Respect the code of silence!
So this is a continuation of my analysis of William J. Broad’s article “Wounded Warrior Pose.”
Referring to this issue of men and yoga, Broad writes, “I stumbled on the issue after my book, published in February, laid out a century and a half of science and, in its chapter on injuries, contradicted the usual image of yoga as completely safe. The yoga establishment makes billions of dollars by selling it as a path to healthy perfection. Predictably, it responded with sharp denials.” Well, we’ll probably never know whether Mr. Broad stumbled upon or rooted around for this issue. And may I suggest one reason yoga has been able to sustain an image of safety is because it is relatively safe. Who would call any physical activity “completely safe”? As for the critiques he characterizes as “sharp denials,” I wonder does he include contemplations such as these from knowledgeable yoga teachers Leslie Kaminoff (here and on video here) and Mark Stephens (find it here)? To imply they were fueled by financial concerns, you really must be joking! And who is this embattled yoga establishment, exactly? Where are they located? Does Broad really think there’s that sort of homogeneity in the yoga world?
He then attempts to back up his provocative statements with some statistics. I’m going to do a more thorough analysis of his analysis of federal data relating to yoga injuries, because at first glance I’m skeptical. I’ll get back to you on this.
Seeming to sense trouble here he goes on offense: “Some yoga practitioners will surely see my analysis as unconvincing. That’s O.K. It’s the kind of topic that can only benefit from thorough discussion — as well as rigorous new studies that can rule out the possibility of false clues.”
Well, okay. Here is where I give Broad some benefit of doubt. In fact, yes, let’s talk, let’s get some actual solid evidence going! And anyway let’s talk about it, surely. There is some benefit even in sensationalism, if it gets an issue raised. Certainly the yoga community − if not the yoga establishment − can do with discussions of the particular reasons why men should be cautious doing yoga.
And yet one can’t begin every class with a lecture on different approaches that students should adopt according to their gender. I have classes where some of the men are more limber than the women. You never know what the parade will be. I truly have to question making physical types into stereotypes.
In fact I suspect that some of Broad’s skewed perception is due to the fact he isn’t in the trenches. Despite his vaunted love of yoga, he doesn’t attend yoga classes, apparently. I’ve heard him interviewed on Irish radio and I understood that he has a practice he’s stuck to for many years that he does daily, but he didn’t mention attending classes. Now a home practice is a wonderful thing, but if you’re talking about what goes on in yoga classes, attending some classes might be a good idea. Instead most of what we get with Broad is hearsay, Internet talk, about yoga.
Take this line: “Men who are breaking the code of silence are doing so with physicians in hospital emergency rooms, who in turn report their findings to the federal government.” One would think there might be a movie or at least TV series potential here – Those Few Brave Men Who Broke the Yoga Code of Silence! In fact in the reception areas and locker rooms you’ll hear your share of bitching from either sex about injuries. And where else is it protocol for a teacher to actually elicit information about injuries and conditions before class formally starts? Doesn’t happen before your Boot Camp workout, but it does happen in yoga class.
Then the solutions he sets forth to this yoga-wrecking-male-body dilemma probably took him about ten minutes to research at the keyboard. “All-male classes, by definition, avoid the flexibility gap between women and men and instead play to masculine strengths.” He namechecks some of these brands, such as Broga, yoga for bro’s.
I suppose it can’t hurt, unless one’s expectations are not met, but I wouldn’t know, I will admit to never doing a Broga class, so I can’t comment. But I also wonder about the idea of playing to strengths as a real solution. We can improve what we do well, and it soothes the ego, surely. But in the long run − and yoga is all about the long run – if we restrict ourselves to what we can do easily doesn’t that inhibit growth? I can do Chaturanga all day, but so what? I might also try for a better Parivrrta Trikonasana (Reverse Triangle).
Because what this article should be saying, I believe, is that one of the main reasons men should in fact do yoga is because they are not so flexible. If you’re already a member of Cirque du Soleil, you don’t need yoga so much. But most men really could benefit from yoga, just to keep relatively limber. Muscular suppleness is a key factor in retaining agility, and in keeping healthy, not to mention a backing off from stress. Reactions to Broad’s article in Twitter trackback contradict this objective: “I knew there was a good reason I hate yoga!!”
As I’ve mentioned we tend to continue along the line of least resistance, and so it’s fairly easy to restrict our activities in ways that isolate our talents and therefore keep us on a familiar basis with our limitations. So even men engaged with shaping their bodies will concentrate on adding strength to strength. Runners might be nurturing tight hamstrings. The true warrior looks at what his weaknesses are, and works on minimizing them; so if we are not so flexible, then what are the tools we can use to loosen up (in all kinds of ways)? In my YogaWorks 300 hour teacher training there was a bodybuilder who was there just for this reason, and he was greatly admired.
Beyond discussion, the real answer to the yoga/men dilemma is always going to be decent, perceptive instruction. Poor teaching can potentially injure even the most flexible student. Even flexibility can have its pitfalls. The teacher has to be able to assess each student, and make the effort to keep them engaged yet not force them injuriously past their edge. Anyone who teaches beginners classes must observe, must see, must sense, with safety the first concern. And teachers should be on the lookout for the safest and clearest ways to instruct the poses, with modifications for those who need them. The real answer for men, then, is not necessarily special segregated classes, but that they start with an experienced teacher in (duh!) a beginner class, and work their way toward great facility. Only the ill-advised will try to run before they can walk, and that said, sometimes mistakes will be made.
The truth is, yoga can work with any body; the constricted, the stiff, the injured, the limited. Often the obstacle to a healthy practice isn’t the male body but the male ego. And I use the phrase with some discretion because this so-called male ego, this over-competitive drive, is itself gender bending these days. I see lots of competitive women in life and in yoga class. Broad reports: “Women say men push themselves too far, too fast.” Perhaps there are women who say this, but loads of women push themselves, too, look in the window at Jenny Craig. The need for the wow factor is ramping up in the studios, and yoga practice is becoming more intense, more rajasic.
So here are some things men really do need to know as they start practicing yoga. You are starting from a flexibility deficit. Don’t worry about it. This is an arena where women will more naturally shine, where they will most likely grab the brass ring faster than you. Don’t worry about it. Let it go. Some of those women, as well as some men, will shine, and you can admire that. Come back into your own body and see what you can do. Pay attention to your body, your instructor, your instructions. If a teacher pushes you too far, find another teacher. Yoga will improve your body slowly, it will improve your strength and your flexibility, but you’re not there to show off. Let it go. Letting the ego go, that is the ass-kicking yoga.
If you are very worried about safety, go Iyengar. It’s all about proper ways of doing yoga. Stay away from Bikram and Ashtanga. Investigate, research.
We can thank Mr. Broad for bringing up this subject matter in a passionate way, and for the notion that men and women need to respect disparities in typical talents. However the good news is that this isn’t too difficult to avoid yoga injury. If you are into extreme sports, running ultra marathons, for example, you are in a sense courting danger (not that that’s necessarily wrong). But unless you are way overzealous for your age and ability, yoga is pretty darned safe. It’s low impact, and it should be slow enough to allow for adjustments in the moment. It’s actually pretty tough to injure yourself, and Broad has to begin to understand this, and represent truly. I’ve been teaching steadily for nearly six years now, and to my knowledge, and knock wood, I haven’t injured a single student, beyond aches and pains the following day, and I’ve had scores of students tell me about how much relief they’ve experienced from all kinds of suffering. I know this doesn’t make for super controversial headlines, but it is, after all, the truth of the matter, which is that yes, yoga does present unique challenges for the typical male body, but we needn’t be so alarmed. It will work out. Come to class and see for yourself.