Fitness Magazine

Male Body Image and Yoga

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Baxter
Male Body Image and YogaNina recently asked me for my thoughts on body image from a male point of view. She said, “It seems to me for male yoga practitioners, it is not so much about getting a certain look as being able to perform showy poses. And, uh, you know what it is like to have a lot of limitations in that area. I thought that might be worthwhile/interesting to address.”
Well, Nina, I don’t agree with you that men are not going for a certain look or idealized physique. There are definite signals in our culture about what a healthy, strong man should looks like, whether it is from the movie super heroes like Spiderman (he seems the closest to a yogi, to me), our professional athletes, or the hunky men pictured on the cover of magazines. And I personally felt this urge earlier in my experience with yoga, when I had little exposure to the philosophy of the practice and was enamored with the physicality of asana. I have always been on the thin side and was sometimes self-conscious about that, so in my early days I was particularly interested in the poses that built strength and muscle mass. So I’m guessing a lot of other men feel the way I did, whether they are interested in bulking up or reducing body fat.
But as I began to get serious about my yoga practice, it was helpful for me to observe my male teachers and notice that while some appeared to fit into the idealized view above, others clearly did not. And having the most ideal body did not necessarily equate with being the most grounded, happy, or successful person. For example, one of my male teachers was a large man, both in stature and in size, unlike the toned, lithe yet muscled ideals that I saw in Yoga Journal magazine. Yet this man was also very adept at asana and was, more importantly, kind, wise, and compassionate with his students—qualities I came to appreciate more and more over time.
So now when I notice that I am getting caught up in some internal dialog or dissatisfaction with how my body looks—like my arms looking too thin or weak and my belly looking flabby—I try to catch myself in the act and step back and take a broader view of my physicality and what my bigger goals are. Do I actually feel healthy in the body I have? Am I able to participate in the activities I love, like yoga, hiking, playing my violin, to the extent that is satisfying? Do I feel rested when I awake, and do I have adequate energy through the day to do my work and play well? I don’t expect to stop having opinions about how my body looks. But, from my yoga perspective, this is a reflection of the ego-personality part of my consciousness, called the ahamkara, which my yoga practice is assisting in quieting a bit over time!
As for the ability to perform showy poses, I usually refer to this aspect of a yoga practitioner’s experience as the need to feel “competent” in yoga. And I certainly used to feel this need myself, and it often lead me to overdo it in class and end up with some mild injury. I am super tight in the hamstrings so I used to think how pathetic my forward bends were compared to those being done by my classmates. But over the years, I have softened my attitudes towards needing to be really good at all the yoga poses, especially when the reality is that if I push myself too hard to achieve an external appearance of a full pose, I will most likely end up injuring myself. My forward bend practice is much more subtle now, with the feedback my body gives me determining how far I take things instead of my ego determining how I do the poses. And I have let go of certain “classic” poses like full Headstand and Shoulderstand after being in a car accident a few years back and needing to take better care of my neck. Sure, part of me misses how cool it felt physically and mentally to do these poses well. But another part of me does not at all, and I feel so much better these days when I listen deeply to my body!
And I certainly have spoken with many other men over the years who express distress at not feeling “competent” in the performance of yoga poses, sometimes even the beginning level poses! These men look around the classroom and see most of the women in the class appearing to easily come into Standing Forward Bend and Downward-Facing Dog, while they themselves struggle with limitations in movement and actual physical discomfort, at least at the start. It does not sit well with the other cultural expectations we men have, that they we should be smart, competent and successful (in a broad sense) in everything we do. And I’ve met guys who quickly gave up on yoga due to this dynamic for them!
I feel fortunate to have had teachers early on who acknowledged this possibility and redirected my mind to consider how the poses were feeling internally, shifting the focus from some exclusive achievement of an ideal outward appearance towards one of an inner dialog and gradual changes appropriate for my body. Two of my teachers, Rodney Yee and Richard Rosen, both had strong practices in some ways, but were limited in other ways and could not do the “full” poses all the time. The cool thing about both of them was that they came up with creative and clever ways for me to try to approach the poses, without doing so in a careless, cavalier way that might lead to injury. For example, they had me use straps for some of the bound sitting poses like Marichyasana 3.
In addition, many of my teachers were masterful at sequencing practices that did a great job preparing my body to go as deeply, in a safe, mindful way, as I could toward those showy yoga poses. But the emphasis was always on the journey, and not so the destination. Sure, we were always heading somewhere and giving it our best effort. But I was learning to experience some other reality other than the outward success or failure (do you hear the Gita, anyone?) of mastering the fancy, advanced yoga asana. I remember the first time Donald Moyer taught me seated forward bends using the bolster under the knees. I will never be able to wrap my hands around my feet in seated forward poses like Paschimottansana, but doing these modified versions finally allowed me to experience the “quieting” that I had heard about ad nauseam for years! And I was feeling that without holding onto my feet with my hands.
So, yes, men are influenced and motivated by body image, though perhaps not as overtly as women. And they are also strongly influenced by a need to feel “competent” or achieve “success” with challenging poses. But true competence in yoga does not mean the ability to do challenging poses. Instead, true competence means being able to practice in the way that is best for your particular body. In addition, moving toward less emphasis on the posture practice and introducing the other aspects that yoga has at its roots can make your yoga practice so much more appealing than just being “mystical P.E.,” as one senior yogi recently joked. I personally have enjoyed adding sound work, such as chanting on exhalations during my Sun Salutes, as well as developing better skills in subtler practices of pranayama and meditation.
People are always theorizing about why there are not more men in yoga classes these days—maybe body image plays a bigger role in this trend than we guys would like to admit! But, guys, no matter what size or shape you are, I want to encourage all of you to try to get over these issues and start to practice yoga to obtain all of the wonderful benefits of regular practice. I have had men of all sizes in my classes over the years, including fat guys. Some of them feel comfortable continuing in my regular classes, and I direct those who don’t to a specialty class a colleague started for Curvy Gals and Big Guys. So, no excuses, fellas!
Guys out there, what has your experience been around body image or mastering challenging yoga poses? Let us know!  
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