Hit The Mat

Think yoga has nothing to offer men? Think again.

By Elise Diamantini

There’s a reason athletes like David Beckham, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Andy Murray moonlight as Bikram yogis. Murray, a pro-tennis player who’s currently ranked third in the world and is the reigning Olympic Singles Champion, credits Bikram Yoga for increasing his mental and physical endurance during matches. And Abdul-Jabbar has said that if it weren’t for Bikram Yoga, he could never have played NBA basketball for as long as he did with so few injuries.

A consistent yoga practice has been known to increase strength, stamina, flexibility and mental focus, while decreasing stress. Yoga helps prevent and alleviate sports-related injuries by strengthening the muscles around major joints. It creates more flexibility, so it’s a perfect way to improve your golf or tennis swing. And on the superficial side: consistent practice will help you look great in that new modern-fit suit!

Bikram Yoga is a 90-minute practice performed in a heated room (105 degrees Fahrenheit with 40 percent humidity). Created by Bikram Choudhury, it consists of a sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises. “It’s a common misconception that yoga is about sitting cross-legged and chanting,” says instructor Eoin Thomas Sharkey. “Bikram is an intense, physically challenging workout.”

“Men generally think that yoga is somehow subsidiary to other, more macho forms of exercise,” says instructor Chris Totaro. “We see it all the time: the girlfriend brings the guy for his first class. He enters the room presumptuous and overconfident, but it’s not long before he’s gawking at the display of strength surrounding him.”

Yoga is not just for flex-y, skinny people either; it’s actually more beneficial for those less flexible. The most common excuse is “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga. I can’t even touch my toes,” shares Corinne Idzal, a yoga teacher in New York City. “That’s like saying, ‘I’m too sick to go to the doctor.’ It will only get worse if you don’t do something about it.” Idzal says that in general, men are tighter than women because of the anatomical and physiological differences in their bodies. “Not to mention that ‘typical’ male sports tend to create tightness because of high-impact and repetitive movements.”

Bikram yogi Anthony Rebholz says a lot of athletes, especially boxers, come into the studio because they need to find more flexibility for their sport. “Working out at the gym is all about contraction and resistance; yoga is about expansion and extending — opening up rather than closing down. Men work a lot of the primary muscle groups at the gym, but yoga works the secondary and tertiary groups. Yoga also makes you become more aware of how you move your body during other forms of exercise.”

Totaro, who says he has been more or less injury free for the past decade, also points out that “strength and flexibility have a reciprocal relationship. The more muscle mass built around a joint, the more the joint’s mobility is decreased. In other words, as weight lifters continue to add bulk, their joint flexibility continually decreases. The comprehensive stretching exercises in a yoga class allow for a more balanced relationship between strength and flexibility.”

Yoga has also been known to help people heal their injuries, avoid surgery and wean themselves off medicine. A telling example from yogi Nick Graham: “A few years ago I was experiencing neurological problems: blackouts, migranes, extreme nausea. I was admitted to the hospital and for a week I was drugged, hooked up to machines and miserable. Soon after, I passed a Bikram studio and stopped in for my first class. After the best night of sleep in my life, I went back the next day, and the next. Finally I stopped taking my meds. All the while I was being tested for myriad things, but I just practiced Bikram as often as I could, and eventually my symptoms disappeared.”

Yoga’s therapeutic effects are not limited to the physical. Those who practice report that it helps them focus, set goals and explore their potential. Plus, yoga helps keep your emotions in check. “You won’t act on impulse,” explains instructor Jakob Schanzer. “This was a gradual change for me, but I noticed that I was reacting to things more calmly.”

If you’re still not convinced, Idzal can offer a few more arguments: “Yoga is badass! You will sleep better, work better, relax better, make love better... “Beginners are shocked by the life-transforming power yoga can have. Physical change is just the beginning.”

Getting Started

Tips for beginners from Bikram Yoga instructor Corinne Idzal

• Talk to your teacher before class and let him or her know you’re a beginner. They can ease your mind and give you modifications during class if you need them.

• Go to class hydrated and on an empty stomach.

• Take electrolytes before practicing yoga to help with stamina and muscle cramping. Natural sources like coconut water or green juice are best.

• It’s not a competition. No one cares if you’re stiff or can’t hold a posture. Even that dancer with her feet behind her head is too focused on her own struggle to be judging you.

• Go often, especially at first. You’re never the best at something the first time you try it, but the more you practice the better you’ll become. 

Diamantini, Elise. "Hit The Mat."  Gary's by Fashion Forum Magazine. Fall 2013: 58-60. Print