It’s an uncomfortable truth: When it comes to men’s workouts, yoga isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But this type of workout can help men target areas often overlooked by other exercises, as well as boost overall health. So buckle in, put on your workout gear, and get ready to enter the world of yoga.
Key Elements of Yoga Practices
There are numerous types of yoga, but here we will be focusing on the most popular form, Hatha yoga. When one imagines breathing exercises, extended, athletic posing, and meditation to clear the mind all performed in sequence, that’s Hatha. When we talk about yoga here, unless we specify otherwise, we are talking about Hatha.
The breathing techniques utilized in Hatha yoga were recorded in both Buddhist and Hindi scriptures as early as the first century. However, yoga as a fully realized form did not come into being until nearly fourteen hundred years later.
Yoga was introduced to the U.S. in 1893, and over subsequent decades a greater emphasis was put on the impact it has on overall physical fitness and mental well-being. Given that finding a yoga class in any one location is fairly easy, the rest, as they say, is history.
Breathe in, breathe out. Many yoga courses begin with simple poses, while the yoga instructor encourages students to focus on the movement of the breath while they inhale and exhale. While this may seem a bit inactive compared to a usual workout, breathwork is fundamentally important and can have wide-spanning positive consequences as well.
Proper form matters when working out to avoid injury and improve performance. Just because we can’t see it as easily, why shouldn’t we extend the same consideration to our breathing when oxygen is so essential for us?
Breathing exercises make us more aware of what our body is doing and how we are doing it. By isolating a single parameter of physical fitness, breathwork encourages us to be more mindful of how we use our breathing and our energy at all points in time.
Extensive scientific studies have been done on yoga. One, in particular, found that yoga practitioners consumed significantly more oxygen than the control group. This increase in oxygen consumption correlated with both higher performance and lower incidences of cardiovascular disease.
The following is a simple breathing exercise: From a cross-legged position, arms gently resting on the thighs with your palms facing upward, breathe in and breathe out slowly. Try to inhale and exhale as much air as possible in a soft, controlled manner.
You should be breathing actively, the same as you would take an active focus on any workout. Identify how you breathe. Is breathing out steadily harder than breathing in? Is taking a truly deep breath difficult?
Your breath should be entering your body at a low point, causing your diaphragm and belly to expand rather than your chest to rise. Once you have gotten used to taking regular deep breaths, you can alternate the rate and manner in which you inhale and exhale. For instance, inhaling to a count of eight from your mouth, followed by exhaling at a count of sixteen from your nose... You can go on as long as you’d like, but spending just five to ten minutes regularly focusing on breathwork can be immensely helpful.
If, after doing these exercises, you feel a little more mindful about the way you are using your breath, then it’s working. While this activity doesn't break a sweat, it releases tension.
Yoga Workouts: Poses
Though breathwork may be perceived as sedentary, yoga posing is anything but sedentary. Posing in yoga has the benefit of working out your body while also serving to help with regular stretching. Though there are some extremely physical forms of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Hatha is considered gentle while still being deeply rewarding for both beginners and advanced practitioners.
In regards to physical fitness, yoga naturally assists with both balance and flexibility, allowing a wider range of controlled motions for the user. This is essential, as many workouts geared towards male athletes focus more on strength training or cardiovascular fitness while neglecting these forms.
However, yoga can also serve as an ancillary form of strength training, as some poses rely on specific muscle groups to support the weight of the body.
Below are a few popular yoga poses, ranked roughly in order of difficulty. Because yoga has been a popular form for decades now, it is also easy to find additional poses by taking classes at yoga studios or by doing a quick search online.
Also of note: Because many poses involve a high level of contact with the ground and the possibility of falling, using a yoga mat is common practice for practitioners.
Warrior Pose: In the warrior pose, the legs are spread apart, with one leg extending forward, knee bent in a lunge, and foot forward. The other leg extended straight behind with the foot resting perpendicular to the front foot.
Both arms should be raised outward to form a straight line from the tip of one hand, passing over the shoulders to the tip of the other hand. The torso should be turned so that the same arm and foot are extending forward.
Warrior pose is a great entry point into beginners’ yoga. It helps with balance, posture, and intentionality in future poses.
Bridge Pose: Resting your shoulders and your feet firmly on the ground, knees bent, begin to raise your hips and back so that only your hands, wrists, elbows, arms, and shoulders, and head touch the ground.
Your arms should be flat and your palms down towards your feet, and you may attempt to gently grab your feet or ankles if you wish to attempt a more extreme stretch. The bridge pose targets back muscles and also serves to stretch the neck and spine.
Tree Pose: To begin this classic pose, first raise both arms comfortably high above your head, and bring your palms together so that your arms face inward. With one leg firmly on the ground, the other raises, allowing it to bend halfway, to meet roughly around the knee.
The leg turns out so that the bottom of the raised foot is touching the side of the planted leg. If your foot cannot meet your inner thigh, your calves are a great starting point. Keep your gaze forward.
Tree pose improves leg strength by forcing a single leg to hold the entire weight of the body, as well as improving balance significantly. No worries if this one starts to pose problems-practice makes perfect, and there is a reason why yoga masters can spend a whole lifetime practicing their techniques.
Something important to remember about these poses: Breathe. The breathwork performed in the first step assists with the balance, focus, and attention demanded by the poses you must maintain for extended periods of time.
Despite the spiritual origins, meditation does not have to be spiritual in practice. While breathing and posing focused on the movement of the breath and body, meditation focuses on the movement of the mind.
Meditation is about enhancing your focus so that you will not be distracted by the worries of the world around you while doing other activities. In other words, intentionality.
When you work out, you should be working out. Not worrying about how long your commute is or what you need to do at work the next day. Meditation is less about clearing your mind so that it is empty and more about being at peace with it. This can help you live presently in the moment.
Of the three core tenets in yoga, meditation is the hardest to qualify briefly. Oftentimes in a classroom setting, the group leader will put the group through a guided meditation. “Imagine you are walking through a forest,” and the like. Giving structure to meditation allows the mind to focus on the immediate situation it is in and not be concerned with the past or the future.
Whatever your attention is called to when you meditate, focus on that. If your attention drifts, don’t reprimand yourself. Simply allow your attention to return to where it should be. Acknowledgment and acceptance are the key.
Yoga and Athleticism
The question of what yoga is and how to perform it yourself has been answered, but we would be remiss not to discuss any athletes who use yoga to reach the top of their game. LeBron James began integrating yoga into his fitness regimen early in his career to improve both his balance and flexibility on the court.
Yoga and Overall Mens Fitness
Yoga offers a three-pronged approach to men’s fitness. Breathwork improves both the rate at which we breathe and how effectively our body uses that oxygen. Posing pushes us to our limits, contorting our body and relying on it in new and powerful ways. Meditation clears our minds and helps us sleep better and exist in a more comfortable headspace.
Taken together, yoga offers men a powerful and underappreciated way to better interact with the world around us. Taken with a proper diet and integrated into our fitness regimen, it offers us the key to best interacting with our own bodies.