Dubai-based yoga teacher Saul Philipps shares his insights and best pieces of advice on how to get men started with yoga. His recipe is simple: make the first steps in the right direction accessible, relevant, and rewarding!
Yoga has long been seen as a predominantly female form of exercise. Now, with a growing interest in yoga from men who discover improved mobility, reduced back pain, and improvements in other sports – all through taking that leap of faith onto the mat!
Yoga can be confusing for most of us (for example, what is the difference among Bikram, Vinyasa, Yin, and Hatha?). Dubai’s yoga scene offers a large set of different styles that can make it hard to choose for a beginner who wants to get started with yoga. That is why Matcha now offers men a class focused on their needs. Matcha started a collaboration with Saul Phillips leads the Yoga Foundation for Men class. It is a mixed ability class which offers pose variations that will suit everyone: from complete beginners to seasoned practitioners. Flows are aimed at reducing the side effects of other activities (inflexible hips and hamstrings) while adding poses that will be easier – and more fun – thanks to the regular practice of other sports. The flows are targeted at developing mobility and strength and to help reach new heights in other sports – such as boxing, paddle tennis, surfing – through joining the ranks of “broga” athletes who use their practice to both stay healthy and reach peak physical limits.
What would you say are the main reasons men do not try yoga?
Most men that I talk to about yoga have a gender-stereotyped view of yoga as a ‘thing for women’. Instead of challenging them, I started to ask follow-up questions to understand why they had this perception.
It tended to boil down to three main reasons:
– Yoga tends to put more emphasis on flexibility than strength
– Benefits of yoga are often framed in terms of mental wellbeing only and not on how better mobility and/or strength could help practitioners advance in other sports
– Fear of going to a class in front of
others and feeling like they cannot even do 10% of the asanas correctly while
others in the class seem not to struggle
We as yoga teachers also have part of the responsibility for this perception, as in Dubai for example there have been ladies-only yoga classes for decades but never 2022 a men’s only class!
Which are the top three benefits of yoga that men who get started would notice, even in the short term?
The benefits are similar for women and men, but there is a difference in the sense that men would benefit more from improved mobility and flexibility – in particular if they do not work on those aspects in other sports.
First, increased range of motion is the top benefit that men tend to experience. It helps them in many other sports and gives them a better sense of ‘control’ over their body. Second, working on both flexibility and strength, in a varied set of asanas, also help them move more confidently and safely, reducing the risk for injury.
Last, participating in a yoga class – focusing on moving and breathing – helps women and men alike let go of the life off the mat and reduce stress levels. Less stress then helps with everything from decision making under pressure at work to improved sleep!
How do you best motivate men to take the leap onto the mat?I
I think all people who try and then stay in yoga are motivated by two things in particular: the positive benefits of yoga off the mat and the progress that we see in our own practice over time.
Many men start yoga and struggle a lot with lack of mobility and flexibility, sometimes to the point where the expression of the asana that they can do safely will not help them progress well to the more advanced expressions. This limits their progression and that removes a key source of motivation. So, even if they notice benefits off the mat the lack of not fast but ‘fast enough’ progress on the mat demotivates them.
That is why yoga teachers who want to attract and retain more men in their classes should take extra care to put asanas in their flow which tend to be easier for practitioners with a good level of strength and low to moderate levels of flexibility. As an example, in my classes, I have had men who cannot do a proper forward fold but can move into and hold a very solid flying crow. Succeeding well in some of the asanas in the flow will then motivate them to ‘get though’ the others and come back for more.
What should a man who wants to try getting started with yoga think about in particular?
The most important thing is to make sure
that his practice will be safe, fun, and rewarding. My experience is that this
is easier with at least a minimum set of equipment and props that will reduce
the stress in the practice and enable focusing on the practice.
A good non-slip mat is important when beginning a yoga journey as people tend to sweat more as each asana is more straining on the body. Some props to consider could include blocks and a strap – but most good yoga studios would typically provide those to practitioners for the class.
It is also important that they remember that yoga might not be a ‘magical cure’ for them. Other types of exercise could help them progress in mobility and strength, which would then help their yoga practice – and vice versa.
The last thing I’d ask them to think about is this: get onto the mat. It might be tough; it might feel like a pain at times – but if you mix work on your strengths and weaknesses the satisfaction and progress will very soon become reasons enough to come back. Again. And again.
How do different styles of yoga fit with the typical male who wants to start – and then to continue – practicing yoga?
There is really no one answer to this question. I’d typically not recommend yin for a beginner, as you need to be able to move into intermediate or more expressions of the asanas to reap the benefits. Hatha and Vinyasa yoga offer good variety and would typically include expressions of the asanas accessible to beginners.
As I mentioned before, ensuring that there are asanas that you master better than others are part of the flows that you do in class is important for motivation and ‘sticking to it’. Many of my male students leverage their strength to progress faster on arm balances and inversions, so practicing flows that include them is often good.
I also have some favourite poses that I recommend male practitioners to practice, some because they are important in most yoga flows and some because they target weaknesses that men tend to have. These include downward dog, child’s pose, upward dog, puppy pose, and frog. The latter is a true challenge to some, but everyone can do some expression of the pose and, over time, it does wonders for opening the hips which then helps with many other asanas.
Last, getting started is one thing but what is the key for making men continue their practice?
Men who start yoga as a complement to their other sports tend to be more likely to continue their practice. It is probably because they see the benefits more quickly in their other sports and – as these are fun and rewarding for them – it motivates them back to the mat.
I also always encourage new practitioners – men as well as women – to focus on the feel of the asana and not the look. Finding a studio, teacher, and group where they can focus on their own practice and progress is very important. This is the reason why I started ‘Yoga Foundations for Men’ at Matcha Studio in Dubai: to create a space where men who want to discover yoga are among other men in the same situation.
These classes have flows tailored to typical issues that men face (e.g., tight hamstrings, tight shoulders, etc.) while also including many inversions and asanas where they typically can do more advanced expressions of the asanas with more ease. Mixing hard work with fun and a sense of accomplishment have helped us build a ‘broga’ community and have made these classes particularly popular.
Based on this experience, I am confident that men who find classes that help them achieve this mix will not only enjoy getting started with yoga but will also stick to it as part of their regular workout routine!
Saul discovered yoga during a trip to Sri Lanka over three years ago. To date, he has practiced in over 10 countries – with more than 30 different teachers. In 2021, he completed his 200 YTT vinyasa training in Bali which gave him new skills that help him, and his students, reach new heights in their practice. Saul wants yoga to be accessible, and both developing and fun for men. His classes challenge and push men while retaining focus on poses (asanas) and breath. He is passionate about the challenges that many men face when discovering yoga and delighted to teach this male-only yoga class. Saul delivers the class in an interactive and fun setting, mixing his focus on typical male strengths and weaknesses, to bring greater enjoyment and progress to the practice.
Try it: Priced at 115AED at 8pm on Thursdays at Matcha