The MR PORTER Guide To Yoga
Like kale, you know it’s good for you. But like kale, you fear it. So how to get your downward dog on without looking like a dork?
Real men do yoga. In fact, we always have. This strength, flexibility and meditation exercise that originated in India thousands of years ago was exclusively practised by men until it became an excuse for both sexes to appear in public in the sartorial equivalent of a sausage casing.
The lifestyle benefits of yoga are endless. It keeps you younger for longer by improving flexibility and muscle tone, alleviating aches and pains, helping combat stress and decreasing your chances of picking up injury. Oh, and did we mention it improves your performance in both the boardroom and the bedroom?
Many top athletes and men’s men swear by yoga including Messrs LeBron James and Victor Cruz as well as the All Blacks rugby team. Some of them insist, somewhat ill advisedly, on calling it “broga”. The rubber-limbed footballer Mr Ryan Giggs, who was still playing for Manchester United into his forties, attributed his extraordinary career longevity to years of downward dogging. He even brought out a sports yoga DVD.
Yet while it sounds like a good idea in theory, most men are not into chanting and meditating, or getting too up close and personal with a stranger – who they may subsequently bump into awkwardly in a supermarket. The thought of contorting yourself into an empurpled shade worthy of Sir Alex Ferguson in a mirrored studio predominantly full of women is not an attractive one.
But – and how to put this politely? – you need to get over yourself. Don’t be so rigidly inflexible. These days there are dozens of different types of yoga-inspired classes aimed at us men without a) the spiritual side; or b) the condescending smile when you can’t touch your toes.
If you don’t know your asana from your elbow, fear not. Here’s a gentleman’s guide to getting started – no “omms” (unless that’s your thing) and definitely no “arrghs”.
1. Pick the right class
First things first, don’t just walk in blindly to any class without knowing what it is, or else you might unexpectedly find yourself falling asleep to whale music or boiling in sweat that isn’t all your own. Before you over-stretch yourself, it’s a good idea to start with an introductory course of hatha yoga (see our guide to class types below) to give you a solid grounding in the core “asanas”. These are the basic poses that form the foundations of more complex postures. You’ll also learn important skills, such as breathing correctly. Don’t laugh – this is harder than it sounds.
2. Put your best foot forward
All yoga is practiced barefoot, so leave the socks and trainers in the locker room. Then look at your feet. Are they fit to be seen in public? It could be worth booking a pedicure in advance, or at the very least buying some dry-skin-busting foot balm. May we recommend Margaret Dabbs’ Foot Hygiene Cream from our sister site Net-A-Porter, as well as a Czech & Speake Manicure Set?
3. Wear the right kit
Some poses will leave little to the imagination so looser clothing is more forgiving than skin-tight sportswear. Dark colours will minimise the appearance of perspiration – although this is of limited use in a sweat-soaked Bikram studio. Refer to the shopping list below for a Dri-Fit T-shirt from Nike or some jersey shorts from Sunspel. For reasons that need not be discussed, form-fitting underwear is a must. Particularly while wrapping an ankle around your head (a pose called durvasana by the pros).
4. Assume the right position in the room
Rubber mats are always provided but you may wish to bring your own should lying facedown in someone else’s body musk not appeal. Ideally you need at least two metres between you and your neighbouring flexible friends. If the class is too crowded you risk suddenly finding someone’s backside in your face. And that’s a very different kind of club. Worth noting: there’s no point trying to hide away at the back. Your yoga teacher will move around the room correcting or adjusting poses so you may as well dive in and position yourself somewhere you can see your instructor – you might actually be able to learn something.
5. Stretch don’t strain
Men are naturally less flexible than women but remember, this is not a competition. Yoga is designed to be a personal practice where you work at your own limits. Even if initially those limits mean you can’t bend down much further than your kneecaps. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for help. There’s a fine line between a perfectly executed asana and a sharp, worrying twang of a hip flexor. But that muscle ache you feel the next day? That’s normal – it’s the power of yoga getting to work. Honestly.
6. Adhere to the etiquette
Unless you’re doing a bastardised yoga gym class to pumping beats led by someone shouting orders on a Madonna mic, most yoga classes are peaceful and reflective. Some have twinkly music and candles. You get the picture: this is quiet time. So don’t strike up a conversation about last night’s big game mid-pose. It’s also best to avoid the grunts and groans that are commonplace in the free weights room. Finally, this isn’t the place to close that big deal: leave the Crackberry in the office. Namaste. (That’s yoga-speak for hello/ goodbye by the way – and yogis love it.)
What’s the right yoga for you?
Don’t wander into the wrong class. Your gym may offer hipster variations but here is a summary of the most common types…
HATHA YOGA refers to any form of yoga that's gentle and slow-paced, usually well suited to beginners learning the basic poses.
ASHTANGA YOGA offers an intensely physical work-out. Participants often work at their own pace (called Mysore style) with the instructor assisting and teaching new poses as previous ones are mastered. It’s good for core strength.
BIKRAM YOGA is the one you’ll have heard of that is essentially taught in a sauna – a room heated to 40°C with 40% humidity. In such a sweat-fest it’s difficult to maintain dignity but your muscles will feel more flexible.
VINYASA YOGA is the general term used for faster-paced “flow” classes. These classes can cross various schools of yoga, and they will move faster than a hatha class.
IYENGAR YOGA can be an effective form of physiotherapy for those recovering from an injury. The slow, precise movements focus on alignment and props such as chairs, blocks and straps are used.
KUNDALINI YOGA incorporates meditation, breathing exercises and chanting for a more ethereal experience. Great if you’re in touch with your spiritual side; uncomfortable if you’re not.
POWER YOGA is very active and athletic and has evolved to include different poses for strength and core work, though many of the Ashtanga poses remain.
SPORTS YOGA is an amalgam of sports-specific movements in various forms of yoga designed to lengthen muscles that are shortened by common sports such as running, cycling and football.
YOGILATES is a combination of hatha yoga and Pilates and is aimed at developing complete fitness, strength and flexibility.