Doing yoga if you are male is a minefield. I found this out the hard way by committing myself to two weeks at a yoga retreat in southern Italy. There, I had plenty of time to explore the tragicomic reality of being a slightly fat, bald, middle-aged man on a yoga holiday surrounded by people who were none of these things.
The norm at such events, as you might imagine, is to be surrounded by fit and healthy women. Not so many men show up. I was outnumbered by a ratio of about five to one during my stay.
The first issue for a man is the clothing. There is an entire industry dressing female yoga participants. The variety and layers involved in their attire is beyond my powers of description, but whatever they choose it all just seems to work naturally. The clothes look much the same on the female form standing upright as upside-down. I, on the other hand, have yet to do a headstand without staring wildly into the interior of my T-shirt, which, of course, just flops uselessly down onto my head.
There seems to be little choice for the male other than to turn up looking as if he got lost on the way to football practice, or has forgotten to remove his pyjamas, unless, of course, he happens to be an actual champion cyclist. I tend to favour a mix of “lost football” and “soon-to-bed”.
For all manoeuvres (known as “asanas”) it covers most bases, if not my belly. A sensible pair of boxer shorts is also required. But even this can get confusing. Recently I was sufficiently warmed up to think that it was time to remove my oversized tracksuit bottoms, only to discover as the waist fell over my knees that I had remembered the boxers, but not the faux football shorts to hide them under. I quickly discovered that I was not so warm after all.
Then there’s the predominantly female company. With the best will in the world, it is impossible, as a man, to look around a yoga studio, however innocently, without being momentarily distracted. And I do have to look because, as a beginner, I need to know what others are doing, so that I can find out where on earth my own left leg is supposed to be while I sit on my right heel.
For a split second, the sanctity of the event is interupted, but it’s enough. The result is a deep sense of shame and guilt, because (a) women should never be objectified (b) that is not what we are all there for, and (c) nobody is going to be remotely distracted by watching my stomach fall out of my “lived-in” Gap jammies.
So why bother? There is so much more to this thing that we casually refer to as yoga than the drama of presentation. It’s easy to get caught up in the bodies, the movements and even the outfits, but the prize of a spectacular yogic experience transcends all these things in a way that makes my statements above seem laughable.
It is, however, very hard to see through the external to this precious, golden, internal place. Our modern world, and the modern yoga industry that it has thrown up, has left but a faint footprint of the roots of traditional yoga. You have to look carefully to discern it these days.
I was lucky. My retreat with Kaliyoga in Italy was both authentic and a traveller’s delight. It pandered to our desire for a luxurious break, but with no compromise on the quality of the teaching, environment and staff. All of it exemplified the purism of real yoga from the inside out. And that is something of which the male of our species is in dire need.
Men know how to rush, how to compete, how to strategise, how to panic, how to want, but few of us know how to just pause and be, even for one breath. There is something so hard about taking a moment to stop thinking and, rather, to notice what I am experiencing right now, that I needed two whole weeks of structured, cloistered care in order to glimpse it.
At its core, this kind of retreat is a guide to help us reconnect with ourselves so we can begin to make some sense of what we are actually doing on this planet.
If that sounds like hippy nonsense and a waste of time, then I’m afraid that it isn’t, and I have the science to prove it. My work in mental health has gravitated towards the cutting-edge new therapies from the US that now rely on neuroscience and anatomy, not ego and id. The real physical systems of the sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system, we are learning, seem to be at the core of most of what we have come to think of as “mental” health problems, including behavioural and addiction issues. The solutions and techniques presented by these new therapeutic modalities are trending towards the identical ones presented three millennia ago by acetic yogis stranded in forests and loincloths.
At my clinics, Khiron House, in London and Oxfordshire, we are always talking about getting “into our bodies” and asking our clients what sensations they are aware of. These same familiar strains, which I know so well from our work, were echoed in the teachings of the retreat.
Men tend to suffer from “stress” more than women. They are perhaps drawn towards it, driven by a basic animal drive to compete and succeed, but they also resolve it less successfully than women because their relationships tend to be less nourishing. Trauma (unresolved stress) is related to attachment, and we now know that the damage caused by stress can increase in inverse proportion to the quality of our relationships, both in childhood and our present-day lives.
Men find it harder to say no to a challenge and yes to a hug; that’s just the way our stereotype is built. So we are doubly at risk and, therefore, need nervous system recovery and yoga more than women; but a yoga which is built from the inside out rather than presented as an external achievement – which would just create more striving, and more stress. The only part of the body that really matters is deep inside the circuits that regulate the nervous system.
Our teacher in Italy was a wonderful Australian, Tashidawa. Learning from her about the philosophy, the practice, the asanas, the meditation plus the grace and humour of the ancient tradition of yoga was one of those accidental gifts in life which make us understand again the meaning of pure joy, something so often lost to the dim recesses of childhood. But in her hands we all moulded, as a group, into something closer to the people we wanted to be.
There is serious learning to be done for all of us about the way we manage stress, its effect on the nervous systems and the consequences this has on our health (mental and physical) and our behaviour.
When clinics such as my own have been running for another 100 years, we might begin to approach the wisdom and knowledge of the original yogis; man’s search for health and meaning coming full circle.
In the meantime, if you are crushed between the vast pillars of family, work, money, health, relationships and time – and you are male – I suggest you slip on some old pyjamas (don’t forget the boxers) and get on the mat. Go for two weeks if you can, and find your own Tashidawa. You may get to remember what being human is meant to feel like.