The Man Factor

Paul von Bergen’s 20s and early 30s were dedicated to two things: partying and making money. The marketing guru worked in the alcohol industry and lived a fast-paced life with little regard for his health. But when a business investment turned sour in 2005 and he lost almost everything, he packed up his life and escaped to Koh Samui in Thailand to do some soul searching.

There he met a German yoga teacher who convinced him to try her Iyengar classes. “I was sceptical at first, but figured it was a good place to meet people,” says Von Bergen, now 41.

Moving his body in ways he’d never experienced w as confronting and he w as surprised at how tough it was. “Everything was difficult at the start,” he recalls. “I couldn’t hold Tree Pose for two seconds and forward bends were very difficult because I was always trying to do it with straight legs. I started going every day and after a couple of months it started to click.

I discovered the calming of the mind and the system—and that you don’t have to be flexible.”

Von Bergen is one of a growing number of Australian men who are now avid yogis. He went on to complete his teacher training and now runs Billabong Yoga Retreat at the foot of Sydney’s Blue Mountains. “Men probably need yoga more than women,” he says. “They bottle up emotions and those stored chemicals cause underlying stress, [which] come out as anger. Physically, men have poor flexibility and tend to be more out of balance in terms of muscle size.”

With elite sportspeople taking yoga teachers on tour and football heroes starting to practice, men are beginning to realise the benefits of yoga and schools are starting to cater specifically for them.

SMASHING THE STEREOTYPE

For centuries, women were excluded from yoga, but since rising in Western popularity in the 1960s, yoga has become a female-dominated pursuit. The latest Australian statistics show that men make up just nine per cent of the Australian yoga population, but teachers say numbers are on the rise, largely due to the introduction of classes designed to appeal to their masculinity.

Maria Jaackson recently started Yoga for Guys at Yoga Essentia, on Sydney’s northern beaches, after talking to her husband and his mates about why they avoided yoga. “They said they wouldn’t come to yoga in a femme, studio setting,” she says. “I thought there must be a lot of blokes that don’t go because they think it’s dominated by women, so I started this class.”

Now filled with a cross-section of young surfers and middle-aged men, Jaackson is careful to challenge but not intimidate her students. “I’m avoiding anything that’s like ballet or anything that’s too ‘pretzel-y’, as some guys struggle with balance,” she says. “I’m sure they thought it was lightweight stuff, but I have them all melting at the end of the class.”

And the men love it. Tradesman Scott Ewing, 35, has done Bikram and Ashtanga in the past, but says Yoga Essentia’s men’s class is a fantastic fit. “It’s been really good because there is more focus on men’s weaknesses,” he says. “And for once I’m not outnumbered by the ladies.”

Plenty of mixed-class teachers are also trying to balance the girl-to-guy yoga ratio. James Bryan, from the Knoff Yoga School in Cairns, is actively encouraging men to give it a go. His classes, which are a combination of Ashtanga and Iyengar are now 35 per cent men. “They only have to come to one class where they are sweating and working at a surprising amount of effort, and they instantly realise that it’s not an easy thing to do,” Bryan says.

SMALL STEP FOR MAN

While sixpacks, bulging biceps and broad chests have long been the coveted body for modern men, Iyengar teacher Tim Oddie of Geelong City Yoga says the way guys tend to work out is causing real problems. “If they are active, it’s often very repetitive, strength-building type behaviour,” he says.

“Men also tend to do jobs that abuse their bodies, either by doing nothing and sitting at a desk for long periods or working as a tradesman and suffering bad backs form spending all day bent over. They get very tight in the hips, across the chest and in the shoulders—it’s really worrying for heart disease, breath circulation and strokes.”

Some of Oddie’s regular students are a group of AFL players. “They do a lot of strength training and a lot of running, and would find it easier to run 10km than do Dog Pose for one minute,” Oddie says. But yoga is helping to loosen them up. “Their bruised muscles tend to be eased, they feel they’re more resistant to injury and recover better when they do get a strain,” Oddie says.

But it’s not just elite athletes and gym junkies jumping on the yoga bandwagon— there’s growing interest among middle- aged men, too. Kevin Peckham, from Sydney’s Adore Yoga, started a men’s class six years ago and it has been a hit with blokes in their 40s who have stressful corporate careers. “Wives started sending their husbands who didn’t want to go to a mixed class,” he recalls.

Peckham carefully tailors his hatha classes to increase his students’ flexibility and undo the damage caused from sitting all day at a desk. “If I were teaching 20-year-olds, I would go a lot faster, but with these men, I tend to hold poses longer, rather than do them faster,” he explains.

And he leaves out the chanting. “For a long time I tried chanting at the start, but they hadn’t joined in and I realised they didn’t want it or need it,” he says.

LET GO OF EGO

The physical benefits of yoga are usually the biggest dude drawcard, so getting them to slow down can be challenging. “You ask a man to take a deep breath and they take one like they were running— everything tightens up and they use all the secondary muscles of respiration,” Oddie says. “To get men to lie down and start to breathe deeply without overly working is very difficult.”

Cutting comparisons and focusing on yourself can also take a while for some men to master. “Men tend to be more competitive, straining around the room, looking at everyone else,” Bryan says. “We hammer home that it’s not a competition.”

Mark Breadner, director of Yogacoach, has taught former Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe and World Champion surfer Mick Fanning, and says it helps if men know the mechanics of different postures. “You’ve got to frame it in the right way and explain why it’s useful to them,” he says.

“If you’re going to do Kapalbhati and they’re going to sit there pumping their breath, you’ve got to explain that it’s flushing carbon dioxide and shunting blood to the abdominal organs and the brain. They’ve got to have a framework to understand why it’s useful to them, otherwise [they think] it’s just hippie stuff that women do.”

The same goes with the spiritual side— rather than talking about yoga myths or a bigger purpose, Breadner keeps things more practical. “I talk about having a healthy, strong, balanced body and a vital nervous system,” he says.

And as long as that technique keeps attracting the sporting greats, then more men are going to hear about it. As Breadner says: “Guys go, ‘If our sporting heroes can do it, I’m happy to do it’.”

Kimberly Gillan is a freelance writer and vinyasa yoga practitioner based in Melbourne.

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