French expat Michel Olivier leads an extremely stressful life as a shift manager at a distribution company, overseeing the operations of nearly 200 staff. Five years ago, after complaining to friends about his aggravating back pain, one of them suggested that his ailments might be stress-related and that he really ought to try something he had never before considered and knew little about: yoga.
He took his first tentative steps by joining a group class in a studio near where he was living in Dubai’s Business Bay, and says he felt ridiculous at first. “I hadn’t told anyone what I was going to do, not even the friend who advised it in the first place,” the 46-years-old recalls. “And my first couple of lessons were almost enough to put me off – I was so stiff and out of shape. Everyone else seemed to be experts, while I fell all over the place, but what I quickly realised was that nobody was there to judge.
“I was the only man in the class, so I was trying to hide at the back where nobody could see me, but soon I was getting to know the others and was made to feel welcome. They loved that a man was getting involved, and soon I began to get my movements smooth and my balance sorted. After a month, I was beginning to show real progress.”
The benefits of yoga
Olivier now practises what he calls a "basic hatha flow" four to five times a week, sometimes in a class, but more often at home on his own. "Hatha is simple enough for me to do in my own time," he says, "and I can put together a routine by reading up on [the techniques] or watching content on YouTube. Sometimes I'll do it for an hour, but it's never less than a 20-minute session."
Has yoga helped out with his back pain and stress levels, though? “Without a doubt,” he says. “The physical workout of yoga is very beneficial for the muscles, but it also moderates stress, so it’s benefited me enormously. If I slip out of my routine for any reason, and I start to feel the pain return, the yoga deals with it. I suppose I’m addicted to it in a way, but that’s not a bad thing.”
On the contrary, anything that improves our mental and emotional well-being should be encouraged. And as men become more in tune with their emotions and aware of their mental health, more of us are taking up yoga than ever before, looking past gender stereotypes and embracing things that may have traditionally seemed like the domain of women. If youhave ever tried a session, you will know that it's not exactly a breeze – it's quite the workout.
It has been around for millennia, but nowadays yoga is as much about exercise and fitness as it is about chakras and being at one with the universe – a shift in thinking that has no doubt helped attract more men into the fold. But if you’re put off giving it a go, intimidated by the seemingly impossible bendy shapes your other half contorts into every morning on the balcony, don’t be.
Training the mind and body
Andy Clarke, who has been teaching yoga as a freelancer for the past three years, says that men are gradually waking up to its benefits. "I can understand the reluctance," he agrees, "but the majority of guys I know who try it are really shocked to find out how much physical effort is required. For some, yoga is just one part of an extensive fitness regime; for others, it becomes the be-all and end-all, and they find they don't need or want to do anything else. What men – and women – tend to find, though, is that yoga makes them more conscious of other aspects of health, such as what they eat and drink, as well as how physically active they are, so they end up feeling full of vitality. And that's definitely addictive," he adds.
Something else that might be off-putting is the (at first) confusing terminology surrounding yoga. Hatha, Bikram, vinyasa, ashtanga, restorative, yin... the list goes on. But a quick word with a knowledgeable teacher should quickly identify which is best for you. And when it comes to teachers, few recommendations are better than word of mouth, so make enquiries and ask people you trust whom they would suggest – the right teacher and the right practice will make a world of difference to your resolve to keep going.
"While pumping iron in a gym or going berserk with a punchbag is likely to make men more aggressive," Clarke says, "yoga is the complete opposite. It's a peaceful, meditative exercise, and your mind is trained as well as your body. Being able to switch off your phone and turn down the thumping music won't do any harm to your blood pressure, either. It's really quite calming and [can] help people get a grip on life."
Tips for those just starting out
Clarke advises beginners to take a mat at the back of the class, but not, as you might expect, chiefly to avoid embarrassment. "It's a good idea, in the first few classes," he says, "to look at how everyone else is moving and responding to the instructions of the teacher. A good teacher will walk the room in any case, help adjust your positions and give encouragement without putting you on the spot.
“Something else to remember is that a lot of the benefit of yoga is tied up with the way we breathe, even if we’re still not very supple. Deep [abdominal] breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn lowers cortisol levels. That’s a hormone in our bodies that holds on to belly fat, and the more we’re stressed, the more cortisol we produce. There’s nothing like yoga for getting that stuff out of your system.”
To say most of us operate in high-pressure environments would be an understatement – the stresses of living in cities, and away from friends and family are well documented – and anything that can possibly reduce stress has to be positive. But apart from the flexibility, the strength and the calmness that comes to many as a result of yoga, Olivier has found another, quite unexpected benefit. "I smell better," he smiles. "The breathing, the sweating, they all cleanse the body of toxins, and as a man I find that reassuring, especially in a hot country like this."
Anyone for a downward-facing dog?