Is Yoga Different for Men?
What Teachers have to say about Men and Women and their Practice.
By Felicia M. Tomasko
Enter almost any yoga class in the U.S. today, and you’ll notice that the class is predominately composed of women. Even in very physical traditions like ashtanga yoga, Encinitas teacher Tim Miller reports that he sees more than three times as many women as men in class. For someone from India, this may seem surprising because throughout most of yoga’s history, yoga was a tradition practiced by, written about, and predominately developed for men.
Hatha yoga began as a very male-oriented practice. David Gordon White is a professor of religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara who specializes in South Asian religions. White states that the traditional literature on hatha yoga, which he identifies as the source of most yoga taught today, is male specific. He expands that to say that in the development of classical hatha yoga, most of the texts were written as if all practitioners were men.
The predominance of men in the practice may have been due more to the cultural climate and the time rather than views about biological differences between men and women. Santa Monica teacher Sydney Coale Light points out the male origins of yoga to her male students, saying that the intense physical practices were designed to sharpen every layer of a man’s being and were particularly relevant for the intense spiritual demands of a warrior monk. Tim Miller feels that men were comfortable practicing yoga since they were already well-grounded in their spirituality; the culture supported a man’s ability to reside in the territory of sacred space.
Throughout the centuries the practice was taught by men, to men, and it was only until recently that prominent teachers encouraged women to take up yoga. Fortunately, for Western women, twentieth-century yoga master T. Krishnamacharya was a pioneer in bringing hatha yoga to women, and has influenced the widespread practice of yoga by women today. He was a renowned modern teacher who, like Kundalini master Yogi Bhajan, stressed the importance of women practicing yoga. Krishnamacharya trained not only Indian women but Westerners, including the in-fluential teacher Indra Devi. Now, Santa Barbara Ashtanga Yoga Shala teacher Steve Dwelley says that Western women are the generation currently carrying the practice of yoga into the future.
So, if yoga was a male-oriented practice for centuries, why this reversal? Yoga is a prac-tice that creates more of a state of vulner-ability, according to Miller. He, along with other teachers, hypothesizes that women tend to naturally have an easier time with the emotional vulnerability inherent in yoga practice. Miller finds that yoga practice, particularly the challenging forms like the ashtanga he teaches, is transformative by nature. The practitioner then has to navigate unfamiliar territory and states of being. While these were values supported culturally during the development of yoga, Western cultural ideas do not support male vulnerability. For a long time, Miller said that male role models in this country were people like John Wayne, strong and tough. It is a stretch to imagine John Wayne on a yoga mat.
Because of this training and due to actual biological or physical differences between men and women (see sidebar), men approach the practice differently when they walk into a class and step on a mat. When considering these differences, it can be easy to slip into stereotypes. But these stereotypes do have some truth, based on biology. Michele Nichols and Steve Dwelley, owners and teachers at the Ashtanga Yoga Shala in Santa Barbara, notice that more men injure themselves in their classes than women. As mentioned in the context of brain research, men are generally more aggressive. Santa Monica yoga teacher Kevin Light also notices a higher incidence of injury in men. Light feels that men’s natural aggression is encouraged and culturally trained. Men are socialized to be competitive, and carry that competition with them into the yoga room. So, when they practice they are competitive with themselves and the other students. But on the mat, the competition works against them, leading to increased incidence of injury.
Miller also finds that men are more humbled by the practice. In a culture where mastery of a skill is valued, yoga is something that can never really be mastered. Miller says that it may be a difficult thing for a man to deal with, “that yoga is something that is going to be humbling for a long time, ideally forever.”
Men who are willing to be humbled and willing to become more vulnerable often find it to be a liberating experience. Miller is one, “the very first yoga class I took really transported me to this other realm; it felt familiar, felt like home.” James Bailey took his first yoga class 20 years ago at the urging of his now-wife, Shiva Rea. He found that it not only made him a better rock climber, it generally enhanced his physical abilities in other pursuits as well as his ability to adapt to stress.
When men take to the mat, they “have an edge in their ability to focus,” according to Sydney Coale Light. Even as beginners, Coale Light says that more men just seem to “get it.” They are able to tap into that one-pointedness that is part of an effective practice. This is a famous stereotype: men can only focus on one thing at a time, while women can multi-task with the greatest of ease. According to modern brain research, women use more areas of their brain more often, while men do tend to focus more, even on an anatomical level. So, this one-pointedness comes more naturally to men.
Even though a man’s practice may start out more focused, intense or competitive, people find that their approach to and experience in yoga, whether they are male or female, changes over time as they continue in the practice. A beginner’s approach may be more stereo-typically male or female, but just as sex dif-ferences in the brain can vary from childhood to adulthood; many practitioners find themselves developing more qualities traditionally linked to the opposite sex the longer they practice. Like many men, Dwelley finds that his practice becomes refined over time; his approach has radically changed. He describes himself as be-coming more receptive, a typically female quality.
This transformation is inherent in the practice itself. It is important to remember the very definition of hatha yoga. “Ha” refers to the masculine sun, and “tha” to the feminine moon. The joining together of the two is hatha yoga, not only in name, but in practice.
When acupuncturist James Bailey and his wife Shiva Rea prac-tice yoga, they draw on a tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, in which the aim is to find the union between shiva and shakti within the self, the merging of the masculine and feminine aspects of our inner spiritual nature. This goal is similar goal to the union of sun and moon in hatha practice. Bailey has found that as his practice has evolved over time, the lines between the two become blurred. Bailey has also noted the strengthening of these two spiritual energetics in other people and says that “whoever needs empowerment becomes empowered; whoever needs calming becomes calmed.”
Is Yoga Different for Women?
Santa Monica teacher Shiva Rea says that, absolutely there are differences and yoga is vastly different for women. The alchemical processes of yoga practice affect the male and female hormonal cycles very differently, and women need to ensure that their practice supports their femininity.
Differences between men and women exist at a level more subtle than hormones and sex organs. Even though a male bias exists in the texts, the very same sources acknow-ledge the uniqueness of women’s spirituality. In his book, Kiss of the Yogini, White identifies sources from traditional Indian texts including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Siva Sam-hita that differentiate between men and women. Interestingly, White reports the traditional texts say that, “whereas men must discipline themselves and cultivate the flow of energy through their practice, the flow in women is strong and natural.” This is similar to the view expressed in the Kundalini tradition taught by master Yogi Bhajan, wherein there are unique teachings given to meet the differing needs of men and women. These relate not only to biology and different hormone cycles, but speak to spiritual differences. Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa of Golden Bridge Yoga says that Yogi Bhajan taught that women’s source of energy is vast and affects all those around them, including their children and the men in their lives. The emotional tone and shakti, or spiritual energy, of a woman is incredibly powerful.
Just as men can become more open and vulnerable in their practice, Coale Light observes, that women develop the ability to become still and to learn to increase their ability for one-pointed focus as they continue with their practice. Women are also able to develop the strength and power a man possesses more innately, according to Nichols.
The Times They Are a-Changing
The disparity between numbers of men and women who practice yoga seems to be changing, as role models change, and as yoga becomes more mainstream. Coale Light sees the disproportion between men and women in class evening out. “There are more men than there have ever been,” she reports. Although she wouldn’t call it androgyny: when women yoginis develop more concentration, endurance, strength and focus and male yogis become less competitive and more receptive and open, rather she feels that this marriage of sun and moon helps the individual live in a more balanced state. An interesting question would be: How does the brain of a yogi change?
Coale Light states that in es-sence, yoga is a form of physics, a science of energy, and on the smallest or the most subtle of levels, we are all made of the same substances. Even though our first step onto the mat may seem like it is peering across a chasm of difference, the sun and moon may eventually share the same sky.
Felicia M. Tomasko is a writer, yoga teacher, and Ayurveda practitioner in Santa Barbara.
Felicia [email protected]
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