Forget the spiritual component. Modern yoga is about flexibility, strength and weight loss
Say the word “yoga” to someone unfamiliar with the practice, and one of two images will likely come to mind: Either that of a lean, limber man from the subcontinent twisting himself into a human pretzel or of suburban soccer moms pulling up to a studio in a minivan.
The reality is, both are accurate in their way. But they do not reflect some of the modern trends in yoga.
“Traditionally, yoga classes have been 87 percent female,” says Helen Stutchbury, director of marketing for SunStone Yoga and an instructor at its Routh Street studio. “But we have noticed that 25 percent of classes sometimes lately even as much as half are men. That’s very unusual outside the Castro District.”
What accounts for the influx? Two things, Stutchbury says: Men are learning that yoga reduces stress, and that it is great for weight loss which many post-holiday revelers can appreciate.
“People think that they’re going to get a good workout, but students tell us about these changes they make in their lives, too,” she says.
If you’re thinking Stutchbury is referring to the touch-feely spiritual component, she’s not. Some studios are very dogmatic, she says. “They say yoga is 5,000 years old why should we change it? Because it’s not 5,000 years ago. We live in a hyper-competitive, stress-filled world,” she says.
SunStone, tries to steer away from the emphasis on meditation and religious enlightenment and concentrate instead on awareness of the body something many exercise programs disregard. Just think of how many gyms have TVs in front of their equipment and you get the idea.
“Your mind can still churn while you’re running, making grocery lists in your head,” Stutchbury says. “With yoga, that’s impossible. Because a lot of the postures are focused on balance, you need to be completely present.”
Various disciplines have developed under the umbrella of yoga. One type, hatha, simply means “postures,” but in modern parlance, “it’s a term that talks about your grandmother’s yoga very simple,” she says. Ashtanga involves fast-moving poses, kundalini emphasizes breathing and vinyasa is all about flowing movements (the routine typically changes with each session). But Stutchbury says most men respond to a program she calls “pain-free yoga.”
Yoga has typically appealed to women more because they tend to have greater inherent flexibility. But men needn’t be scared off by the contortions practiced by Hindu mystics those are extreme postures that aren’t necessary to achieve the benefits of a less taxing routine. In fact, yoga actually builds strength and promotes health. (Flexibility, she says, is one of the proven factors in longevity.)
Men tend to gravitate toward hot yoga, because the effetcs can be visible more immediately.
“A typical practice in a hot room will burn 500 calories an hour,” she says. “Men show the weight-loss benefits faster than women they can lose 30 lbs. in a couple of months. For women it happens slower but they tone more.”
There are several different hot yoga styles, all derivative of the Bikram style, but all share several commonalities. In hot yoga, the body does not flow you get into postures and hold them, always in a hot, wet room. It is a fantastic way to gain flexibility but it has to be done safely, she says.
“The thing about Bikram is, the postures are so static that as people get bored or restless, the only thing you can do to mix it up is increase the heat,” Stutchbury says. “Some turn it into a competition “‘We’re at 115 degrees and even had seven students pass out!’”
She doesn’t recommend such extremes, saying SunStone’s hot yoga is practiced at 98.6 degrees at 60 percent humidity.
“It is freeing for people who have not done much exercise before it surprises them how hard it is. They are bulky and tight but they have no flexibility at all. To be in that heat is a very good feeling for guys,” she says.
But whatever system people use, Stuchbury can’t say enough about the benefits of yoga.
“Do your postures, learn to breathe and relax,” she says. “Everything else will follow.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 16, 2007.