A recent marketing study found that local yoga wear manufacturer Lululemon is Canada’s fastest growing brand and worth a whopping $3.24 billion. Yoga has become so closely associated with Vancouver it’s surprising it wasn’t somehow worked into the Olympic opening or closing ceremonies, and it isn’t a stretch to say the rolled-up portable mats used by practitioners have become as common a sight around the city as umbrellas or Canucks jerseys.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that only one gender tends to be into it. Stacey Reeves, the founder of something he calls YoGuy, wants to change this.
“In general, men don’t go to yoga, period,” he told me after a recent Sunday morning session. “What I wanted to do was set something up that got rid of all the crap that was involved with yoga and start from there to see if I could get guys to come. Basically guys need a class where they feel it is OK to fart or burp or swear.”
The irony of this is that yoga, when it first began roughly 5,000 years ago in India, was designed specifically for men to keep their bodies limber between lengthy meditation sessions. Women were discouraged from participating and it wasn’t until the 1920s that Indra Devi, a European woman who moved to India and became a disciple of Krishnamacharya, was trained as the first female instructor. Yoga only caught on with western women in the late ’60s.
Reeves, 50, says there are countless benefits for men who practice yoga, with injury prevention being of particular importance for aging recreational athletes, but many men are put off because it is seen as too New Age or only for women. He admits this was his own perception before giving it a shot with his wife four years ago.
“I was tired of getting injured all the time so I thought I’d give it a try and just really liked it,” he said. “She said to me ‘why don’t you go do this’ so I went and did the teacher training, which was pretty hippy dippy-ish. But I got through that although I felt like they didn’t really get me at all and so I started thinking about doing it just for guys. I got so many benefits out of doing it that I couldn’t believe more men weren’t doing it.”
There are no chanting or gongs at the end of a YoGuy session, no scented candles, no special clothing, no Enya playing softly in the background or talk of aligning chakras. Classes are geared more towards guys who think of either a dead baseball player or a talking bear when they hear the word “yogi” and who prefer working up a sweat to meditating. Because men often don’t have the flexibility required to perform the poses one might find in a traditional yoga class, it also offers exercises and strengthening poses that are specific to men.
Reeves says that while the pseudo-mystical aspect of yoga can put some men off, the fear of looking silly or out-of-place can be a big factor.
“I know what I’m doing but even now, when I’m standing there like Sylvester Stallone surrounded by all these women, I still feel kind of self-conscious about being the only guy in the room.” He added that many men find it difficult to keep up even in beginner classes.
“Everybody kept telling me the classes are way to fast and guys get hurt. We probably get hurt more easily because we’re always trying to compete and we’re trying to keep up with the women. And, of course, our bodies are very different. All their body weight is in the middle, while ours in the upper body. The teachers are also almost all female and they don’t have time for the one fat guy in the back of the room because they have a class full of young women and the guy ends up getting injured and never comes back.”
Kate Misurka, who teaches classes called Yoga4Stiff Guys at several Vancouver community centres, also tailors her teaching towards men out of necessity.
“I don’t want to scare people out the door from the get-go,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t talk about flowers and trees and it is very much brought to their level. For example, if a pose requires a straight ankle, I’ll probably be discussing how you fit into your ski boot instead of, say, the limb of a tree.”
However, she also believes the spiritual aspect is just as important as the physical but doesn’t want to hit guys over the head with it.
“Yoga is not religion,” she said.
Like most instructors, Misurka begins every class with three “oms,” a chanted mantra yogis believe is the sound of the universe.
“Usually on the first class, someone’s eye pops open because they’re sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed. I’ll then explain why we do it and say ‘It may seem a little weird at first but just humour me’ and it becomes part of the meditation of it. I’ve certainly never had anybody complain about it.”
There seems to be yet another irony in offering classes just for men considering the word yoga means “union” in Sanskrit. Reeves says that he certainly wouldn’t turn anyone away but can’t imagine it is likely to ever come up.
“They already have women-only yoga classes. They’re called yoga classes.”