How Yoga can save Man(kind)

Updated: Jan 5, 2019


A while ago I wrote a blog post on the reasons that men need Pilates. Entitled 7 reasons why men need Pilates, it is all correct, but also all superficial. The deeper reasons are far more life changing and profound, for men, but also society as a whole. The title is pure click bait, but with reason as you shall discover.


As with any writing on one gender, there has to be generalisation which can also be viewed as sexism. Go ahead and shoot me! The benefits are the same for both genders but I will be suggesting why perhaps men require it more. 


The deeper reason men need Yoga/Pilates

Masculinity and men are at what could be said to be a turning point. It was part of the reason that this time last year I set up a men's support group (which I sadly lost the time and energy to be able to maintain) resulting in seeing firsthand the confusion of identity, role and in particular 'masculinity'.


The Dalai Lama said at the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2009 that the Western Woman will save the world [1]. I would argue that the Dalai Lama is wrong and it is in fact 'femininity' that will save the world. Osho puts it superbly but I cannot find the exact quote I am looking for at the moment. He suggests

'A master has to be tremendously capable of feminine energy so that he can shower love on you; only then can he destroy.' [2]

To destroy the evils of the world requires love, often seen as a feminine energy. Sam Keen says 'In my judgement, we would gain much clarity is we ceased using the words 'masculinity' and 'femininity'' [3] and I would whole heartedly agree. There is the reason that as soon as you tell most men to get in touch with their 'feminine' side there will be resistance due to socialisation. More importantly though, why are we assigning characteristics by a gender? They are different energies, yin and yang if you will. So throughout the post I will be referring to 'feminine/femininity' as yin and 'masculine/masculinity' as yang.


So what am I saying exactly with these slight contradictions?


Men need balance. We all have a natural level of yin/yang energy, some people will naturally have more yang and some more yin, but we all have both aspects in ourselves. In society we have always had gender roles but then relatively recently society shifted where arguably women balanced their 'yin' and 'yang' (and yes, there is still more societal change needed). This is where I believe the confusion of identity, role and 'masculinity' began in men.


Where does this fit in with Yoga and Pilates? I can only talk of my own experience, so for me I began Yoga and Pilates nearly 10 years ago. I was conditioned by society, but also always knew this image of a man didn't feel like who I was. This is partly due to being brought up by my mother, but also the feeling of it all being rather fake. I had to go to the gym- which is where I discovered Yoga and Pilates- in order to get the body of a 'man'. In fact, it was Pilates that gave me the six-pack that men so craved (and I now know to be completely unfunctional; in fact often bad for the lower back), providing a nice temporary ego stroke. I was living in Sunderland which was full of banter- a wonderful way for guys to put one another down to become top dog disguised as jokes. I was partaking in it all and still have an element of that in me, but it didn't feel right still. So much so I took the rather extreme measure of moving to Brighton to escape it (along with a million and one other reasons). This is when Pilates became a far bigger part of my life, and later on Yoga.


Pilates and Yoga put me more in touch with the real essence of myself, including the 'yin' or 'feminine' aspects because we all have these.

My Yoga practice is much more of this than acrobatics

Body awareness

In my experience, men generally don't have as much body awareness on a subtle level as women. This is partly linked to the left and right brain hemispheres, with the left hemisphere being more yang and the right being more yin. Western society and in particular men, are very analytical and rational which is all in the left hemisphere. This serves great purpose, but remember we are looking for balance.


Movement such as Yoga or Pilates can help put people in touch with their body by being more mindful. Often being slower in pace than other forms of exercise, and depending on how it is taught, focusing on certain smaller areas of the body, we can slowly begin to feel all that is going on. Yes a lot of men have very good proprioception (awareness of where certain parts of the body are in space), but in Yoga and Pilates we are finding the little subtleties.


Our body is giving us constant feedback and in these movement forms we are learning to listen to them. One of the first things we can notice is whether the body is moving into pain or not. This is important to learn in order to help prevent injuries. But, once we start becoming increasingly observant of our body we can find so many things it will tell us. My diet has naturally improved over the time of Yoga and Pilates as I can now feel the effects of eating badly pretty much straight away. My body will tell me if I need to move more in a day, meaning that because I listen to it I have less aches and pains and move freer.


Emotions show through in the body, such as feeling the heart racing if something angers you, so you become much more aware of your emotional state. You can then use this information to learn what triggers them and the effects these different emotions have on your life. Listening to your body helps you become more intuitive, with things like 'gut feelings' actually being real. It's not just 'women's intuition'; we all have it if we listen in. Not only that, but we are using the right hemisphere of the brain. You wouldn't just exercise the left side of your body and expect it to function with balance, so why do we often do that with our brains?


Ego awareness

This is a huge topic, and the 'end goal' of Yoga can be said to be completely rid of ego (Samadhi). Here I will say more about an awareness of ego. Over many years of Yoga and Pilates I discovered when I was using my ego and when I was listening to my body. Often, if I was getting injured, I was using my ego. 'Oh I can do that' or 'let me just push myself a little bit further'. It was the competitive spirit which was in me, and is arguably more drilled into men through socialisation than women. This competitive side in Yoga and Pilates never really ended well. But the more it didn't end well, and in combination with listening more to my body than my mind, I could observe what my ego was trying to do. You cannot change anything without noticing it first (unless you get an extremely lucky fluke) so observing the ego at play was the first step.


But the ego is crucial for the self and competition is important to succeed in life you may say. That may be the case for many, but equally the ego is responsible for anything bad in your life. Every argument you have, that's your ego. Somebody hurts your feelings? It's not them, but your ego at fault there. Somebody cuts you up when you're driving to work and you get a bit of road rage. Yup, ego. You begin to notice all the time your ego gets involved in your life and the effects it has. I'm nowhere near enlightenment, but I do see my ego in action and watch what it does. I don't necessarily want to rid myself of it, but keeping it in check is important. This is not a yin trait, but what it leads to is.

Poses like this are all for the ego. I still do them, but with observation that I am satisfying my ego more than anything else. (Photo credit Róisín Iles-Jonas)

Compassion

As a result of feeling more and observing the ego we gain more compassion. This is different to sympathy in that we put ourselves in the other's shoes. So when you get cut up in the car the ego wants to bip your horn because they've cut YOU up and how dare they? When you view that without ego you think of them; how they're probably in a rush and not really 'with it', so you accept the situation a lot more readily. Being compassionate stops you being the victim.


I'm definitely not a compassionate saint (my first instinct is still usually laughter if someone falls over) but my levels of compassion have grown alongside my movement practices. Everybody could benefit from being more compassionate and loving, but I know it is something that is almost drummed out of boys at school; definitely in my day!


Rest and digest

Westerners on a whole are often in fight or flight mode without even realising. The constant stimulation of noise, smells and bright lights/sights, along with the pressures that can be found in adulthood help bring this on. Fight or flight mode (which is the sympathetic nervous system) serves a purpose in keeping us alive, but stay in it too much and you will shorten your life. Milne and Hong state 'with advancing age the adverse effects of sympathetically mediated stress on the body, specifically the cardiovascular system, may outweigh the benefits an intact sympathetic nervous system conveys.' [4] Women live on average 3.7 years longer than men in the UK. [5] This could be attributed to a huge number of factors including but I would propose that stress (or being in flight or fight mode) is a big one. I know that in my experience men are more readily in fight or flight, which may be evolutionary from hunter gatherer times.


Yoga and Pilates can help bring an awareness of this, depending on how they're taught. The more we can notice being in a rest and digest state, the more we can observe when we enter fight or flight. Again, noticing is the first stage to changing, so once we have observed this shift, we can use the tools taught in class to bring us back to our parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. This doesn't just have benefits to longevity.


Have you noticed when you're in a hurry and someone asks you a question that your response is usual short, possibly snappy and certainly not measured. That's when you're in fight or flight. Being in rest and digest helps us make more measured decisions. It stops us from snapping back and also helps us be more compassionate again. How much would the world be a better place if we were all like this?


Conclusion

Yes the title is very much a sensationalisation and it is far too disempowering to women to suggest that men becoming more yin or in touch with their feminine would save the world, but I would argue that nearly all the world's problems stem from yang or masculine traits, whether that is in men or women. Becoming more in balance is for all of us to achieve and a life long journey. It's also not always a pleasant journey. In order to find our true selves- the self in balance, stripped of what society has taught us- Stephen Cope writes

'it was necessary for each of us, in our own way to deliberately enter the darkness of the unconscious...a period of disorganisation and metamorphosis.' [6]

This won't happen overnight, and can be a continual but worthwhile process if you're man enough (I had to throw that in there...I really don't mean it). In finding your true nature you will see that roles, identity and masculinity really don't matter in the slightest. In fact, they are a lot to do with any suffering. 


If you're reading this and wanting to find classes, I run both Yoga and Pilates in Hove which you can find here. I also run an online based program called [evolve], in which you learn to get more in touch with your body by incorporating the movement of Yoga and Pilates into your daily life. You can sign up to that here and get all the benefits.


[1] https://dalailamacenter.org/blog-post/western-women-can-come-rescue-world accessed 03.01.19

[2] Osho (1978) The Tantra Experience: Discourses on the Royal Song of Sahara. p17. Element Books Ltd, Dorset

[3] Keen, S (1991) Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. p214. Bantam Books, New York

[4] Milne, B., & Hong, M. (2004). Increasing longevity by decreasing sympathetic stress – early receptor blockade pharmacotherapy. Medical Hypotheses, 62(5), pp755–758. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2003.10.027

[5] Office for National Statistics. National life tables, UK: 2014 to 2016

[6] Cope, S. (1999) Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. p10. Bantam Books. New York

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