With so many benefits, why aren't more men doing yoga and Pilates?
John Manrique, cofounder of Revolutions Cycling Studio in Jupiter, Florida, is an indoor cycling instructor and sports enthusiast. “I knew I needed to add flexibility training to my routine and was interested in yoga, but . . . I never seemed to have time for [a class],” he says.
Manrique’s first yoga experience was in a combination indoor cycling and yoga class. “[After taking the fusion class] I felt the immediate benefit that yoga provided my cycling. It was the push I needed to make yoga part of my fitness routine.” Manrique now attends a yin yoga class weekly, making it an integral part of his training.
Before Anthony Dominici, a Los Angeles–based executive producer and filmmaker, discovered that Pilates was named after Joseph Pilates, he thought ‘pilates’ “sounded a little ‘light’ for a workout.” But then he began having back pain. “My wife encouraged me to go with her to a session, and I felt better immediately,” he says. “I’ve been training now for 3 years. My back pain is gone. My upper body and core are stronger. Maybe they should start calling it ‘extreme core ripping’ or something [else that sounds] intense?”
Like many men, Manrique and Dominici were interested in either yoga or Pilates but had a difficult time taking that first step. Once they experienced specific benefits, however, both became dedicated regulars. Yoga, Pilates and other mind-body classes have so much to offer men—what’s keeping them away, and how can we bring them into our sessions?
Barriers to Practice
While yoga and Pilates are different disciplines, seasoned practitioners say participation barriers for men are similar, ranging from general issues like public image to specifics such as teaching styles. Naturally, men, like women, will gravitate toward activities where they feel encouraged and welcomed by trainers who lead in ways that make them feel successful. Experts have identified the following image and marketing obstacles for men:
For women only. Most marketing and media coverage showcases women, and historically, more women have been attracted to these disciplines. While Joseph Pilates was a man—and he trained boxers—his method became popular among dance professionals, a community that has attracted more women than men. “In almost every ad or article that covers Pilates, all the images are of women,” says Bruno Bosardi, owner of the Body Alchemist, a Pilates and GYROTONIC® studio in San Diego. “The general public thinks Pilates is for women.”
Gentle exercise. “Unfortunately, mindful movement has been tagged as . . . a ‘nonsweat’ workout,” says Stacey Lei Krauss, owner of willpower FIT STUDIO in Denver. “Mindful movement gets pigeonholed into something that it’s not,” says Kevin Bowen, creator of The Prime Male in Denver. “The perception of either [yoga or Pilates] still is that it is not ‘macho’ enough or really designed for men.”
“I remember thinking that yoga was going to be easy or that it wouldn’t have enough intensity to keep me interested,” says Peter Guinosso, E-RYT 500, a yoga teacher in San Francisco. While this perception is evolving as more professional athletes add these disciplines to their training programs, the “easy” exercise image persists.
Studios all owned and operated by women. “Studios that are fully owned and operated by women [and] have all women working on staff . . . put out that girly vibe even when it’s unintended,” says David Moreno, RYT-500, of San Francisco, author of a soon-to-be-published book, Men & Yoga: From Shiva to Swenson. “Studios that have a male owner or director tend to attract more men.”
The same holds true for Pilates. Says Bosardi: “Many studios have all female trainers. We have two male and two female instructors right now. We have about 30% men clients. It’s important for men to see other men doing the exercises.”
No awareness of benefits. Tom McCook, co-owner and director of Center of Balance, a yoga and Pilates studio in Mountain View, California, has observed that many male clients turn up after getting injured, and then they realize the benefits, rather than knowing beforehand that yoga and/or Pilates can help with injury prevention. “Pilates is well-reputed for its ability to lean, lengthen and tone the body,” says Lindsay G. Merrithew, president and CEO of Merrithew Health & FitnessTM in Toronto. “However, to encourage more men, there needs to be a heavier emphasis on [the method’s] ability to develop strength, enhance athletic performance and assist with injury recovery.”
Rather be doing sports. “Many guys already have a sport that fills up their free time—cycling, rock climbing, basketball, etc.,” says Moreno. “It’s not always easy to get them to add something else that might benefit them—usually [that doesn’t happen] until they’re injured.”
The key, according to Ken Endelman, founder and CEO of Balanced Body in Sacramento, California, is both to focus on men’s desire to be better athletes and also to promote the benefits of Pilates, which include improved flexibility, core strength and agility. “[Pilates] will increase athletic performance in the activities they’re involved in, such as golf, football, running, skiing, etc., while also decreasing their chances of getting hurt,” he says.
Want practical, not cosmetic, results. Often, marketing focuses heavily on how yoga or Pilates participation improves appearance. “Not one man [at my studio] does it for cosmetic reasons,” says Valentin, owner of Pilates Body by Valentin, in Pleasanton, California. “[The male client] doesn’t come to me to look good. He comes to me to feel good. It is purely functional for daily living or for sport.” Other veteran instructors agree that most of their male participants train to improve sports performance, prevent injuries or alleviate pain. As Dominici said, “I’m not as concerned about my booty!”
The Man: A Special Population?
Experts think that teaching style itself is a significant barrier for many men. The consensus is that men and women generally require different instruction techniques. Fitness pros are trained to adapt communication styles and exercise programs for specific populations, such as kids, teens, older adults, recreational athletes, or people with chronic conditions. Since a man’s mind and body are different from a woman’s, it makes sense to modify teaching methods and moves for men as well.
A Man's Mind
“Men think differently than women,” says Valentin, who expresses concern that others might “give her the evil eye for saying such a thing.” However, contemporary neuroscience backs up her observation. Michael Gurian, counselor and founder of The Gurian Institute in Spokane, Washington, and author of What Could He Be Thinking?: How a Man’s Mind Really Works (St. Martin’s 2003), explains that men learn differently from women as a result of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus developing differently. These changes occur in utero. There is a gender spectrum, so some differences are more amplified in some males and females than others.
As learners, men are typically more kinesthetic and visual. The male cerebellum—the “doing” center of the brain—is larger and more active than the female’s. More of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to spatial and mechanical functioning. The right side of the male brain is very spatial and graphic. “Boys and men learn better with movement and pictures, rather than with just words,” Gurian points out.
The hippocampus—the brain’s memory center—processes memories differently in the male brain. “Quite often, for males to remember [incidents, they need to involve] significant physical or kinesthetic engagement,” says Gurian. “This does not mean that boys and men can’t memorize while sitting in a chair staring at a book. Of course they can. But for the kind of learning [it takes] to do yoga or Pilates, they tend to need a lot of physical movement.”
The following teaching tips are based on an understanding of the male mind:
Show, don’t tell. “Demonstrating an exercise is better than lengthy verbal cues. To reinforce what you’ve just taught, let each person in the group demonstrate the position back to you, so that your teaching is experiential and kinesthetic,” says Gurian. “If you just use words, you’re only stimulating the left side of their brains.”
Play video clips. “Showing males pictures and graphics is a smart way to teach because it activates the right side of their brains,” Gurian adds.
Use mirrors strategically. “I have success when I use the mirrors sideways [with men and invite] them to take a glance at their side posture and check in periodically,” says Claudia Micco, yoga and Pilates trainer at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Resort & Spa in Maui, Hawaii.
Use few words, and make them concrete. “Verbal cues for male clients should be short and precise,” says Gurian. “This is absolutely crucial if you want to expand your male client base.” Valentin and Bowen recommend teaching with a “command” style. “I call it ‘coaching,’” says Valentin. “Some people think it’s yelling. My manner is assertive.”
Micco tones down flowery cues and long-winded metaphors. “When I have mostly men in classes, I change my verbiage to be more inclusive of little words that might bring them into their bodies, such as using references to golf or sports.” Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, professor of exercise science at Auburn University, in Montgomery, Alabama, suggests using simple cues such as, “Pull your kneecaps up.”
Teach one focal point at a time. For example, if you want to focus on breath, cue breathing with each move, rather than offering multiple focal points. “Men just want it simple and clear,” says Bosardi. “Don’t overexplain. Don’t critique too much.” Bosardi adds that he doesn’t even use names for individual exercises but rather takes his male clients through moves step by step.
A Man's Body
Given that a man’s body is different from a woman’s, specific modifications are required. While much depends on an individual’s age and ability level, men in general have less flexibility, a higher center of gravity, a thicker back and, depending on muscular development, bulkier muscles than women do. “Men tend to be tighter, especially in their hips, spine, hamstrings, pectorals and upper traps, with a tendency for a forward head,” says McCook. “This is indicative of current lifestyles and sitting time.”
“Men have a higher center of gravity and more developed quads than women,” says Olson. “The hamstrings tighten against [the quads] to counteract the forces, and men end up tighter than women on both sides of the upper leg. Many Pilates exercises are excellent for addressing this.” Merrithew notes that men often have weak pelvic-floor and postural muscles.
The following teaching tips are based on modifications for the male body:
Emphasize the stretch. “Potential male students need to hear that they don’t have to be flexible to take and benefit from yoga practice,” says Nicole DeAvilla, E-RYT-500, yoga therapist educator in San Francisco and author of The Two Minute Yoga Solution (Bush Street 2012). “It’s important for yoga teachers not to make the goal of any pose or sequence to ‘be there’—like in a magazine or book picture—but rather to ‘be here’ in the present moment. Let men students know that the act of stretching will benefit them more than whether or not they can touch their toes.”
Provide props. Bosardi gives his male Pilates clients props right away. “I want to make sure every man who comes into the studio has a good experience the first time.” Useful props include cushions, blankets, blocks and stretching straps.
Modify moves. Bowen has created specific Pilates modifications. “If it’s a straight-leg seated forward-spine-flexion movement, I will seat men in a bent-leg position so they can easily perform the forward spine flexion.” Modifications are equally essential for yoga postures.
Target tight muscles in a warm-up. “I address men’s typically tight muscles in the warm-up so clients have more success later in the workout,” says Bowen. “I also don’t call it a warm-up but rather ‘functional movement exercises.’ I’ve found that some men don’t think the warm-up is really exercise, and they become impatient. If I explain that it’s functional movement preparation, it’s received better.”
Emphasize strength and make them sweat. Most men want to really “feel” that they’re getting a workout. “Younger men are going to be attracted to rigorous practices like ashtanga and vinyasa,” says Moreno. “Offer an intense, sweaty class that focuses on the ‘athletic’ part of yoga, or offer heated vinyasa classes,” suggests Guinosso.
Pilates practitioners agree. “Make them sweat,” says Endelman. “Men love that.” Says Kraus: “A number of men who train with me are all fit; they include athletes and past athletes of all ages, from 24 to 68. All of these men are looking for mindful methods of intense work.” Regardless of age, most male participants enjoy really feeling their muscles at work.
Keep a sense of humor. One professional football player who was speaking about practicing yoga with his teammates made the comment, “It’s not pretty!” Keep a sense of fun and perspective so that people feel good about their effort, regardless of appearances.
Drawing More Men Into Classes
Many industry pros bemoan public-image issues, Endelman says, “but over the years we have found that the individual facility really has to step up and get [members who are men] involved. If the club itself doesn’t make some noise and let [men] know how good [Pilates] is for them, then all of our shouting and ‘Real Men Do Pilates’ campaigns really don’t matter.”
Experts with broad-based male clienteles offer these valuable suggestions for increasing participation:
Athletic and fusion programs. Classes like yoga or Pilates for cyclists, runners or athletes in general speak to specific interests and tap into athletic communities. Branded programs such as YogaFit®, willPower Method®, CORE or CoreAlign®, and DDP Yoga by Diamond Dallas Page, a former professional wrestler, all attract male participants. These may not be “pure” expressions, but they are inspired by yoga or Pilates and are often a springboard for people to deepen their practice if interested.
Equipment and bare feet. “Mindful equipment-based programming such as TRX® Suspension Training®, Pilates, ViPR™ or yoga flow help many men, since the ‘distraction’ of a piece of equipment feels safe,” says Krauss.
“Weighted props like dumbbells and rings are . . . attractive because men are often accustomed to the idea of weighted resistance,” says Olson. Offering barefoot training that blends different types of fitness, including cardio, is another way to increase numbers as interest grows.
Men-only classes. “What has worked best for me,” says Moreno, “is a program I developed called ‘Yoga for Guys: Men’s Kula,’ which is cotaught by male teachers within the men’s community. Together we bring in more men to these monthly classes or workshops than we do as individuals. The men get exposed to a variety of styles, get to check in and feel part of a community. Men need more prodding [than women to create community], but once there, they get excited and feel the benefit.”
“Bring a man” events. Many men first come to yoga or Pilates with their wife or partner, or at a partner’s suggestion. Invite existing members (men or women) to bring a male friend or partner for free, or host a Valentine’s Day “bring a partner” event. Micco, who teaches at a destination resort, offers couples’ classes and “honeymooner duet” classes.
Advertisements and education. Using marketing and educational materials to promote the benefits of yoga and Pilates for sport and active functional living is essential. “Both teams that played in the 2014 Super Bowl [the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos] practice yoga,” says DeAvilla. Let men know that.
Corporate workshops. Bring programs to where men are, such as the workplace. “More companies should promote this type of work, as it helps people perform consistently,” says McCook.
Gay-friendly atmosphere. Krauss notes that many of her “mindful men” are gay. She recommends connecting and advertising with local gay publications. Being a gay-friendly facility and promoting yourself as such will boost numbers.
Shorter classes. Since yoga and Pilates training compete with other leisure-time activities, offer shorter, 30 to 45-minute classes in prime-time slots. Also, consider offering 15 to 30-minute movement sessions at your facility with either an instructor or a video display to allow men to experi- ence what mindful movement offers.
A Strong Sense of Self
Mindful practices like yoga and Pilates have the power not only to improve our physicality but also to strengthen our connection with the self, regardless of gender. The mind- body man and mind-body woman can each use mindful practices to balance feminine and masculine qualities and to experience an integrated sense of wholeness.
“We all walk onto the yoga mat because we’re struggling or working with something—a tight psoas or hamstring, a tweaky shoulder, a broken heart or a struggle with weight concerns,” says Guinosso. “Men and women all come for different reasons, but in the end, we’re all the same. We all come to reconnect to something in one way or another.”