I’ve practiced yoga for 22 years, and during that time I’ve never been afraid to mix it up a bit. Variety is the spice of life, right? After doing ashtanga for a few years, I gave Bikram a try. After that, Iyengar, followed by Jivamukti, Hatha, and Kundalini. Each new approach brought something rich with it, a fresh perspective on the underlying power that yoga has to make you feel great.
During all that experimentation, I’ve met a diverse array of characters, from yogis who seemed to be in a universe of their own (and more power to them!) to fellow downward dog-ers I’m still friends with to this day. People of all races, nationalities, and genders always added to the magic of the experience, which is why I was so fascinated when I discovered a type of yoga I hadn’t tried: yoga specifically targeted for male bodies.
While the idea didn’t seem all that crazy, I was intrigued by the practice itself, so we asked two experts from the yoga world—Michael Gould, yoga teacher at Vitality Yoga Flow in New Paltz and Rad Kaim of Rad Kaim Yoga and teacher at Yoga4Men—to explore the concept of gender and yoga, and take us through the inner workings of what makes yoga for men so unique.
First off, is there a point to genderizing yoga?
The connection between yoga and gender is an interesting one, and it actually sheds light on the whole “point” of yoga, as it were. Historically (around 1500 BCE), the practice of yoga was reserved exclusively for the male members of the priestly caste, before opening up to the commoners (still male) and eventually women in the 9th century. But as Gould explained, so much of the categorization we apply to practices like yoga come down to arbitrary social constructs. “Yoga is about awakening to our oneness," he explains. "There's no difference between us—we are connected, one unified field, that pulsates in the rhythm of the universal power.” This universal power consists of "yang" or sun energy, stereotypically considered to be masculine, and "yin" or moon energy that endows us with the power to create and which is considered feminine. Therefore, "masculine" and "feminine" energy are inside all of us regardless of how we identify.
And that, Gould said, is where the problem comes in. One part of being human—even in today’s culture—is this tendency to assign inherently polarizing categories and labels to people, concepts and philosophies in order to make sense of our lives, which causes us to lose sight of this oneness—and that’s where yoga comes in as a sort of “middle path” that, through poses and breathwork, helps us to reach that wavelength between the polarities.
Because of that balance, yoga can be considered genderless in a fundamental sense, but that hasn’t stopped a major movement of yoga disciplines focused solely on men from going gangbusters. Rad Kaim from Yoga4Men explained that the emergence of the "yoga for men" movement comes down to overcoming misconceptions stemming from our deeply patriarchic and misogynistic culture. “In many Western countries, yoga practice has been labeled as female thing to do,” he said, positing a scenario many of us (present company included) have experienced: showing up at a yoga class as the only guy, and allowing our poor societal conventions to convince us that the reason the women around us seem to be flowing through their asanas with the grace and beauty of an ocean wave is because their bodies are simply better suited to yoga. And as it turns out, there may be some truth to that.
Is yoga more difficult for bodies assigned male?
While the claim that “females are more flexible than males” is still up for debate, Kaim pointed out several key physiological differences between a male and female's body that could account for the latter’s alleged inherent knack for doing yoga. “The female skeleton is generally… smoother and more delicate than the male," he explains. "Males, in general, have denser bones, tendons, and ligaments. A female’s rib cage is more rounded and smaller, its lumbar curve greater, and a generally longer and smaller female waist results from the chest being more narrow at the base, and the pelvis generally not as high.”
Still, male bodies have been doing yoga for over two millennia, so it's time to put that excuse to bed and face the fact that what ultimately makes yoga so appealing nowadays is the sense of camaraderie and community. “Males have different body types,” Kaim explained. “Short, tall, slim, stocky, and you will recognize similarities in your struggles on your mat when someone next to you mirrors you back.” In other words, being in similar company is helpful.
At the end of the day, yoga is yoga, but touching on the physiological and psychological points we’ve just mentioned, Kaim’s discipline focuses specifically on the male body and targeting common areas of tension including shoulders, hips, and hamstrings. “It is a slower paced yoga focusing on each pose and how to get there, to help build strength and prevent injury,” he said. Can women do it too? Of course.
Below, 10 yoga poses designed specifically for the male body (but great for females, too!).
Runner’s Lunge (Utthita Ashwa Sanchalanasana)
Benefits: The runner’s lunge stretches your calves and quadriceps, but you’ll feel the biggest release in your hip flexors, the muscles that help you draw your knees toward your chest.
Instructions: From forward bend, step one foot back toward the back edge of your mat, with the ball of the foot on the floor. Step back far enough so that your right knee can form a 90 degree angle. Lay your torso on your front thigh and lengthen it forward. Change legs.
Vital tip: If you spend most of your waking hours with your hips flexed (e.g., commuting by car or sitting at a desk), you probably have tight hip flexors, so you can modify this pose by using a chair or wall to help provide stability as you develop your lunging range of motion. Each time, try to step your back foot further. Hold it for a few deep breaths.
Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Benefits: Improves posture and counteracts the effects of sitting and computer work. This is done by strengthening your core, including your abdominals and back muscles. It also stretches and strengthens around your shoulder joints. This move is also helpful for recovery after sports and activities that include running.
Instructions: From downward-facing dog pose, step your foot forward so your toes are in line with your fingertips. Make sure your front knee creates a right angle with your thigh is parallel to the floor. Place your back knee on the floor, and keep your toes tucked under for greater stability. Keep the hips low and level with each other. As you inhale, engage your lower belly and lift your chest away from the thigh, sweeping the arms up alongside your ears. Look straight ahead or come into a gentle backbend. Stay there for 5–10 breaths, then step back to downward-facing dog. Repeat on the other side.
Vital tip: Use a blanket under your knee for extra cushioning. Your back foot can be pointed with your toes relaxed down. For extra stability, use blocks at any height to bring the floor to you.
Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)
Benefits: Increases hip mobility, uses core strength to keep your hips level, calms your mind, and targets the psoas muscle and hip flexors.
Instructions: From all fours, bring your right knee forward towards your right wrist. Depending on your body, it may be just behind your wrist or to the outer or the inner edge of it. Experiment with what feels right for you, giving you a stretch on your outer hip without any discomfort in your knee. Your right ankle will be somewhere in front of your left hip. Slide your left leg back and point your toes, your heel pointing up to the ceiling. Use some support under your right buttock if needed to keep your hips level. Come onto your fingertips, lengthen your spine, draw your navel in and open your chest. Stay for 5 breaths or longer. Repeat on the other side.
Vital tip: It can be an intense stretch on the outer hip, so keep your right foot close to your left hip to start with. The more your shin is parallel with the front of the mat, the more intense the hip opener will be.
Frog Pose (Mandukasana)
Benefits: Stretches the inner thighs, regenerates the lower back tissues through gentle compression, and stimulates digestion.
Instructions: From all fours, spread your knees wide, feet together or shins parallel to the edges of your mat, feet pointing outwards. Bring your hips in line with your knees and rest your elbows on the mat. You are looking for "nagging" sensations in the inner thighs. Hold this pose for 1 to 3 minutes and eventually up to 5 minutes.
Vital tip: Wide legged child’s pose may be enough for you. Start by holding this pose for no longer than 1 min as the rebound effect can be intense.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Upavistha Konasana)
Benefits: Stretches the insides and backs of the legs as well as the spine, and helps to open the groin.
Instructions: Open your legs to an angle of about 90 degrees. Press your hands against the floor and slide your buttocks forward, widening the legs another 10 to 20 degrees. If you cannot sit comfortably on the floor, raise your buttocks on a folded blanket. With your thigh bones pressed heavily into the floor and your knee caps pointing up at the ceiling, walk your hands forward between your legs. Keep your hands on the floor or grab your big toes/shins maintaining the length of the front torso. Stay in the pose 1 minute or longer.
Vital tip: Upavistha Konasana is a difficult forward bend for many males. If you have trouble bending even a little bit forward, only bend your knees slightly. You might even support your knees on a thinly rolled blanket.
Cow Face Pose with Eagle Arms Variation (Gkomukasana )
Benefits: Stretches the ankles, hips, thighs, shoulders, and upper back.
Instructions: Sit with legs straight, then bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Sit evenly on the sitting bones. Stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor, and cross the arms in front of your torso so that the right arm is above the left, then bend your elbows. Snug the right elbow into the crook of the left, and raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor. Press the right hand to the right and the left hand to the left, so that the palms are facing each other. The thumb of the right hand should pass in front of the little finger of the left. Now press the palms together (as much as is possible for you), lift your elbows up, and stretch the fingers toward the ceiling. Stay in this pose about 1 minute.
Vital tip: Men often have a difficult time getting both sitting bones to rest evenly on the floor, which can make it difficult for the knees to stack on top of each other evenly. When the pelvis is tilted, the spine can’t properly extend. Use a folded blanket to lift the sitting bones off the floor and support them evenly. If you find it difficult to wrap your arms around until the palms touch, stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor, while holding onto the ends of a strap.
Feathered Peacock Pose (Pincha Mayurasana)
Benefits: Strengthens the shoulders, arms, back, chest, and belly. Also improves sense of balance and calms the brain, relieving stress and brightening the mood.
Instructions: This pose isn’t quite as scary as Handstand as it has a firmer base of support, but it can still be somewhat intimidating. To secure yourself in this inversion, start practicing at the wall. Firm your shoulder blades against your back torso and pull them toward your tailbone. Then rotate your upper arms outward to keep the shoulder blades broad and hug your forearms inward. Finally, spread your palms and press your inner wrists firmly against the floor. Then, take a few practice hops before you try to launch yourself upside down. Hop up and down like this several times, each time pushing off the floor a little higher. Exhale deeply each time you hop. Your head should be off the floor. Stay in the pose 10 to 15 seconds. Gradually work your way up to 1 minute. We tend to kick up with the same leg all the time, so be sure to alternate your kicking leg, one day right, next day left.
Vital tip: Many males find it difficult to prevent their elbows from sliding away from each other in this pose, so you can buckle a strap and loop it over your upper arms, just above your elbows.
Forearm Plank for Beginners
Benefits: This pose strengthens your abs, core, and legs. It’s also good for stretching the arches of your feet as well as your calves, hamstrings, and shoulders. Forearm plank is great for preparing your body for awesome arm balances and inversions.
Instructions: Start in Dolphin pose with knees bent. Then walk your feet back until your shoulders are directly over the elbows and your torso is parallel to the floor. Press your inner forearms and elbows firmly against the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back and spread them away from the spine. Similarly spread your collarbones away from the sternum. Press your front thighs toward the ceiling and lengthen your tailbone toward the heels. Stay anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute.
Vital tip: If you have tight shoulders, make sure your alignment is precise by pushing down on your forearms to keep your shoulders from creeping up next to your ears, and fire up your core to keep the body from dumping down. Remember to breathe.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Benefits: Improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting and doing computer work such as slouching and kyphosis (abnormal curvature of the spine). It also stretches your abdomen, chest, shoulders, front of your hips (hip flexors), and front of your thighs (quadriceps) and strengthens your back muscles, back of your thighs, and buttocks (glutes).
Instructions: Begin kneeling with your thighs perpendicular to the floor and your knees and feet hip-distance apart. Tuck your big toes. Root down from the tops of your feet to your knees and rebound up with your chest. Keeping your chin down and your pelvis over your knees, take your hands to your heels. Continue pressing down with your feet and lower legs in order to lift up with your thoracic spine and chest. Hold for 5–10 breaths not allowing your head to drop back.
Vital tip: For those with tight shoulders and tight hip flexors, bring your hands to your lower back with your fingers facing downward and your elbows pointing back. Gently arch your back into a backbend. Lift your chin slightly, and press your chest forward and up.
Locust Pose with Hands Clasped Behind Variation (Salabhasana)
Benefits: Strengthens the muscles of the spine, buttocks, and backs of the arms and legs, stretches the shoulders, chest, belly, and thighs, improving posture, stimulates abdominal organs, and relieves stress.
Instructions: Lie on your belly with your arms along the sides of your torso, palms up, forehead resting on the floor. Interlace your hands behind your back before you lift up into the pose. Roll your shoulders back and extend your arms straight behind you, keeping your hands clasped. Start to lift your hands off your back up toward the ceiling. Exhale and lift your head, upper torso, arms, and legs away from the floor. You’ll be resting on your lower ribs, belly, and front pelvis. Gaze down being careful not to crunch the back of your neck. Stay for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then release with an exhalation. Take a few breaths and repeat 1 or 2 times more if you like.
Vital tip: This pose effectively preps for deeper backbends, strengthening the back of the torso, legs, and arms. Males sometimes have difficulty sustaining the lift of the torso and legs in this pose. Begin the pose with your hands resting on the floor, a little bit back from the shoulders, closer to your waist. Inhale and gently push your hands against the floor to help lift the upper torso. If you cant interlace your hands behind your back use yoga strap or towel.
When it comes down to it, both of our experts agreed on one thing: it doesn't matter what type of yoga you do—what matters is what you bring to the mat. Aligning your intentions to openness and awareness is key, as is commitment. Namaste.