Man doing yoga

The other day, while on another mini-quest of my seemingly endless expedition to find the tastiest micro-brewed porter in North America, I fell into talking with one of my fellow drunks. The conversation turned toward yoga. My conversations always do, mostly by design.

“You don’t look like a guy who does yoga,” he said.

My baseball cap, slight paunch, and general air of complete exhaustion had fooled a fresh victim.

“What might a guy who does yoga look like?” I asked.

I imagined him conjuring up a dreadlocked Burning Man freak with Shiva neck tats and a hemp-based diet. Like anyone who practices the yoga, I know plenty of dudes like that. But I also know plenty of conventional middle-aged baldies like me.

I had him beaten there.

“Besides, I’m not flexible enough to do yoga,” he said.

Again, he was wrong, and I had the rhetorical evidence. Yoga, I said, isn’t about being flexible or not flexible. It’s about controlling the fluctuations of the mind, about learning how to breathe through any situation, no matter how stressful, about honoring your thoughts and emotions, about loving and respecting all things, about appreciating life for the brief moments we’re given.

While Diamond Dallas Page, Robert Downey Jr., and the Seattle Seahawks might disagree, yoga still suffers from an public perception that it’s a female activity.

His resistance crumbled a little. Either that, or he just wanted another beer. I know I did.

“I’d feel insecure taking a yoga class with mostly women,” he said.

That concern was more legitimate, and more complicated to address.

While Diamond Dallas Page, Robert Downey Jr., and the Seattle Seahawks might disagree, yoga still suffers from an overall public perception that it’s a female activity. There’s a good reason for this: Twenty million Americans practice yoga on a regular basis, and a good majority of them are women. Yoga is marketed to women, yoga clothes get sold to women, and most yoga teachers who you run into on a regular basis are women. Yoga culture, as it’s evolved in our particular mini-society, has a very feminine bent.

Yet if you look beyond the last twenty years or so, yoga has often been a traditionally male activity. Sure, a lot of those men were robe-draped swamis or loincloth-wearing contortionists. But just because they weren’t wearing Axe body spray doesn’t mean they weren’t men. Yoga has traditionally so male oriented that it’s almost been sexist. It was designed, at its base, to help men deal with the pressures of the world.

We need to expand our modern conception of masculinity so it includes yoga. The aspect of yoga practice that we’re most familiar with–physical fitness–is already an accepted part of the Man At His Best canon. Increasingly, too, meditation, the ability to relax the mind and observe its patterns, has become acceptable in dude circles. Macho-oriented corporations have retreats where executives learn to meditate for success. That may be a misinterpretation and abuse of meditation’s true purpose, but the results are inarguable. A calm mind is a bonus no matter how it’s applied in real life.

I’d argue for an even broader application. The most important thing to me about yoga practice are the yamas and niyamas, general yogic rules for right action and good behavior. Like all commandments, they’re best if interepreted loosely, but they still contain the essence of yoga philosophy: Be respectful. Act as discerningly as possible in all situations. Most importantly, let compassion be the guiding principle of your daily life, both toward others and, most importantly, toward yourself. Yoga doesn’t happen on the mat, grinding through difficult poses. It happens in the world, when you act with empathy and intelligence. Why let women have all that bonus activity?

A world where more men do yoga might be a little less competitive, a little less aggressive, and a little less rowdy. But would that be such a bad thing? It’s not like we’ve done such a great job up to now. So I always recommend trying it, to see what kind of man you might become.

Neck tattoos are optional, but I can guarantee you one thing: If you do yoga, you’re going to meet a lot of awesome women.

And no man can argue with that.