Inside the fast growing world of male yoga
It’s not just stretching
It’s a Wednesday lunchtime, and I think I’m going to pass out.
I’m dripping with sweat, every muscle in my body is shaking and I’m focusing all my energy on not faceplanting onto the floor. My mind, however, is focused on a single question: who said yoga was easy?
For years the domain of linen-trousered hippies, men have finally started to reach yoga enlightenment – a Sport England survey found that the number of men practising yoga every week increased by 55 per cent between 2010 and 2014, and it’s only getting more popular. The fact of the matter is, men are starting to realise that there’s a hell of a lot more to it than stretching in spandex.
According to Fitness First PT Ambassador Marc Dressen, it’s been a long time coming: “Advertising in the West has made us believe it’s a girly exercise, but in actual fact if you were to visit India you’d find that most master yogis are typically male.
“The thing is, there are a wealth of benefits associated with it. A Georgetown University study found indulging yourself in mind-body work like yoga can reduce anxiety and stress, decrease pain, enhance sleep and raise energy – and that’s just a few of the benefits.
“You shouldn’t judge what you haven’t tried. Having an open mindset has proven to be great for personal development, so men should approach yoga as an investment into their health.”
It was this newfound interest in yoga from men which led to my struggle on that glossy studio floor. I’d agreed to take part in some “Broga” taught by renowned yogi Matt Miller after a brief email exchange. “To get an interview you have to come to a class,” he said: “Rules is rules.”
I turned up to the venue, Gymbox in Bank, in equal parts terrified and intrigued. I was mostly apprehensive about meeting Matt, so when I eventually found the studio I was taken aback by how un-yoga-like he was: huge, with biceps thicker than my head. I thought guys who did yoga were meant to be skinny?
Chatting to him after the class, Matt tells me this is just one of the misconceptions he’s trying to combat. “When people think of yoga, they picture some guy with a top knot, beads everywhere, doing a sun salutation on a rock with a sunset and waves splashing behind. I have zero interest in being that guy.”
And “that guy” Matt certainly isn’t – an ex-American footballer turned professional bodybuilder, he’s about as far removed from the yogi stereotype as possible. He admits he didn’t even do yoga until four years ago: so how does a self-proclaimed sceptic end up being the public face of yoga for men?
“In 2012 I was approached to be an ambassador for the yoga and fitness brand lululemon. They asked me if I would be their first male ambassador in Europe, and I told them they must have got the wrong guy because I didn’t do yoga.
“I’d done yoga once in a while, I liked it and appreciated it, but I’d do anything to get out of it. So now here I was, an ambassador for this company, and I thought ‘I’m going to actually have to do some yoga’.
“I very quickly realised it was something I really needed, so I started developing something which combined my fitness background and my yoga training. I wanted to create something that men and more athletically-minded people would be able to understand – and Broga was born.”
Broga combines traditional yoga with men’s fitness principles – increasing intensity, set numbers of repetitions and workouts devoted to certain muscle groups all get a look in. Beside making it more male accessible, this also makes it really tough.
As the workout continues, the difficulty increases and I’m finding myself really struggling. Soon comes the buddy-up section, in which me and the second-sweatiest man in the class introduce ourselves and then help stretch each other out. It feels no different to spotting a mate’s set in the gym – and it becomes very easy to forget this is yoga.
By the end of the session, I’m a shuddering mess. Matt singles me out, saying with a grin: “This guy’s doing good, he’s never even done yoga before!” The rest of the class smile, chuckle and offer their support. I try to respond but can only muster a weak gurgle and a half thumbs-up.
I can’t remember ever doing a workout like it: which is funny, seeing as I’d gone in with the mentality that yoga isn’t a workout at all. Matt says this is all part of the Broga mentality: “It’s about using yoga to make the rest of your life better, rather than using yoga to be an incredible yogi – in broga, you do a yoga class but you don’t feel like you’re doing a yoga class.
“People are realising that if they want to be better, they have to get out of their comfort zone. In the US, in the NFL and the NBA, players are required to do yoga. We train the London Scottish rugby team. These are top athletes, who have entire teams of scientists and experts advising them. And guess what? They’re all doing yoga.”
He makes a compelling point, but I can’t help but feel that Broga is an exception to the norm – the five day “hell week” bootcamp they’re holding in June seems a world away from the flowers-in-the-hair image yoga usually conjures up. So how would a guy fare at good old traditional yoga? To answer the question, I find myself taking a trip down to Frame in Shoreditch the next day.
When you picture a yoga studio, you probably picture Frame – a spacious bare-brick East London hideaway decked floor-to-ceiling with inspirational quotes. The open-plan lobby is filled with trendy young media types in leggings, and the shelves and fridges are decked out with tanning oils and foods labelled with words like “acai” and “goji”.
I’m booked in for a Vinyasa Flow class, and as I sit waiting it dawns on me that there aren’t many men around. The only other guy is sitting opposite me, and a hunch suggests he isn’t a novice like me. Then the cardio class is called in and he departs – leaving me well and truly on my own.
Today’s class is a very different affair, but it’s by no means a walk in the park. Vinyasa involves contorting your body in time with your breathing, and it’s a lot harder than it seems. Taking the class is Adele Simor, who teaches yoga part-time when she’s not working at a tech start-up round the corner.
Adele tells me the amount of men she teaches has skyrocketed in recent years – and that they’re all surprised by just how difficult it is. When the heaters come on ten minutes into the class, I can’t help but agree: I find myself panting and soaked, and look around with incredulity at the 20 other women who haven’t even broken a sweat.
Unlike Broga, Vinyasa is much more in line with the yoga stereotype: beautiful young people saying “downward dog” and stretching to a soundtrack of peaceful Eastern techno. What men don’t seem to realise, however, is that it really puts you through your paces – and perhaps the outdated yogi stereotype is the reason for that.
After the class is over, I stop by reception for a smoothie (when in Rome, etc). I browse a menu which includes”The Framer” and “The Immuniser”, while the woman in front of me orders a turmeric latte. I opt for a “Basic Bitch”, and limp back to the office.
Yoga seems to be a long way from casting off its beach bunny connotations, but Marc suggests that might be the reason men are coming round to it: “Modern men are living more stressful lives than ever before, which has had a dramatic ripple effect on their health and wellbeing. That’s why practising the art of being mindful is on the top of the list of most alpha males nowadays.”
Lying in bed, nursing aches in muscles I didn’t know existed, I can’t help but admit I’ve come round to the alpha male benefits.
As for the mindfulness? I haven’t slept that peacefully in years.