It is hard to imagine today that yoga was once a purely male domain. Originally developed by men for men, the relationship has now reversed. A study by the professional association of yoga teachers in Germany from 2018 showed that nine percent of all women in Germany regularly climb onto the mat. For men, on the other hand, only one percent find their way into the yoga class. The fact that comparatively few men practice the Indian doctrine is partly due to the imbalanced gender ratio. The courses are filled with women, men are outnumbered - and feel out of place. Eric Sommer, yoga teacher and mindfulness trainer from Hamburg, counteracts this problem with an all-men class - called "Yogajunx". With the course, Eric Sommer wants to give men an introduction to Indian practice. His offer is intended to create a safe space in which male participants can feel comfortable and overcome fears and advantages.
(Eric Sommer and the author, who is also a yoga teacher, didn't know each other before. Nevertheless, they were on first name terms - that's common in the yoga scene.)
Can you still remember the first yoga class you attended yourself? What was the ratio of men to women in the lesson?
I would say it was 90 percent women. My first real yoga class was Hot Yoga. The style is very physical and actually has a solid male component. But even then, at least 90 percent were women. At that point it was already clear to me that yoga is generally understood to be more of a women's topic, so I knew what I was getting into. I didn't even question that. Over time you become more sensitive and when I started teaching myself, I quickly asked myself why there were only women in the lessons.
And, why are only women in the hours?
Yoga used to be dominated by men. That has changed completely. I think that there is a barrier these days because for many men it is a women's issue when viewed from the outside.
What prejudices, apart from the classes being too feminine, keep men away from yoga?
The physical aspect is one of the biggest hurdles: "I have to be super flexible to do yoga", "I have to be slim", "There are women who wear tight panties and I come with my baggy shirt and my Belly". Such thoughts inhibit many. Or the thought "This isn't a sport at all" - yes, it's not a sport. It has a physical component, but it's not a sport. Then there are prejudices like "Yoga is too spiritual for me", "They light candles and incense sticks and it's all esoteric". The high proportion of women is also uncomfortable for many. I had a class on Saturday with twelve women and one man who was new to yoga. He hid in the last corner and asked: "There are only women here. Is it always like that? Do you want me to come at all?" I was sorry, but unfortunately that's often the case. Many do not feel well.
From such reactions did you realize that there is a need for all-male courses?
At first I didn't even notice that there was a need. It was more of a need for me to get more boys on the mat. I saw that there weren't enough men doing yoga and wondered how these inhibitions could be broken down. Then came the idea of all-male classes. I started workshops before Corona and explicitly advertised them in such a way that the esoteric was left out. Men tend to find access to yoga through the physical. Gradually, the boys came - often motivated by the wife or girlfriend who is already going to yoga and persuaded the partner. The inhibition threshold is significantly lower when there are only men in the room. I've been offering the permanent class since September since I opened my yoga studio. The offer is very well received, the hour is usually fully booked.
What motivates men to come to the course - apart from the encouragement of their partner?
It's similar to women. Firstly, it is about the physical. You want to move more and become more flexible or reduce back pain. That's always a point that resonates. Recently, the desire to relax has come more often. The participants want to come down and stop the thought carousel. With the people who come regularly, you notice that a community is developing. People come together who didn't know each other before and who would never meet professionally or privately because they come from such different corners. This is where they find each other, understand each other and perhaps exchange ideas about topics that they don't usually talk about - men otherwise often solve problems by themselves. This is an opportunity to address such issues openly. Before or after class we chat a bit, maybe we'll have a beer together.
Do the men who practice with you regularly notice physical and mental changes as well?
Total. One came up to me the other day and said he wanted to learn more about meditation. The men feel how yoga is good for them on different levels.
It sounds like men aren't that averse to the spiritual and emotional aspects of yoga after all.
I introduce men to yoga through the physical aspect. Once they are familiar with it, openness to other topics will come naturally. We will then also go to the spiritual sides of yoga. For example, I incorporate breathing exercises or philosophy from the history of yoga, sometimes there is meditation. We just went through the seven chakras, which I always briefly teased. Excitingly, the boys were very interested and asked every week which chakra it was today. So it's not a purely physical class. The lesson itself hardly differs from a mixed class.
However, a man's body is anatomically different from a woman's body. Are there certain postures that are more suitable for men's bodies or postures that you tend to leave out in the men's class?
Generally speaking, men are more immobile than women. Nevertheless, I don't leave anything out, but there are other focal points. For example, when it comes to hips. In men, this is usually rather stiff and tight. When we practice hip openers, the postures need to be approached differently. Men need a bit more time to warm up the spots. Women tend to have more leg strength, while men tend to have a stronger upper body. Arm balances are therefore easier for men, while standing balances are easier for women. There are other exercises that involve anatomy as well. When I'm lying on my stomach, a woman's body parts are different than a man's. He may then have to quickly sort out something with a courageous grip that he would otherwise pinch off. These are things that are sometimes difficult in a mixed class.
I also notice differences in the mindset. We say in the men's classes - as in all other courses - you shouldn't look left and right, yoga looks different for everyone. Nevertheless, of course we all do it. Women actually have a different ambition and are often inclined to squeeze into the poses despite their physical limitations. Men are more willing to accept when they can't do something. You might think men are more competitive, but I don't experience it that way in yoga. They tend to accept their physical limitations.
How would you describe the mood in the men's hours?
The general atmosphere in male classes is completely different than in mixed classes. That's the highlight for me. It's not that the men don't take the practice seriously - on the contrary. They are focused, but there is an incredible amount of laughter. And cursed too. The concentration is there, but with less stillness. There is moaning in between and it is asked much more often. Men dare to do that more in this setting than in mixed classes.
You mentioned it before: candles and incense sticks are rather decried. Do you adapt the atmosphere in the yoga studio to the men?
We would rather not sing such a courageous Om, for example. That too can gradually creep in when the men realize that yoga can work on different levels, but otherwise my studio, the "Mattenplatz", is not playful anyway, but rather simply furnished. This is also an important issue. When I, as a man, walk into a room where lilac cloths are lying around everywhere and little flags are waving on the walls, I enter a strange world and see my prejudices directly confirmed. The inhibition threshold is different than in a room that is relatively plain. We also have a small altar in the corner and light incense sticks, but it's all very subtle.
Your course is well received by men, but some women are attracted to the offer, as you reported in a podcast interview. How do you react to such criticism?
Those were isolated cases. For example, I had that at a workshop where two women signed up. When I informed them that the course was only for boys, they replied that it was sexist and discriminatory. You just have to breathe that away. On the other hand, participants in the men's classes told me that they were already approached by women in mixed classes, according to the motto "we don't think it's good that a man is there and is constantly looking at my butt". My course has nothing to do with exclusion or with us separating genders on a sexualized basis. It's about creating a space where the boys feel comfortable and feel like doing yoga. I can see how well the concept is being received, so it has a right to exist.
What three tips would you give to a man who wants to start yoga?
My number one tip is: Just do it! And when in doubt, go to different teachers to see where I like the atmosphere and where I like the person in charge of the class. But it is no different with women. The second thing would be to go for it. Yoga is not a sport, it can trigger something on a wide variety of levels - get involved and give breathing exercises or meditation a chance. And the third tip would be to not be afraid. Neither from making an idiot, nor from not being fit enough. Yoga is not about getting your hands on the ground, but what happens along the way. Yoga is possible for everyone and can benefit everyone, on a physical and mental level.
Sources: Professional Association of Yoga Teachers