Why don’t more men do yoga?

‘It’s mostly about embarrassment,’ says yoga teacher Derrick Harshberger

There is only one man at my yoga class. He is tall and lithe and has a great head of white hair. He must feel blessed amongst the female curves created by cat-cows and downward facing dogs at our early morning classes on the Sabbath. It beats the genuflections and bowed heads of the good old days when a man from the Middle East called Jesus was in charge of our wellbeing.

I found yoga during Covid. Lying prostrate on the floor breathing deeply into my diaphragm became a bit of an addiction. Well, I knew from the beginning of the pandemic that the numbing lull of a French Syrah would be a slippery slope. Comfort-eating was a no-no too, as the options of calorie-burning walks on Bertra beach became an offence.

So each morning I would tune into the lovely Adriene, who has a Texan drawl and was usually accompanied by her sleeping dog, Benjy: a clear beneficiary of her practice.

Being of a certain age, my favourite classes focused on my flittered abdominal wall and my creaking hips.

Isn’t it interesting how quickly we have forgotten how our cosmopolitanism is a recent phenomenon? Despite some spurious claims on the world wide web, yoga practice is relatively new here in Ireland. As a predominantly rural society until the middle of the last century, the main form of exercise we pursued was through the daily exertions of chasing cows out of the neighbour’s field, gathering sheep off the hills, cutting turf with a sléan, making hay with a scythe or, indeed, pushing the handle of the dash churn for little patties of golden country butter.

Of course, there was also the more combative pursuits of Gaelic football and let’s not forget the handball alleys, some of which still provide the architecture of a disappeared Ireland.

Back then, men dominated competitive sport, as they effectively still do today, despite the recent successes of the Irish women’s soccer team. Indeed, the proposed integration of the GAA with the LGFA (Ladies Gaelic Football Assoication) and the Camogie Association is most welcome, but a long overdue step.

So, wouldn’t you think also, with the reams of media coverage about our brand new nonbinary world, there would be a bit more male testosterone doing sun-salutations on their yoga mats?

After all, haven’t men been the pioneers of keeping our bodies intact with deadlifts and squats, bench presses and lunges for decades? It has only been in recent years that gyms have embraced the notion of being leisure destinations, indoor amphitheatres where there is an equal amount of women as well as men strutting their stuff, cycling on stationary bicycles, rowing, running, cross-training.

With this huge focus on fitness, is it not baffling that yoga – with the importance of stretching a key element of the practice – appears to be a largely female domain?

Significantly, it is not a surprise for Derrick Harshberger, one of my teachers at the Yoga Root at Westport Quay. He runs a schedule of classes at the popular centre with his partner, Conor Wilson.

Harshberger observes that we should ask first if men “want to come to yoga, as we tend to prescribe it for everyone and it is not”.

However, he also suggests they don’t join up because “it’s mostly about embarrassment”.

“No one wants to be seen being bad at something, especially in front of the opposite gender that they may be trying to impress, which is why gay men don’t have much of an issue coming to yoga. It’s also about identity, whereas, in heteronormative culture, men and women tend to base their gender identity in opposition to each other; so men may not feel welcome in a space they feel is for women.”

Derrick’s view coheres with a male friend’s experience of feeling intimidated at a pilates class in which he was the only man.

I recently asked him how his class was going. “To be honest, I was afraid that the women would think I was there to ‘perv’ at them. I continued going, though, even when I felt uncomfortable, but just didn’t have the courage to go back after the pandemic.”

Perhaps he would prefer an all-male yoga class.

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