The Long Road to ‘Om
When I was in sixth grade, a free-spirited P.E. teacher decided to implement a segment on yoga. It was the early eighties, and our school administration was reluctant to rock the boat of the “all dodgeball—all the time” format, which had been in place since the invention of the red rubber ball. They gave a tentative ok but required that a notice be sent home informing parents of the planned change.
At the emergency PTA meeting that followed, nearly riotous mothers reminded the administration that ours was a good Christian town with solid morals who would not stand for any G.D. attempt to turn its children into Buddhists, or Hari Krishna’s or whatever one became after taking up “that yoga religion.”
I'm not clear on all of the details, but I believe the teacher was run out of town, and it wasn't long before the sweet music of vulcanized rubber on bare thighs and the cries of the wounded filled the gymnasium once more.
My next exposure to yoga wouldn’t come until after a twenty-plus year Marine Corps career spent jumping out of airplanes, diving under the weight of multiple atmospheres, carrying my house on my back, and sleeping on mountainsides, or desert sands with a rock for my pillow, all while ignoring the ankle, knee, hip, back, and shoulder aches and pains that come with the territory.
Yoga wasn't something that hard guys did. Sure, it was probably great for soccer moms and granola-eating mouth breathers, but warfighters need to run fast and lift heavy. A few obligatory deep knee bends before a run, or a couple of shoulder shrugs before jumping on the bench were good enough for the Marines I looked up to, so they were by-god good enough for me.
But after my retirement, I realized I needed to do something. I was too young to hurt the way I did, and I couldn't deal with the thought of living the rest of my life in constant pain. So, I bit the bullet and signed up for a yoga class.
I had no idea what to expect, what to bring, or what to wear. I showed up, found a spot in the back corner, and spent the next hour afraid that I looked as stupid as I felt.
Now I think even the ‘hard guys’ know that yoga would benefit them, but it is ultimately the fear and lack of knowledge that holds back a lot of the guys I’ve talked to. Many are reluctant or simply don't know how to take the first step.
I recently had the chance to talk with Phil, an active-duty soldier who broke his back on a training mission. After weeks on the couch, his wife convinced him to try yoga to help with his debilitating pain. Phil’s experience was much the same as mine, a room full of super flexible ladies in lululemon. He felt awkward, out of place, but by the end of the class, he felt relief.
Phil got into yoga in a big way. He went from attending that first class to going several times a week. He credits his yoga practice with his recovery and ability to continue to serve his country.
Later, while attending a yoga festival, Phil realized that most of the products for sale catered to women. Shortly after, he and his brother started American Yogi with the goal of raising awareness in the veteran community, providing a vehicle for healing, and removing the stigma from men who practice yoga. Over the past several years, American Yogi has grown to the point that Phil now holds his own yoga festival, Om’erica, which has raised thousands for veterans' charities and helped fund yoga instructor training for veterans.
In our conversation, Phil and I talked about the factors that prevent guys from trying yoga, and I thought I'd try to summarize some of that for anyone who may be interested.
I don’t know how to get started.
Admittedly, there are quite a few types of yoga classes ranging from Vinyasa Yoga, which is dynamic flowing meditation, to Restorative Yoga, which holds postures for extended periods and relies on blocks and straps to help support positions, to Hatha Yoga which is somewhere in the middle. Personally, I practice Bikram Yoga at Bones2Skin Yoga in Jacksonville, NC. Bikram consists of a specific series of poses and breathing exercises over a 90-minute class held in a 105-degree room. It’s a workout, but I leave each class feeling better than when I went in. And, more importantly, the back and hip pain I was in physical therapy for, is gone.
The number of studios, classes, and types of yoga can be overwhelming, but fortunately, most studios have single class passes. This means you can try them out cheaply and see if that particular studio or type of class is for you. I would recommend giving a studio a couple of tries at different times with different instructors until you find one you really like.
Don’t eat a big meal before you go
I don’t know what to bring.
As far as gear goes, all you really need is a $20.00 mat to start, although most studios have mats that you can borrow or rent for a small fee. Bring a water bottle. If you are going to a hot yoga class, most people will use a yoga towel on top of their mat to soak up the sweat and improve traction. A beach towel will work. As you settle on a practice that suits you, you’ll get a better idea of what you need or want.
I don’t know what to wear.
Be comfortable – you will be fine in loose shorts and a t-shirt. Make sure your junk isn’t going to pop out. But, if you want to look cool, American Yogi can help with that. They carry a line of badass men’s and women’s yoga clothing and accessories.
I’m not flexible enough.
This is kind of like saying that you're too hungry to eat. Yoga, like any new skill, takes time to develop, and you can't improve without practice and patience. As my instructor, Jamey DeMyer, says, "It's a practice, and there is always another class and another opportunity." Just showing up is a step in the right direction. I have been amazed at how quickly my lower back strength and flexibility have improved and how much better my quality of life is because of it.
I don’t want to be the only guy in class.
I can’t guarantee that you won’t, but thanks to Phil and others who are working to remove the stigma around guys, and particularly military guys, from participating in yoga, there are more men than ever attending classes, and even in the classes where I have been the only guy I have always felt welcomed.
Something that should go without saying pertaining to being a guy in a yoga class:
While I can’t speak for them, I have it on pretty good authority that women go to a yoga class to practice yoga, not to be stared at by sweaty guys who don’t know their ass from their asana. As with all things in life, don’t be a dick. Be polite, be respectful, and you will be accepted and welcomed.
I don’t know if yoga is compatible with my training plan.
I have found the increased flexibility has not only addressed a lot of the nagging pains that I had been living with, but since I have been practicing regularly, I feel that my running has improved, I recover faster after strength training sessions, and I have strengthened areas that my gym workouts were not addressing, especially the lower back.
I’m afraid of looking like a jackass.
The pressure is all you. It isn’t a competition. Really. Take it from me, a guy for whom everything is a competition. When I go out for a run, I am racing everyone I meet whether they know it or not. I tried to do the same with yoga: Am I more flexible that the guy next to me? Can I hold a pose longer? But once I finally realized the futility in measuring myself using someone else’s yardstick, I learned to let that go. When I let go of competition I was also letting go of expectations and preconceptions. I suddenly found myself able to actually focus on my body and how it feels. With that comes a sense of peace that I had not previously experienced.
It’s good for more than the body
Ultimately yoga is about quieting the mind just as much as it is about strengthening the body. This is definitely an aspect of the practice I find beneficial and one that I think guys and especially military guys and veterans could use help with. Often, we are so busy with work, family, and training that we aren't able to take the time to slow down and process the things that bother us or keep us up at night. The goal of a yoga class is to be completely present in the class. Learning to do that builds the ability to deepen focus. That can be used after class to isolate one of the million things swimming around in your head and hold on to it long enough to evaluate it for what it is. Then you can make the choice to release it if possible or take action on it if required. Either way it has been addressed.
Although I wish I had started practicing a long time ago, I’ve learned to focus on the now and realize that as someone smarter than me said, “You don’t practice yoga to get better at yoga, you practice yoga to get better at life.”