This morning I found myself assuming the position in a dimly-lit room, sweaty and surrounded by a bevy of lithe women bending over. No, I wasn’t in every teenage boy’s wet dream – I was in a studio at the gym, losing my yoga virginity.
Now a man going to a yoga class is about as surprising as a woman going to the football, or being able to vote. But this was my first time and, being naturally but not unhealthily sceptical about anything with even the merest whiff of joss sticks, I didn’t really know what I’d get out of it. Would I be as rigid as a petrified Queen’s Guard? Would my dodgy knee hold out? Would I look like a plank while planking? Would I get lost in a cauldron of chanting and chakras?
I was curious about what wonders awaited beyond the studio door as I’d never done a class in my life, choosing instead to only venture as far as the free-weights floor. Stories from the missus suggested I would hate classes. All that jumping about while an overenthusiastic, neon-clad Mrs Motivator bounced around shouting into a headset while Eye of the Tiger blares out seemed a bit, well, silly for a guy. But there was something in her description of yoga’s control and strength that intrigued me and I somehow rationalised it as being a more manly way of spending an hour than Body Pump.
On opening the door to this new mystical world, I was told by the missus that the guy that normally takes the class is very methodical and helpful, so I was pleased when the same softly-spoken Kiwi strode in. He was a confident consummate pro; his way was to instruct and aid rather than be prescriptive and judgemental, ideal for someone who didn’t know his Bridge from his Bow.
Starting off with some light stretching was fine – I used to play quite a bit of decent level sport back in the day don’t you know and still limber up properly before embarking on a standard gym session, so I was in familiar territory. But what I was surprised to feel was how deep each stretch was, no matter how basic in the beginning. It was a peculiar but obviously not unpleasant sensation. Further discovery was etched on my face as each stretch developed and evolved as the hold went on, pulling my muscles and joints into new dimensions.
As the class went on, the moves became more complex. My Kiwi mate repositioned me a couple of times. In the balance moves I discovered one side was stronger than the other. I recalled the agony of a groin injury long forgotten as I eased out into a painless stretch. I found a weird lump on the front of my shin I probably won’t go to get checked out (think it was a bulging vein). I got a worrying amount of satisfaction from how powerful I thought my legs looked.
And once the lights came on at the end after a few minutes of melting into the yoga mat, I felt great. Not euphoric like when you’re blowing hard after a killer bit of Swedish House Mafia-fuelled cardio nor pumped like that post-weights warmth, but awake, alive, clear-headed, but simultaneously a little bit away with the (non-spiritual) fairies in the best possible way. When I nailed a stretch it felt like no other and, in a similar way endorphins coursing through your veins give you a natural high after pushing it on a run, it gave me real gratification. How something as seemingly simple as elongating a muscle could do that I have no idea, but it did. And who am I to question it?
Upon embarking on another downward dog, I started to wonder why there weren’t more men in the class. I’m a convert (if that doesn’t sound too cultish) so would like to share a few tips and observations from one virgin to another, with the aim of encouraging more guys to feel the benefits of this female-dominated exercise. Whether you’re going for injury recuperation, greater flexibility or understanding of your body, yoga has something for you.
1. You don’t have to be spiritual to get something out of it
As someone who only ever read the bible because I went to one of those schools that made you go to chapel, I was not going into it looking for an awakening or to be touched by a higher being. The exercise itself was enough for me. I understand it can vary from instructor to instructor, but the Kiwi’s focus was on form rather than humming and inner peace. That said, by the end I did feel rather dreamy and ready for the day so there’s definitely loads to be gained from it if you’re after that additional spiritual level.
2. Take it seriously
This isn’t your “stretch” before your five-a-side hoofathon so don’t be fooled into a false sense of security by the early, simpler stretches. Assume it’s all easy-peasy and you’ll not only not get as much out of the session but also run the risk of falling in a sweary, sweaty heap in front of a room full of other people, clutching your rapidly swelling ankle.
3. Listen to the instructor
Concentrate on the moves and try to understand what you’re doing them for and which part of your body you’re trying to explore. Hitting the sweet spot of a move is incredibly rewarding so be prepared to take instruction and back off where necessary – sometimes a backward step is the best way to advance. You’re actively trying to avoid any pain, so pushing as far and as hard as you can might be doing more damage than good – leave your macho man act at the door.
4. Keep trying, even if you’re doing it wrong
I was all over the place in some of the moves, wobbling in the Lord of the Dance in front of a class of near-perfectly poised positions. But I never became disheartened and kept on trying – this really is a discipline where practice makes perfect – and noted even some of the old hands having to put their foot down/ elbows back/ feet forward when the going got tough. It’s not easy for a reason; the sense of achievement when you master a move far outweighs the feeling when you’re having a spot of bother.
5. Be more fragrant than vagrant
Might sound obvious but please be clean before you go in. Depending on how busy the class is, you are likely to be in quite close quarters with your fellow yogaists and it does get sweaty (especially if you make the step up to a bit of Bikram). Be a good classmate and make sure your odour doesn’t make the others think more medication than meditation. See also: making sure your feet are in good nick and your toenails are clipped.
6. Go it alone
Going with your other half can put you both very much in a relaxed mood and will iron out any lovers’ tiffs. Go with your mates and you’ll berk about, giggle, put people off and won’t do the moves properly, which kind of misses the point. I probably wouldn’t have spontaneously gone to a class without the missus’ influence but I highly recommend popping down to your friendly neighbourhood class and having some proper me-time.
7. Be careful what you eat before
It may sound like something out of a Benny Hill sketch, but do be aware of eating or drinking anything beforehand that might make for an uncomfortable 45 minutes bent double, desperately trying not to break the peaceful silence by farting in the face of the poor young lady on the mat behind. Better out than in is not going to go down well in an enclosed space.
8. Wear something appropriate
I’ve talked about avoiding inappropriate gym wear before, and yoga is no different. You need something flexible and that you’re not going to get tangled up in so that vest that doesn’t cover your nipples or baggy trackie bottoms aren’t going to cut it. I opted for shorts but be sure to get the ones with the built in pants, that way you can be sure that when you’re mid-Warrior, the mouse is staying firmly in his house. No one wants to see that.
9. Be polite
Aside from the fact that if you’re spending too much time eyeing up the girls in yoga pants you’ll not be doing the postures properly, much more important is that it is totally unacceptable to ogle. Not just frowned upon, unacceptable. The positions are already exposing and complicated enough without anyone having to worry about where your eyes are looking so be a gentleman not a gym-perv and keep your peepers firmly shut.
Obviously I’m no yoga Yoda but I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go. See you in the studio – just don’t laugh at me when I face-plant the mat after my Tree has gone timberrrrr…