Yoga isn’t for me. Or so I remember thinking when I first began practicing it around 15 years ago, as a counterbalance to the way I was brutalising my body as a competitive velodrome track cyclist. I didn’t know how to move slowly and mindfully, and I didn’t really want to either – it felt very much against my natural cadence and everything I was striving to be. As a man, it just didn’t work for me.
Despite the initial resistance to the practise, the way it always made me feel afterwards was magically welcome in comparison to the lung-busting exhaustion my body was used to feeling after movement. And so, somewhat unwittingly, my journey into yoga began; one which brings me through to my teaching practise today.
Sporting pathways are a pretty common journey into yoga – turning up for the physical benefits, before then leaving with the mental, spiritual and energetic benefits. It was certainly mine. I’m not big on Instagram yoga quotes yet one which resonates is framing yoga as a ‘work in’, rather than a ‘work out’. It’s reductive, for sure, but it does begin to help articulate some of the shift in thinking I was going through when I first began questioning what ‘that stretching stuff on the mats’ was all about.
But there’s more to it. From where I’m sat, there seems like there’s a gendered-element at play here too.
I say that as someone who sees the world through the lens of gender (my pronouns are he/him). Alongside teaching I also work in the world of social justice and anti-oppression, where my focuses are on masculinities, gender equality and gender-based violence prevention. In real terms, this means I work with boys and men in schools, colleges, higher education institutions, pro sports, youth workers, prisons, night time economy spaces, and workplaces, unpacking masculinities, with a focus on how it impacts those who identify as being a man, and also those that don’t. It’s compassion-led work, which at times can be super challenging, and as a result can feel very embodied.
How is this all relevant to my yoga classes, you might wonder?
Well, it makes me committed to making my classes truly inclusive spaces, where students feel both supported and empowered on their mats. I want people to come to yoga and feel as though they belong.
There are a lot of reasons why men and male-identifying folk stay away from yoga. Whether it’s feeling like they’re not being flexible or mobile enough, carrying a sporting injury that has become part of their identity, or being hesitant towards being in a space where they are outnumbered by those with a different gender identity; yoga is still sometimes seen as ‘not for men’. Which strikes me as odd, given that the practise is believed to have early roots in the Brahmins (“men of learning” who were considered to be highly knowledgeable).
And no, I’m not an advocate for renaming it ‘broga’ or ‘manflow’ in order to bring more men onto their mats. Nor do I believe there should be any attempts to reclaim spaces in any way; rather I’m interested in creating a new one that feels safer and braver for everyone – and one which is inclusive of all identities. Where everyone, in whatever body they are in, feels curious to explore it through movement, following the question of ‘how does it feel, if?’ Rather than ‘how does it look if?’. Moving past performance and results, and into acceptance and joy.
So, if every student I work with is able to turn up with authenticity and love where they are at in their practise, then I as a teacher am doing my job. Which would further reinforce my belief that maybe, after all, yoga is for me.