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Men in Iyengar Yoga

A US-based study by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal showed that the number of men doing yoga increased by 150% from 2012 to 2016, but that overall just 28% of practitioners are men.

We’ve been chatting with some of our male teachers and students about their relationship with yoga, and to explore what might encourage more men to give it a try.

Marco Cannavo felt the benefits immediately when he first tried Iyengar yoga on a retreat. He qualified as a teacher in 1998 and teaches in London

How did you get into Iyengar yoga?

I got into it by chance. I used to be a dancer then got into Buddhism, then my first Iyengar class was on a Buddhist retreat – there were lots of Iyengar yoga teachers involved in that Buddhist group at the time.  It was love at first sight!

How old were you when you started? 

I’m 58 now, I was about 30 when I started. 

Had you tried other styles?

Yes but I found them a bit wishy-washy. I might have done the odd class but I never really tried anything else seriously. I have a feeling of respect for Ashtanga yoga, it hasn’t become so commercial. There is a real sense of discipline and practice, which I like. 

What stood out about Iyengar yoga for you?

As I said, it was love at first sight! I felt the benefits straight away, I immediately resonated with the method of teaching – and the direct style of communication – I think having been a dancer I had that sense of discipline and rigour instilled in me.

As Guruji said, yoga is ‘meditation in action,’ I think this really stood out for me, the mindfulness work, it’s very much a mindfulness practice.  It’s not just because you stretch – yes there is that connection, but there is that sense of mind and body coming together – the attention, seeing what you like or dislike, is your ego making you force things, or are you avoiding, being lazy, etc.

For those of us who can do it full time you have that kind of holistic practice, teaching, self-practice, and being a student, which is very important. As teachers we are very bad at following instructions and always think we know best! The weekly class with my teacher is a highlight of my week and I really miss it when I can’t go.  

Teaching at Iyengar Yoga Maida Vale

Who is your teacher?

Penny Chaplin. She is brilliant! Her classes are quite challenging. She teaches very much how Guruji taught her. I had already done my Junior 3 certificate when I started going to her; she has given me a new lease of life. My very first teacher was the late Sylvia Prescott, subsequently I also studied with Richard Agar Ward. Excellent teachers too!

Do you have any favourite poses?

I was thinking about how lucky we are to have the inversions. People might do lots of other types of exercise but don’t have access to that experience. Guruji used to say if you can’t practise anything else, at least do inversions. Sometimes if I’m agitated then doing 10 minutes of Sirsasana (headstand) and 20 minutes of Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and variations really helps. It’s not that I don’t struggle with it, but afterwards I feel I have regained a sense of balance and perspective and this is a great gift from Guruji as in other styles of yoga, as far as I understand, they don’t put so much emphasis on the inversions. 

I also appreciate back bends, especially as I’m getting older. It’s wonderful to be able to do some back bends at least twice a week – it’s an action of the body that most of the population doesn’t benefit from. Similar to that, there’s something about Supta Virasana I particularly enjoy. You see people walking, how tight they are in the groins and that they’re slightly folded forward. The kind of stretch you get in Supta Virasana in the front of the pelvis, the abdomen, most people probably don’t get if they don’t do yoga. I find it’s both quietening for the nervous system but also very life-enhancing. 

The beauty of it is the whole variety of it, and for those of us who practice regularly then through the week you get the benefit of a whole range of poses – standing, forward extensions, twisting, backward extensions, abdominal work, recuperative/pranayama etc – it’s amazing.

Teaching online

What do your friends and family think about yoga?

I don’t proselytize about yoga. Inevitably quite a lot of people, friends and family have got involved, and my partner also practices. People get curious about what you do and it goes from there. Sometimes people bring their friend to class and I always joke and say, “have you forced them to come?!” But sometimes it’s not the right time for them, maybe there needs to be a yearning to do it. 

What’s an unusual place you’ve done yoga?

Once going to Pune we travelled on an empty plane because there was a strike that had been called off, so we were in a jumbo jet and there were about ten of us flying to Mumbai. I remember doing handstands on the plane. The staff didn’t seem to mind!

Do you teach pranayama?

I haven’t been teaching it on Zoom and I find it difficult in the city, but when I do yoga holidays I teach it more. I find there often isn’t the right atmosphere to go into it. I certainly notice if I’m teaching a residential retreat then I naturally want to teach it more, and there’s more time to do it as well. I notice that in London sometimes people arrive a bit frazzled and they really feel they need the asana work to calm down beforehand, because otherwise they tend to force – they need to be quiet because it’s something so subtle, if you’re not careful you can start manipulating the breath in a slightly forced way.

How has yoga philosophy affected your life? 

I immediately resonated with the definition of yoga in Sutra 1.2, Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah – yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.  People often say, where is the spiritual side in Iyengar yoga? in my experience this definition is very much in the background of all the asana and pranayama work we do.

One thing I like with Iyengar is that I always felt that he was very open-minded.  Although he was a very religious man and very much rooted in his tradition he was enlightened enough to understand that he wouldn’t be skilful to ram Hinduism or even yoga philosophy down your throat, in a way I think he was very aware of that when he first came to teach in the West. For sure if there had been too much philosophy when I first started I think it might have put me off actually.

I never felt there was a conflict with any aspects of my personal life, including being gay and being an Iyengar yoga teacher. From the Iyengar family I felt that all that matters is if you are sincerely dedicated to the practice, and I really like that.

“B.K.S. Iyengar was a pioneer in making yoga equally accessible to men and women”

Do you have many men in your class?

I do have some men, they are in a minority. I don’t find it much of an issue.

What do you think the barriers are, if any?

I don’t think there are barriers to do with the system, but maybe there are in the way yoga is generally portrayed in the media. Having more men in class would probably encourage more men to come. This is also the case with people from different backgrounds.

B.K.S. Iyengar was a pioneer in making yoga equally accessible to men and women when he first taught. And often when I teach or when I’m attending a class I feel that the sense of ego is loosened and we almost go beyond being men or women, we are just human beings practising together.

Do you do other sports/activities

I walk a lot, but I don’t do anything else.

What location do you teach?

Zoom, otherwise at Maida Vale and a few other London studios.

How do you promote yours classes?

I don’t have a website and I’m not on social media. I am lucky because when I started teaching there was a lot of work, so over the years, people have come to know me. I was lucky to start teaching at Maida Vale soon after I qualified.  

Do you teach yoga holidays?

Yes, I teach in Italy once a year but had to cancel last year and this year.

What’s your advice for someone thinking of coming to class for the first time?

Just try, just do it! I always tell people don’t take me seriously, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything that I say – you should just follow visually and try to be receptive.  Don’t compare yourself.  And when people tell me they’re too stiff or bad at it, I tell them that’s an advantage – partly to challenge that self-view, but also because it’s true.

Find a list of Marco’s classes here

Uday Bhosale studied and taught for many years with the Iyengar family at RIMYI in Pune, India, and is keen to dispel the myth that only flexible people can do yoga

How did you get into Iyengar yoga?

My martial arts teacher Ali Dashti introduced me to RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute, Pune) and I was mesmerised by the brilliant teachers there – I could see why it is revered the world over.  

How old were you?

I started martial arts at age 14 and started practising yoga then, but I was first introduced to RIMYI when I was 18 years old. 

Have you tried any other styles of yoga?

I haven’t tried any other styles. I’ve never felt the need for a couple of reasons – I was taught by some inspirational teachers at RIMYI. Their teachings continue to inspire my practice today. The light bulb moments that happen through exploration and self-practice are endless. As Guruji once said Yoga is one, and we like to label it differently. For me the teachings of these exceptional teachers are what still inspire me to innovate and enrich the practice and I try and share my understanding with students.

The exploration and learning continue…

What was it about Iyengar yoga that stood out for you? 

The versatility – the unique approach for different conditions, age groups and abilities. Being able to connect with everyone and introduce everyone to subject of yoga and its philosophy. I feel it’s something unique, something special.

Over time I made such wonderful friends at the Institute and that was a big driving factor – that’s what kept me connected. 

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune

Who was your first teacher?

Ali Dashti

Do you have any favourite poses? 

The experience keeps changing from time to time – it would be hard to pick one as a favourite pose.  There are times when I have to go on practising a certain pose and then it has helped evolve and progress other postures as well. But I would really struggle to pick one single pose. I am happy with the practice if I am able to learn something further.

What do your friends and family think about yoga?

Friends failed to understand me when I first began my learning and teaching. They found it absurd that I had chosen something which was not even considered a profession back then. Yoga was an extracurricular activity according to them. My Master’s Degree in Computer Science had landed me a job in one of the most sought-after software companies, in Pune. Upon learning that I quit the job within a month, they were totally perplexed. I had given up a secure job in a reputed company for something that is not even a career. Some friends were concerned while some lost hope in me.

My family belongs to the middle-class and as per a normal middle-class family, I was expected to pick up a job and start earning after my parents got me educated. You can imagine how delighted my parents would be on me securing a job. I feared disappointing them, so I continued my job for a while. But then I was not happy with it. I missed being at the Institute, I missed my classes, my friends over there. I had to gather some courage, but I explained to my parents that I couldn’t see myself doing this job for long and it was my wish to continue learning at the Institute. I cannot thank my parents enough for agreeing to this.

Sonali, my wife has always been very supportive and interested in the practice. So I have been very fortunate to have her support.

What’s the most unusual place you’ve done yoga?

When I feel stiffness in my arms, I often practice poses like, Gomukasana, Paschima Namaskarasana in the shower. The soap helps slide the arms better on the back!

I have done Prasaritta Padottanasana and Sirsasana on top of a mountain. The feeling, the upside-down view from the top is something I cannot describe in words.

The picture is from the Horseshoe Bend in the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago.

Do you teach Pranayama?

Yes, I have been teaching regular restorative and pranayama classes online on Thursday evenings where we build towards the practice of pranayama, and that has been an interesting journey with my students. They’ve enjoyed the practice of just learning the restorative aspect and seeing how that can gradually lead towards pranayama practice. 

How has yoga philosophy affected your life?

It has always helped me with making decisions and has shaped my life so far. Because it’s a subject which isn’t just about stretching your arms and legs on the mat or bending backwards and forwards: the philosophy is much deeper. Teachings from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras can help us lead a better life. 

It has a positive influence and in everything that you do, every relationship that you have, every decision that you make you will find the positive impact of yogic philosophy there. 

Do you have many men in your classes? 

I wouldn’t say many, but I am happy to say that there are a decent number of men in my classes. Could we have more men? Yes of course…I am told some men feel yoga is for women, or that you need to be supple and flexible to do yoga. “I am too stiff for yoga” is a common excuse.

But these are all myths. Personally, I belong to the stiffer side, I have this tendency to develop stiffness if I do not practice. So, I can relate to the struggle experienced by stiff people. I feel fortunate in a way for having been stiff because I feel it has helped me understand the practice and its gradual progression.

It’s like climbing a mountain all the way from the base: it will be hard, difficult and there will be challenges. But you will have an experience, a sense of achievement on reaching the top. So, men who think of these as excuses and reasons for not doing yoga, should think of these as more reasons to start practising. 

“Whatever stage of life you’re at, now is the time to pick it up! It is going to change the rest of your life for the better”

What are your thoughts on encouraging more men to do yoga?

It’s about getting the message out that people can really benefit from this practice, particularly that it’s not just for flexible people. It definitely helps men. It doesn’t matter if you are stiff or supple, you will surely benefit with this practice. And it is not just strength and flexibility that you will achieve. It is perhaps the only practice I know of with such a vast scope to be working on the musculoskeletal system, nervous system, the organs, the glandular system, etc. It is a wholesome package. Along with the physical health benefits we gain an understanding of how the mind works and address it in our practice. The Yoga Sutras guide us in our practice, and in our lives too. So it’s a phenomenal subject giving tremendous benefits – the sooner we start, the longer we get to witness its positive influence in our lives.

Physical limitations have been addressed by Guruji’s compassion when he invented all the yoga props we have available today. It is a subject that you can pick up at any stage of your life. That’s not to say you should leave it until you’re old, but whatever stage of life you’re at, now is the time to pick it up! It is going to change the rest of your life for the better. 

Do you do other sports or activities? 

I used to play different sports in my school years – football, cricket, tennis, athletics. Nothing professionally or competitively as such, apart from in Tae-kwon-do where we participated in a state-level competition once. I now enjoy the occasional hike whenever I get a chance.

Where do you teach?

Until lockdown I was teaching in Reading, Henley on Thames, London. For workshops I was travelling around wherever I was invited across countries and continents and of course in the UK. But since the pandemic, thanks to Zoom, it has only been from our living room into your house.

Is social media helpful for finding students? 

Often people recommend you to their friends and family. They share their positive experiences and thus the word spreads. I haven’t done much of marketing and social media advertising as yet. But I think we all need to do this much more. We must make Guruji’s teachings more visible and at least people should know that here is a system which has unique approach and benefits for its practitioners. We should present enough to appeal to their curiosity. This is how we can reach out to new students. This is the way we search and research these days. People find Life partners through this medium, we can definitely hope to find new students there!

Do you offer yoga holidays?

Yes, I have been doing yoga holidays for a few years now until the pandemic started last year. Since then, it’s stopped but we’ve done some intensives online instead of holidays.

Have you got any advice for someone trying yoga for the first time? 

First of all, I would congratulate them for taking this wonderful life-changing decision to embark on this path. The most important advice I feel for newcomers is to have patience in the initial days and then see the magic happen.

You might find it challenging and difficult in the beginning, but soon you will see positive changes in your abilities, which will be encouraging. Just enjoy the process!

Find Uday at and on Facebook and Instagram

Peter Sargent is a long-term student of Iyengar yoga who says it has reduced the stress from work and made him a calmer person

How did you get into Iyengar yoga?

My wife was already a student of Iyengar yoga – her teacher was Elizabeth Tonner, who at the time was also a teacher trainer. I was volunteered by my wife as a guinea pig for the trainees to practice on! I must have enjoyed it as I went back a few times on a weekend over the summer of 2007. I was at that stage in my life when the children were more independent and I needed something to do. I think I was very busy with work, stressed out, but physically lethargic. A year a two earlier I had health problems which were all part of the same issue. I didn’t particularly enjoy sports, so found it was good as it was a complete contrast to work – no pressure, no competition, and friendly people.

How old were you?

I was in my late 40s when I went to the teacher training sessions, after which I started at an adult education class with Amanda Whitehead.

Have you tried other styles of yoga?

I have dabbled, and until lockdown did go to a ‘yoga’ class at the gym, but it was never the same.

“I like the orderliness of it, the precision”

What was it about Iyengar yoga that stood out for you?

I like the orderliness of it, the precision, and I like the people who go to class. I have never met anyone who I couldn’t get on with, they all certainly would pass the test of having to sit next to them on a train or plane journey – don’t know what they would make of me.

Who was your first teacher?

I guess it must be Elizabeth Tonner who we are still in contact with. But my first real teacher was Amanda Whitehead, and I still love going to her class, she makes you work hard.

Do you have any favourite poses?

I know it sounds a bit too yogic, but I don’t favour or dislike any poses. Okay I will have a go at anything, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t beat myself up if I can’t do it, I will just keep trying. I know I am better at some than others but we all are, that’s part of the enjoyment.

What do your friends and family think about yoga?

My wife (Jo) is now an Iyengar teacher, but won’t teach me! So that’s okay, our daughters have grown up with it, and Faye in particular did go to class and still tries when there is a lull in child care duties! Friends and work colleagues think it is faintly amusing but we have converted some on the way. I have never had someone react badly, it is more with interest, especially as I am a bloke in what they wrongly perceive as a women’s world.

Whats the most unusual place youve done yoga?

By profession I am an insolvency practitioner and I am fortunate to be a director of INSOL which is the international trade association for insolvency practitioners. Pre-Covid, we used to have a board meeting at one of the regional conferences, often in interesting places. I was able to attend class at the Hong Kong Iyengar Yoga Institute, I think they thought it amusing that a chap from the UK just walked in fresh off the plane and booked himself on a class for that evening. I also went to a class on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, not Iyengar, but who is going to turn down the photo opportunity! (See picture) Okay it is a bit ego yoga, but once in a while it is allowed, I think.

How has yoga philosophy affected your life?

Being an insolvency practitioner is a stressful job at the best of times. A lot of people I know say I am a much calmer person. I would of course agree with that, I think I deal with the frustrations of life much better. My desk is also much better organised, and so is my garden. In fact I think there is a link between yoga and gardening, and especially growing your own fruit and veg. I think philosophically I am much more accepting of life.

What do you think the barriers are for men wanting to try yoga?

When I first went to class in my late 40s (I am now heading toward 63) I was the only man in class, and it was like that for many years. It suddenly changed two or three years ago, and now some classes can be up to 50% male. I think men thought it was a female pastime, not for men, and I was treated with suspicion at first, but I had my own equipment (well my wife’s) so they slowly accepted me. Why did it change? It think it was some of the older professional footballers admitting they did yoga to keep fit, and also other athletes bringing it in to their training regimes.

Do you have any other suggestions to help get more men doing yoga?

I think the best way is to show that men do go to class on a regular basis, there is a friendly atmosphere, it is non-competitive. We have enough stress with work, we don’t need it in our leisure and spare time. I think it is important to highlight both the physical and mental health benefits of attending class.

Do you do other sports/activities?

Not really, I did go to the gym before lockdown and did some cycling and rowing, plus weight training. The yoga is an antidote to the stiffness other exercises can bring on!

Have you got any advice for someone trying yoga for the first time?

Yes, give it a go, and keep going, it takes time. Don’t compare yourself to the person on the mat next to you, they may be younger or older, larger or smaller. You will find it is a welcoming group of people.

Is there anything else youd like to share?

Our not-so-secret secret is that we have our own yoga studio. As Jo is a teacher we decided to build it for our own use, and also Jo could teach small groups. As the Covid restrictions grind on we use it ourselves for private practice most mornings before work, and we use it when we attend classes remotely. It also doubles up as a wet weather play area when we are on grandparent duties! The studio is our indulgence and is built to Passivehaus standards so is very energy efficient and green, which in itself is yogic!

Plus – why are all the best yoga clothes for women? I think some of the clothes and equipment suppliers are missing a growing part of the market.

Peter is on Facebook and LinkedIn, and on Twitter @Healeyhouser

Tom Logan is an Iyengar yoga teacher based in Clapham and currently teaching classes on Zoom.

How did you get into Iyengar yoga?

I was experiencing lower back pain. The doctors want to fuse my lumbar and I felt I needed an alternative solution. There was a yoga class at my local health club so I gave it a try and it turned out to be Iyengar yoga. After 6 weeks of classes my back pain improved.

How old were you?

Around 42.

Do you do other sports/activities?

Mountain biking, hiking and wild swimming

Have you tried other styles of yoga?

Yes – I grew up avoiding Catholic church by going to a regular Sivananda class every Sunday morning, which I did until I started college.

What was it about Iyengar yoga that stood out for you?

The detail of instruction and the varied classes. Before I tried Iyengar yoga I was accustomed to doing sun salutation at every class. Iyengar yoga worked.

Who was your first Iyengar yoga teacher?

At the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Maida Vale I met Stephen Richardson, who inspired me to make yoga a regular part of my life.

Do you have any favourite poses?

Not really, poses for me are a progression from challenging, to bearable, to understanding. As I progress I find a new one to learn and I spend time ‘making friends’ with the pose.

What do your friends and family think about yoga?

Mostly their perception of yoga is gym bunny pop yoga! I try to educate them but…my cycling mates just chuckle.  A few have come along to classes and a couple have stuck with it. My wife practises with me once a week. My daughter has also become a regular practitioner, and my sister-in-law goes to classes too.

Do you teach Pranayama?

Regularly, but only once a month as part of my restorative classes. Sometimes I’ll teach a special workshop.

How has yoga philosophy affected your life?

I try to live within the guidelines of what we interpret today as Yamas and Niyamas (I emphasise ‘try’!)

Do you have many male students in your class? 

Yes roughly 25%, sometimes more.

“Stiffer or injured people understand yoga more completely than those it comes easy to”

Do you think there are barriers for men wanting to attend yoga classes and if so, what are they?

Fear of failing, many men are naturally competitive. Also, men often think yoga is for women.  

Sometimes yoga becomes almost competitive. Men new to yoga find this painful and almost inaccessible. Some modern yoga classes have become like a fashion catwalk or a beauty contest – including the teachers – which is a confusing message.

I emphasise the origins of yoga as exclusively for men and particularly BKS Iyengar and his early story. I explain that stiffer or injured people understand yoga more completely than those it comes easy to.

What are some of the benefits of yoga that you’d like to share?

There are many practical benefits like overcoming injury, stress, worry, sleep problems and flexibility issues. It’s also great for building strength, as well as stabilising the emotions and improving your concentration.  

Where do you teach?

My most successful classes were at a local GP practice – the doctors refer their patients to me if it’s suitable. I also teach weekend classes at an old church hall.  These locations are on hold at the moment and I’m doing the Zoom thing.

Have you got any advice for someone trying yoga for the first time?

Go just for you and ignore everything else, except your teacher and yourself. Be kind but firm with yourself. Keep going back for at least 6 weeks and stick with one teacher if you can.  Enjoy the experience.

Find Tom’s profile and classes here

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