Yo-guys: Real men do the downward dog

Despite it’s non-competitive nature, yoga is striking a pose with males in search of greater flexibility and relaxation, writes Deirdre Reynolds.

Yo-guys: Real men do the downward dog

Despite it’s non-competitive nature, yoga is striking a pose with males in search of greater flexibility and relaxation, writes Deirdre Reynolds.

It's sweaty, stretchy, and can slay up to 600 calories an hour — so just why aren’t more yogis yo-guys?

With a studio in virtually every town across the land, yoga has become one of the hottest workouts of the past decade, outstretching even rugby and weight-lifting in popularity, according to Sport Ireland’s most recent annual report.

Taking place next Monday to Friday at venues nationwide, Nourish #YogaFSTVSL (fstvlr.ie), Ireland’s first ever national yoga festival, shows that it’s here to namaste.

Despite proven health benefits including improved mental focus and increased flexibility, getting Irish men to give it a go can still be still difficult, according to instructors.

“Yoga is not competitive, which is why maybe men aren’t as attracted to it,” says Colm Walsh of Yoga Dublin (yogadublin.com), which has studios in Ranelagh, Rathmines, and Dundrum on the southside of the city.

“It’s not like doing a triathlon, where you compare how many miles you can run or how fast you can cycle. There’s no judgment — it’s your own practice at your own pace.

The main problem men have is that they think they’ll go along to a class, and it’s going to be just full of these Instagram girls who can do backbends on rocks by the sea, and it’s not the case at all

“In fact, both the main schools of yoga in India were led by men, BKS Iyengar, who died a few years ago, and K. Pattabhi Jois, who was a proponent of Ashtanga yoga, and they both came from a dynasty that trained under another man, called Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

“Originally, it was mainly taught to boys of a higher caste, so it is funny how the West has inverted that over the years.”

Doing little to subvert the stereotype, while there’s now a ‘Yoga Teacher Barbie’, Mattel has yet to come out with a Ken doll whose signature pose is downward dog.

After turning to yoga while undergoing treatment for cancer, Eoin Kelly admits to finding the whole thing a bit woo-woo at first — until it completely transformed his mental and physical health.

“About five years ago, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent two years of chemo,” says the 38-year-old from Mullingar. “By the middle of my treatment, I was down at below 60 kilos, and I’m 6ft 3”, so I was literally skin and bone.

“Call it intuition or whatever, but something told me to go and get a yoga mat. I started doing some meditation and yoga, and everything just went up — my weight, my strength, my attitude. I can confidently say it saved my life.

“Before I got sick, if someone mentioned yoga to me, I would have laughed in their face,” he confesses. “And that kind of macho attitude is pretty common among men, in my experience.

“Women are naturally a lot more mature than men. From an emotional intelligence point of view, I think what yoga gives men, more so than women, is the ability to cope a lot better.

For me, I found that yoga just helps you to slow down a bit and make better decisions. As a result, you feel a sense of empowerment because you’ve dealt with stuff on your own — you haven’t gone out drinking or abused yourself in some silly way.

Reformed hellraiser Colin Farrell previously revealed how hitting the mat helped him turn his life — and looks — around.

“It’s made a big difference to my life” the 42-year-old fan of hot yoga told Access Hollywood. “It takes you out of your head for a while and puts you back in your body.”

With other celebrity poster boys including Michael Fassbender and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, for others, the discipline — which dates back more than 5,000 years — could be as much about cultivating a six pack as cultivating inner peace.

Although still outnumbered two to one in many of her classes, yoga instructor Lydia Sasse says Irish men are slowly warming up to the idea of bending it like Beckham — who, incidentally, is also a huge fan of the activity.

“Twenty years ago, the aesthetic ideal for a man was that very big, brawny, Arnold Schwarzenegger kind of look,” explains the Dublin-based founder of Yoga with Lydia.

“People were looking to guys who could lift huge weights.

“Now the aesthetic is more lean, with defined muscle groups, and you just can’t get that if you only do gym work.

"When you see someone with very defined biceps or triceps, or a really defined six-pack or legs, chances are they’re into yoga. It’s no different for men as women.

What yoga doesn’t do is give you really big, thick muscles because it’s all bodyweight exercises — you’re not using any external weights.

“When I started teaching yoga two years ago, it would have been almost entirely women,” says Sasse, who teaches Hatha yoga, among other styles, at venues throughout the capital.

“Since then, the number of men has slowly increased.

“Usually, they come along either because they do a lot of cycling or they do a lot of football, and their hamstrings are really tight or they’re tearing groin muscles because they’re not stretching enough.

“Once they come to a class, they realise it’s a real challenge — it’s not just people sitting around deep breathing. Then they get hooked because there are so many other wellness benefits.”

Stateside, while men are still in the minority in the ashram, they’re gradually getting more Yin-to it. In the four years from 2012 to 2016, the number of male practitioners rose by almost a tenth, up from 17.8% to 28%, a Yoga in America study found.

Back at home, soccer hardman Roy Keane, rugby legend Paul O’Connell, and GAA All-Star Michael Darragh Macauley have all been doing their bit to transform its image from girly to burly.

“When I started off about 20 years ago, there certainly was not that many men doing yoga,” recalls band manager-turned-yogi Walsh, who first went along to a class because he was suffering from back pain, “but I’ve really noticed a change in the last few years.

We are getting a lot more men coming to classes, which is really encouraging. You’re getting GAA, rugby players, and soccer players realising that they can prolong their careers and protect themselves from injury

“Yoga is a nice, sustainable exercise,” continues the instructor, whose classes include pilates, Ashtanga, and restorative yoga. “It’s not weight-bearing and opens you up slowly, so it’s a very good companion to other forms of exercise like triathlons.

“It’s a much more relaxing pursuit, in my opinion, than being in loud, fluorescent-lit gym with people shouting at you. But we also have hot yoga for men who feel like they really want a workout and to get deeper into postures by using heat and stretching.

“Conor McGregor has made barefoot fitness of all types more acceptable for men,” he reckons. “It’s no longer just about putting on your runners and running for miles.

“The main thing I’d recommend is to mix styles, and not just to look for the physical challenges — remember there are also rewards from restorative yoga.”

After setting up Yoga for Hardy Bucks (facebook.com/yoga4hardybucks), using stand-up comedy to encourage men to get their ‘om’ on, today Eoin Kelly is flat to the mat teaching Vinyasa flow yoga, Yin yoga, and restorative yoga, among other forms, to fellow blokey blokes, as well as women.

“My classes would be about 50:50 lads to women now, and sometimes maybe more lads than women,” says the former office worker. “I think more people are becoming aware of the fact that you need to stretch the muscles out, especially people who are doing CrossFit and that type of Olympic lifting.

“My plan originally was to help people like me, so when I see a younger version of me coming into my class, where I ran into all that trouble with sickness, I just think it’s great.

“It was bad decisions that got me on a trolley. It wasn’t bad luck, or anything like that. It was not eating right, not taking stock of stress, not taking ownership of my own life and being grateful for it.

“By practising yoga and meditation, it’s helped me cultivate all those types of things. I’m back playing rugby as well. I played six senior games last year, and I’m planning on playing a full season next year.

“Chemo broke me,” says Eoin, “but yoga helped me rise from the ashes.”

More in this section

Your digital cookbook

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up