My local Yoga Studio started a Men’s Yoga Class. It was mostly men who were new to Yoga and who struggled with the postures. Men tend to be strong but stiff, we tend to be overweight and are not used to exploring this in the company of others. We were a far cry from the nimble women you see in the Yoga books, but we struggled on, taking care of our damaged joints. We stretched and still appeared to be immobile. I loved that my body started moving again.
Slowly the men dropped away and the class died for lack of support. I was sad at this although not surprised. There is a stereotype of the man who practices Yoga, and that does not fit with the ordinary, middle-aged man. The men in the class felt out of place and felt they were intruding into their wives’ space, even though it a men only class.
I shifted to ordinary classes full of women. One of the classes spent a little time studying the philosophical background to Yoga through ‘The Yoga Sutras’, the most important work on the subject.
Through this I started to understand the background to Yoga as something more than physical exercise. For me it started to go deeper. I learned what it is for and what it is aiming to achieve. This is a controversial area because Yoga is not about achievement. It is not about competition or being better, but it is about challenge with yourself. The challenge is not to do more complex poses but to find the point at which you stop trying and just do it. This is where many men fall down in Yoga, they want to compete and be better than the next man.
The Still Point
I discovered that it originated to enable men to be able to sit still in meditation for hours without the body interfering with the depth of the meditation. Meditation then becomes about stilling the mind and touching Universal Consciousness.
It was about allowing the body to be still, enabling the body to truly relax. While this seems simple anyone who meditates regularly will attest to it being elusive. I started to focus on this during my practice and look for the ‘Still Point’. This is the place where you are relaxed and alive, where the muscles are in balance and where you can forget about the pose and focus deep within. It is the space between action and reaction in your body.
T. S. Eliot caught it well in his poem ‘Burnt Norton’, part of the ‘Four Quartets’:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…
This is fine if your intention is to practice on a regular basis, or even if you just want to become fitter, but how can this help the ordinary man trying to come to terms with his masculinity and his place in the world?
What I found was that when I started to explore this place of stillness I could look at myself in a more objective way. I needed to observe how I was inside and how my body was reacting as well as engage my logical brain in assessing what I was trying to do with the pose. To do all this I had to step away from my ego and feel what was happening inside. It was no longer about competition and seeing how far I could go, it was about relaxing into the tension in my body and letting it just be.
It was essential that I had awareness and understanding. I needed to be fully aware of my body, what it was doing, what it could do and what it was saying to me. I needed to understand the body’s capabilities and the intention for the pose. On top of this I needed to develop compassion for myself. I needed to move beyond my ego and be honest about what I could and wanted to do.
This objectivity was a revelation to me. I saw how much it was about me but not about my ego. In the meditation practice that emerged I started to go deeper into this idea of observing myself and discovering how I was in the world and how I wanted to be.
Three Essential Qualities
Indian philosophy talks about three essential qualities that we all have. They are inertia, activity and balance. It talks about how our personalities are composed of differing amounts of all three. Much of my life I was deep into activity, when I was not wallowing in inertia. What I needed to find was the balance that enabled me to view the world in a way that was neither aggressive nor helpless.
Many men find their masculinity in aggression, whether emotional or physical. They find it difficult to let this go for fear of appearing weak. Other men give up in the face of all the negativity associated with being masculine. Their inertia turns them into weak men. Neither holds the key to a more humane masculinity.
Achieving balance allows a man to look at himself with compassion and, therefore, to look at the world with compassion. It allows him to see his effect on the world and how the world sees him. Whatever area this comes out in it enables a man to move forward in a creative way from this compassionate place of stillness.
Maybe Yoga is not the answer to all the struggles that men have, but, as I can confirm, it can enable you to become a more open and caring man. It enabled me to leave anger and dominance behind and find the desire to listen and understand more.
That was a monumental shift for me.
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Image Credit: Flickr/Christian Ostrosky (Creative Commons)