Before you step into any yoga studio in Singapore, what do you expect to see? Lithe, young women in the trendiest Lululemon outfits folding themselves into human pretzels? That is the stereotypical image that may have stopped some from placing a toe on the mat – men, especially.
The irony is, yoga was created thousands of years ago in India by men, for men. Today, you’d be lucky to spot male participants in a room full of women.
For instance, The Yoga Space, which opened in mid-2018, sees men making up about 30 per cent of its classes, though “it’s not always the same for each class”, according to co-founder Jing Lu. Even in the more established set-ups such as Yoga Movement, the percentage of male participants isn't any different, said its director and co-founder Alicia Pan.
“A lot of men perceive yoga as a female-dominant workout, and they have the misconception that it’s all about stretching,” said Gajendra Badwal, the 36-year-old founder of Align Studio. “Or they think they are not flexible enough to do yoga.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Raymond Tan, who jogs a few times a week and has no qualms trying rock climbing and CrossFit. But the 32-year-old sales manager draws the line at stretching in “a room full of women who can touch their toes”. “I don’t think my ego and body are flexible enough to take the humiliation,” he laughed.
"Men are not open to yoga because social media sends the wrong message; the crazy leg-behind-head postures, the splits and the back bends. And I'm guilty as charged!" said Hafiz Sazali, 35, who has practised yoga for close to four years and has been teaching it for three years.
Even the men who practise yoga started out feeling apprehensive. “The first time I stepped into a class, I felt intimidated by everything,” said consultant physician Wong Chen Seong. “Everyone in class seemed so comfortable and confident on the mat, and moved with a grace and strength I couldn’t even imagine,” said the 36-year-old.
WHY DO YOGA, MAN?
Most men who exercise generally focus on building strength and cardiovascular fitness. Just step into any gym and you’ll see that the free weights section and treadmills are the busiest spots.
Spending 45 minutes on a yoga mat might be the farthest thing from a man’s mind. But to be considered physically fit, you’ll need to work on your flexibility, too – one of the components that make up fitness.
Moreover, doing the same exercises, whether it’s weight training or running, means that the same muscles are being worked again and again; sometimes, leading to a plateau in performance. And that’s where yoga can take you out of your workout rut, according to Sazali.
“If you want to lift more in your deadlift, you need to really stretch out those hip flexors,” he said. “You can never surpass your personal best if you don't stretch out. In the worst-case scenario, it might even lead to injuries.”
Yoga’s benefits don’t only apply in the gym but in other sports, too. “For example, yoga allows us to gain good hip flexors, which is an added advantage when we are bouldering or climbing,” said Badwal.
Knowing how to perfect complex postures, taking care of your mental and physical being, and learning to connect with yourself are traits that are masculine and alpha.
There are also times when doing the heavy lifting may not be the best exercise for you, said Sazali. “Our rounded back, head-forward posture, and Tech Neck Syndrome are so common nowadays among young adults. Loading more weight when doing shoulder presses doesn't help counter the effects of tech neck.”
As for thinking yoga is all about smoothie sipping and “too feminine”, Acroyoga practitioner and teacher Leonard Heng said: “Knowing how to perfect complex postures, taking care of your mental and physical being, and learning to connect with yourself are traits that are masculine and alpha".
The 23-year-old added that having tools like breathing exercises can also help to reset and ground you.
MEN WHO YOGA
While Sazali noticed that there's a growing trend for yoga, it's "not selling like hot cakes compared to other 'manly' sports such as HIIT, weighted routines or running".
"But I'm seeing a good number of guys who are coming in lately. There are a few military personnel as well. I'm happy that these military guys are open to receiving knowledge that will benefit their strenuous activities every week," he said.
Lu of The Yoga Space said that the male participants are also in it “to stay in shape and to complement other workouts that they do”. “We have many runners, cyclists, CrossFitters – all of them use yoga to help improve their performance in other sports,” she said.
As for getting in on the yoga game early, most of the men have their partners to thank for. “My wife was the one who dragged me out from the house to try it out with her. She started a few months earlier and thought it will make a good bonding time,” said Bryan Chao, a 39-year-old teacher, who has been practising for three years and goes for classes three times a week.
“It gave me a greater body awareness and mobility from all the stretches and inversions. I believe that helped me to be better aware of my form and technique when I play basketball, swim and jog, and in preventing unnecessary injuries,” said Chao.
Dr Wong, who was also introduced to yoga by his partner, changed his mind about yoga being “too slow-paced” and “that it was all about stretching and sitting on mats”.
“Yoga has definitely helped with my posture and core strength [in running], as well as the mental fortitude to keep going when the going gets tough,” said the avid yoga fan who took up yoga in 2016 and has been practising almost every day.
How do you decide which yoga class is for you? Pan suggested going back to the drawing board even though "most men are already quite strong but not flexible". "If there is an imbalance between strength and flexibility, many of them are relatively more prone to injuries. A basics class is very helpful to stretch out any tight muscles and also gain flexibility," she said.
But if that's not you want, there is also "a lot of strength and conditioning involved as well", said Pan. For many men, inverted poses may come easier to them as they tend to have better upper body strength than women.
Added Heng: “From foundation to advanced classes, there are sessions available for all levels. There are many types of yoga, from Yin which is a slower stretch to Power classes which are really intense".
If you're not sure what types of yoga are available and how they differ from each other, here's a list of different yoga types to help you figure it out.
No matter which form of yoga you do, "just remember that everyone else in there is giving his or her best effort, too, and there is no time for judgement," said Heng. "Your sole competition is you and how to be better than the previous you."