“Oh yeah, I definitely could benefit from yoga… but I’m not very flexible,” non-practitioners often say during conversations about trying a yoga class. Men seem to feel this even more acutely than women and sometimes it keeps them away from the practice. Most yoga classes held in studios all over the country have a number of regular, long term practitioners. These are usually female and can look pretty intimidating to a typical beginner guy with tight hamstrings that can barely reach past his knees! This kind of stiffness is quite common even among young men.
Yoga Therapy follows the traditional model of the instructor and student being one-to-one. This relieves a lot of the potential self-consciousness and competitive pressure that a (male) beginner can feel in studio classes with lots of well-practiced students. It is also a much more effective manner for any beginner to learn proper alignment and safe, consistent approaches to new postures. Yoga Therapy is a great place for a man to begin exploring the practice of yoga.
Men are characteristically tight in the hamstrings, the glutes, the hip flexors and the psoas (which connects the lower back to the legs) leading to both the feeling of inflexibility as well as lower back pain, sciatica and other pain/discomfort. Yoga can dramatically improve flexibility in these areas with consistent and patient practice. Importantly, yoga works in an integrated way to help develop strength, balance, and stamina along with flexibility. The practice of yoga allows the hips, lower back, and hamstrings to release tension and gain ease.
Muscular tension and bodily stress usually have psychological aspects as well. Frustration and anger can both contribute to and result from pain, weakness, and discomfort in the legs and lower back. Consistent yoga practice releases tensions at all levels bring increased ease and a heightened awareness in the functioning of body, mind and emotions. In this way we gain clarity concerning emotional triggers that often reoccur in some instinctively weak thought or behavior whether it be anger, depression, frustration, or negativity in whatever form.
Yoga is an ancient and integrated technology that enables the management and eradication of these instinctive weaknesses of body and mind; it is a self-administered therapy, guided by a qualified yoga therapist or teacher. Yoga consists of a number of interrelated sets of practices or disciplines. Yoga poses (asanas) are usually where people first learn about yoga; asanas focus on gaining strength, stamina, flexibility, and balance.
Here are some great poses for men to start working on the hamstrings, hips and lower back, though best learned with the help of a qualified yoga therapist or teacher:
- Pigeon – stretches psoas and hip flexors
- Locust – strengthens low back, glutes, hamstrings; various styles
- High and Low Lunges – stamina and balance building, stretches psoas; also Warrior poses, Side Angle and Triangle poses
- Forward Bends – stretching glutes, hamstrings, helps with inward gaze; including Standing & Seated Forward Bends (legs together); Standing & Seated Wide Angle Forward Bends
- Bound Angle Pose – Opens inner thighs, outer rotation of hips
Yogic breathing (pranayama) practices extend, strengthen, and balance the breath. These practices bring about an increase of ease, calm, and energy; really valuable for guys that might be experiencing fatigue and frustration from the “rat race.” Pranayama is also a great prelude to other yogic meditation practices. All of yoga is better learned by experience than by reading about it, so here is an easy to learn breathing practice that can be done seated on the floor, sitting in a chair, or even lying down:
- Begin this practice by getting as comfortable as possible, adjusting your posture until you feel at ease and able to remain still for a few minutes. Take a few deep breaths; fill the lungs from the bottom upwards to the top: abdomen fills first, then the lower rib cage, then the upper chest. Exhale twice as long as the inhalation… so if it takes a count of 4 to fill the lungs, count 8 to empty the lungs.
- Now, remaining as still as possible, rotate your awareness through the body, starting with the feet, ankles, legs, and so on, all the way up to the neck, then hands, arms, shoulders, and finally, the neck and head. Make a conscious effort to just let go of any tensions that you may encounter along the way. Repeat this several times. If you become distracted simply bring your attention back to rotating awareness.
- After a few minutes begin to observe the breathing process; air moving in and out of the body without any conscious effort or control; just watch and feel the breath moving, the natural breath that is always there even when you are not thinking about it. When you become aware that the mind has wandered off to something else (which may happen over and over again), simply come back to watching the breath.
- After a few minutes of observing the breath, like this for about 5 – 20 minutes, then end the meditation slowly and gently. Become aware of the whole body again; take your time reconnecting with the sounds and feeling of the room you are in. Open your eyes and look around a little, then start moving again.
This simple practice takes anywhere from 10-25 minutes to complete, and it cannot really be done incorrectly. Simply follow the steps without expecting anything in particular.
Yoga is for men, too, and specifically helps in many aspects of our lives. Whatever level of flexibility you have right now (as well as strength, stamina and balance) is the right place for you to start. Regular yoga practice will release physical and mental tensions bringing about a sense of well-being, ease and presence, enabling a more holistic, creative approach to life.
Lee Loftus, 200 E-RYT, teaches yoga in Austin, Texas at his studio – Atmarama Yoga.