Do a sun salutation if the following story sounds familiar: when Stacey Reeves goes to yoga classes, he’s often the only man in a class of about 20 people. Many yoga studios he’s gone to have what he considers a “feminized”, rather than a unisex, environment, with touches such as soft lighting and herbal aromas.
“Yoga is so foreign to North American guys,” the yoga instructor told the Georgia Straight by phone. That’s something he’s addressing with YoGuy, one of the few yoga programs in Metro Vancouver designed specifically for men.
While Vancouver certainly has no shortage of yoga classes, Reeves said many of his clients have felt unwelcome at female-dominated yoga classes. He also noted that yoga has a history of being associated with women, which has led to gendered perceptions of the practice.
Kate Misurka of Yoga4Stiff Guys, which is taught at several community centres, agrees.
“Yoga has been very women-based in North America,” the retired lawyer said in an interview at a South Granville coffee shop over a chai latte. “I think it’s attractive for women because…it’s something that comes easier to them than men.”
Snicker all you want at her company’s name, but how her program has helped men is no laughing matter.
“We have some guys who couldn’t…on their first day get their foot forward and three or four years later [are] more [physically] open than some women I’ve seen in classes,” she said.
She added that many of her clients also report no longer experiencing lower back or shoulder pain.
“All we’ve done is increased the mobility in the body,” she said.
Reeves said many of his clients started doing yoga after someone close to them experienced a traumatic health event, inspiring them to become proactive about their well-being.
“They get to know their body in ways they never will with any other sports,” he said, adding that even the Vancouver Canucks are doing yoga.
Coincidentally, both Misurka and Reeves themselves turned to yoga after mountain-biking accidents.
It was Reeves’s wife who got him started when he was suffering from chronic neck pain following his bike crash. When the pain eventually vanished, he was hooked.
After sustaining a brain injury from her biking incident, Misurka turned to teaching yoga to some of her friends and noticed some differences between her male and female students.
“For men, because of the sports and the activities and the body structures and the things that they do, they tend to get lower-back problems, hamstring issues, [problems with] shoulders, necks.…Because of those things tightening up, they tend to stand and function in ways that tighten it up even more.”
In fact, both Misurka and Reeves observed that one of the basic barriers men face is posture.
Misurka has noticed that men tend to stand with their tailbone tucked under. In such a stance, the pelvic region is thrust too far forward for some guys to be able to touch their toes.
“You have to actually be in a [proper] posture position from the beginning and aligned,” she said of the correct way to commence doing yoga before even engaging in poses.
Consequently, she had to create a different yoga instruction style and cuing for men. She said it’s simply an alternative way to approach the same poses, due to differences between male and female bodies.
Reeves finds that many men walk with their heads down, which results in curvature of the back. He focuses on getting guys to stand with their shoulders up and back and chins tucked in, which changes their whole posture.
Most of Reeves’s clients in the city, often in their 50s, have been desk workers, engineers, and managers, and many can’t even do a pushup.
“What I’ve done is I’ve slowed down the classes just so that they can get in the positions,” he said. He adds that yoga is a great starting point for guys who haven’t been exercising. “What I liked about yoga is that it was slow enough so you can get guys to at least get started somehow.”
Both Misurka and Reeves have also stripped away certain elements to focus on the basics in order to make yoga more accessible to men.
“The program was very much designed to be motivating but also very clear and no yoga-speak…and then starting to throw in more of the spiritual and mind-body connection as we went along,” Misurka explained.
The first three weeks of Yoga4-Stiff Guys’ basics class focus on body awareness, such as proper alignment to avoid strains and injuries, before introducing breath work. As a sign of her success, her students now run the gamut from guys with knee and hip replacements to hard-core athletes and include everyone from teenagers to 70-year-olds.
Meanwhile, Reeves, who teaches his class at St. James Community Square, is in the midst of revamping his three-year-old program. While he feels he could simplify his classes even further, he’s also found that many men are facing problems that can interfere with yoga practice, including increased shift-work-based demands and mental-health issues. He said he’s trying to understand what his clients are dealing with so he can better assist them.
“I think men at some point need to really step up and say, ‘I need to do something about what I’m doing with my life,’ ” Reeves said, “and probably the first thing is starting to take care of your health.”