A few months ago, Laura Olivier, the general manager of Define: Dubai, which offers barre, yoga and spinning classes, introduced free classes for men with the fitness studio's American founder Henry Richardson hoping it would encourage them to try out what were traditionally conceived as women-dominated fitness practices. Only one male participant turned up for the barre and yoga sessions.
“Sadly, it did not work,” says Olivier. “The spinning class was packed out with a good male turnout, but only women showed up for the other two classes,” she says.
The notion that yoga, Pilates, barre and pole classes are feminine styles of physical fitness is much like the age-old misconception that women who lift weights develop a masculine physique. But just like Jennifer Lopez has maintained a lean body by lifting weights, brawny American footballer Dwyane Wade of the Chicago Bulls can be seen addressing the issue of his tight hips during off-season in a yoga and Pilates class.
The anecdotal evidence and celebrity endorsements over the past few years have prompted more men to join classes, but the uptake has still been slow. A survey conducted by international teachers group Yoga Alliance found that 10 million men in the United States now practise yoga compared to four million in 2012.
The Bodytree Studio in Abu Dhabi still has more women in its yoga and Pilates classes, but has noted a steady increase in the number of men every year. “There is this perception that yoga is gentle, passive, not challenging enough or too spiritual,” says co-manager Britta Mattern. “Ironically, yoga was traditionally taught by men to men, and it was not too long ago that the first women became students and then teachers.”
She says the studio’s yoga and Pilates community is growing, as more men see these classes as a way to relieve stress or complement their other training routines such as cycling and weightlifting. “Many men have private sessions to target specific areas of the body and receive individual attention to prevent injuries or recover from them.”
Mattern says yoga and Pilates are ideal ways to improve flexibility, which is quite often overlooked in a traditional bodybuilding routine in the gym. “Men often lack flexibility, due to their anatomy and their exercise routine,” she says.
“They sometimes find starting yoga or Pilates even more challenging than women, whereas it’s sometimes easier for men to handle yoga poses where strength is key, such as inversions like handstands, scorpion or chaturanga pose, a variant of a push-up.”
Abu Dhabi resident Jass Dhanoa added yoga to support his martial arts practice two years ago. “It began as a way to strengthen and rehabilitate from a shoulder injury,” says the 42-year-old management consultant, who takes power yoga and ashtanga yoga classes at Bodytree. “But the classes are so physically demanding and calming at the same time that I am hooked.”
Dhanoa says he started off finding the navasana (boat pose) and headstand challenging, but has built up the core strength to hold both poses for several minutes. At the same time, he has seen a positive change in the way he approaches martial arts. “Yoga has not only built up my flexibility, but my focus and concentration have also improved, which is necessary in martial arts.”
A pilot study on mindfulness-based intervention with basketball athletes in 2013 at the George Mason University in the United States, indicated similar outcomes. At the end of five weeks of group-intervention talks and an hour of hatha yoga, the participants reported less perceived stress, greater goal-directed energy and the ability to pursue values on and off the court.
Sundara Beam Rao Kasinath, who has been teaching yoga for 13 years, launched Broga, yoga classes for men, in Dubai last year. The concept was developed by American yogi Robert Sidoti and combines elements of yoga with functional fitness exercises. Kasinath says because of the way the classes are structured, men are signing up.
“Men want a more active sequence and aren’t interested in too much relaxation, breathing or digging deep into mindfulness in such classes,” says Kasinath.
“And because of the male anatomy, they also tend to be tighter in the hip area, and find it hard to stretch their hamstrings, which often deters them from taking up yoga.”
Now Kasinath has started seeing CrossFitters and athletes coming to the classes to address those issues.
“They realise that it is important for them to stretch, so that their muscles have active flexibility,” he says.
Olivier sees very few men joining the regular barre and aerial-yoga classes at her studio, but believes that will change with more awareness.
“Men are realising yoga is more practical and necessary, and contributes towards them doing other athletic activities better,” she says.
“They are learning more about the benefits of stretching and that it’s not just for women, but it helps improve their performance by breaking up the lactic acid and also lengthening their muscles.”
Those benefits have been recognised by several professional sports teams, who hire yoga and Pilates instructors to work with their athletes before games. Evan Longoria, a 31-year-old American baseball player, says yoga and Pilates taught him functional movement and stability that he translated on the baseball field. “When we’re hitting, you want to be as stable as you can and use the three-dimensional aspect – the rotation in your core – to actually translate to power,” he told the Major League Baseball website in 2012.
Olivier says barre workouts, which provide similar advantages, have had fewer takers. “Barre has been the hardest class for men to try, and the reason for that is because they associate it with ballet,” she says.
“Barre is really helpful for both genders because we do more reps with smaller amounts of weights and props, like a ball and exercise band, which puts less pressure on the joints.”
After a knee injury from playing basketball and football, Arin Pinto, 33, shifted to barre classes at Define: Dubai to maintain fitness levels with a high-intensity, low-impact workout. “I ended up being the only man in class,” he says. “It was awkward at first, but they turned out to be the best workouts I’ve had in a very long time, so I’ve stuck on.”
Pinto admits that the movements looked delicate when he first joined, but soon realised it was hard work. “I couldn’t keep up with the women in the class. These sessions make me sweat without damaging my joints. They are also good for my neck and shoulder aches caused by our technology-driven and sedentary lifestyles.”
Real Pilates in Dubai has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of men attending its classes in the past seven years. Founder Reza Alavi says men are influenced by sports figures who have publicised its benefits, including more core strength, flexibility and balance.
“Men now see these big athletes, be it golfers like Tiger Woods or basketball players like LeBron James, doing Pilates and they get curious,” he says.
“One of the things we have noticed is that whenever we put up a picture of an athlete doing Pilates to complement their sports career, we get several enquiries from men about how it can benefit them.”
A study in 2007 by the Society of Medicine and Sports in Brazil found that Pilates was a therapeutic tool to increase the flexibility of athletes highly prone to shortening of the muscular length due to the sports they practise.
Another exercise style that hasn’t taken off with men is pole fitness, even though movements require full-body strength. Jade Elward, a pole fitness instructor at Polercise Dubai, says they had tried to attract men by launching a pole callisthenics class for men this year. “It created a buzz, but when it came to crunch time, no one showed,” says the 23-year-old. “I think men still see this as too girlie. They don’t realise how difficult it actually is until they start.” She says she does modify sessions if men join her mixed classes. “It would be more shoulder mounts and dead lifts on the pole,” she says. “We once had a group of men take the class, and I was teaching them inversions, lots of conditioning, pull-ups and core exercises. They found it really challenging and would leave tired and sweaty.” And, possibly, pleasantly surprised, too.