditional methods don't age well. Most often, men who engage in muscle-specific exercises in front of a mirror in the gym tend to experience severe joint pain as they age.
Knee, shoulder, and elbow injuries are extremely common, and often result in surgery. Tendonitis is the norm, excess anti-inflammatory medications are used, and the body suffers. A yogic practice is not only beneficial for treating existing injuries, but can be an optimal tool for preventing future ones.
What types of postures work? Simple, body-weight driven postures such as plank, downward-facing dog, and upward-facing dog stabilize the muscles around the elbow and shoulder sockets and promote proper alignment.
Men bend forward and stretch their hamstrings, grab their foot behind them and stretch their quads, and might do some arm circles to work out the kinks in their shoulders before working out. They run in straight lines, push and pull things directly to and from their bodies, and aim to bulk-up muscles rather than lengthen them.
All of these factors contribute to an increasing lack of flexibility as men age, which causes stiff necks, backs, hips, and knees. Lack of mobility in joints is a primary cause of arthritis, further limitting the activities that can free them up to begin with.
By spending time in poses that open and lubricate joints, and address the build-up of fascia and scar tissue in the common areas of neglect, men can enhance their mobility and quite-literally feel more free.
What types of poses help with this? While specific poses can be helpful, the key here is spending extended time in certain poses while focusing on the breath, which helps gradually release tightness. Rushing through a sequence to 'finish' the practice won't be as beneficial as a thoughtful, balanced, integration of a few poses that address common areas of tightness in men.
3. Stress Relief
Right or wrong, a lot is expected of men these days. Whether you're a father trying to financially support a family, or a single guy trying to build a career, the societal stressors are profound and often debilitating.
Any type of exercise is beneficial in dealing with this, but when it comes with the pitfalls we've already discussed, it can do more harm than good. Breathing is as much a part of yoga practice as any other physical movement, and practices with an added emphasis on the breath can be integral for stress management and mental health.
Men are often expected to try hard in everything they do, and it's that excess trying that causes stress. By simply focusing on the breath, men can learn to not-try, to simply be, and be content with who they are and what they've done to get to this moment.
From my experience, this is one of the most important benefits of yoga for men, and shouldn't be overlooked.
What type of yoga is best for this? In my experience, Yin yoga practices tend to offer the best passive benefits for men. Each pose, many similar to those mentioned in the previous section, tend to last longer, often for at least ten full, slow breaths, and aid with flexibility.
The benefits of yoga for men are varied, and men trying yoga for the first time should be mindful of the type of yoga practice they undertake. A P90X power yoga circuit isn't going to address the common pitfalls of traditional sports and weightlifting.
Hot yoga sessions are popular with men because they can sweat out toxins and get deeper into stretches, but injuries are common and I wouldn't recommend practices that are dependent on the type of studio. Iyengar yoga promotes flexibility to the extreme, and can be extremely discouraging for men who want to retain a healthy amount of muscle tension for other activities.
Developing a personalized practice that addresses your needs is optimal, so I'd recommend trying a variety of flow-based restorative styles and finding what works best for you. No matter what you try, keep in mind that yoga isn't something you complete, or even progress toward levels of success.
It's a practice, and it should evolve as you do.
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