Warriors from Mars: The benefits of yoga for men
We demystify the concept of masculinity by exploring how yoga can help men expand their understanding and expression of themselves.
The battle between the sexes
Many centuries ago in India there was a bodhisattva (enlightened person) known for his immense compassion and kindness. When Buddhism reached China they could not believe that a man could embody such compassion and decided to build statues of a woman instead. This woman became known as Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion.
A story like this brings to question what determines masculine and feminine energies. Are men naturally inclined not to express and share emotions of vulnerabilities? Does the physical, biochemical and emotional structures make men strongly armoured warriors with a thick layer of protection and self-control?
In harmony, yin and yang's dance of oestrogen and testosterone supports men with physical, mental and emotional intelligence, strength, growth and wellbeing. Their balance enables empathic expression of feelings, sexuality, motivation, attention and nourishment.
From an early stage in our lives, the freedom of expressing ourselves and our emotions seems to be defined by our gender. Several studies have shown that young boys are more expressive in their emotions. However during adolescence these emotions start to turn inwards with a risk of repression. One reason why “young” men lock in emotions is to prove male hood by conforming with gender-based roles of society.
Union of yin and yang
According to Daoism, China’s oldest spiritual tradition, our essence is neither man nor woman. Daoism considers nature to be the superior union where human life is subject to its laws. Human actions that question, challenge or interfere with this will disturb and destroy a natural balance of yin and yang.
Yin has reflective, intuitive, nourishing and receiving qualities and is often seen as more hidden, stable and static. Yang on the other hand is expansive, strong and expressive with more active, dynamic and strong qualities.
Symbolically, yin and yang are explained as feminine and masculine energies that merge into a union. Within this concept the masculine energy cannot come to expression without feminine energy and vice versa. The masculine, yang qualities of a man therefore cannot completely thrive without “feminine” yin qualities such as reflection, sensitivity and empathy. The retuning to this natural balance is a constant dance between yin and yang.
His and hers
A possible key into the biochemical differences between men and women are the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen. Like yin and yang, they form a union. Testosterone is more dominant in men and oestrogen more in women.
Testosterone’s masculine quality supports muscle growth and strength, bone growth, body hair and sex drive. Testosterone, in its yang nature, enables to express physical strength, take up space, be playfully competitive, express passionate sexuality and be focussed, protective and calm. Since the 1980s men’s average testosterone levels have dropped by 1 per cent every year. This declining trend has an effect on men’s reproductive, mental and physical health.
The benefits of yoga for men have been documented and shared for many centuries where specific yoga poses have been shown to improve physical and emotional courage.
Oestrogen’s feminine and more nourishing and supporting quality is considered yin and is a key hormone for the growth and development of ovaries, uterine and breast tissues. A decline in oestrogen has been shown to affect mood, motivation, pain regulation and arousal and a deficiency contributes to anxiety, worry, depression, low self-esteem, aggression and low sex drive.
In harmony, yin and yang’s dance of oestrogen and testosterone supports men with physical, mental and emotional intelligence, strength, growth and wellbeing. Their balance enables empathic expression of feelings, sexuality, motivation, attention and nourishment.
If suppressed or repressed, the balanced expression of yin and yang is at risk. Physical strength turns into weakness or becomes forceful; healthy competition changes in lower self-esteem or aggressive behaviour; passionate sexuality loses expression with low sex drive or sexual domination; focus and calmness is overtaken by blind fury, fatigue or restlessness.
Armour against emotions
Minimising a display of emotions is often considered a masculine quality of self-control as emotions can be considered a sign of weakness or treated with pettiness. The pressure of perceived social masculinity takes its toll on men’s mental health. The internal defence against vulnerability and emotions leads to disconnection from inner feelings. A commonly used term for this in psychology is male alexithymia: a difficulty to articulate, filter and express inner feelings such as hurt, vulnerability, intimacy, desire or admiration. The inability to recognise and express emotions can result in explosive outbursts of contained emotions or numbness and even depression.
According to a 2015 Australian study into male hood by the Sax Institute for the November Foundation, men are less likely to seek help and more likely to suffer from social and emotional stress. More shockingly, emotional repression and masculine pressure showed to influence body-image distress, anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.
The practice of yoga enables men to expand their understanding and expression of themselves and their inner feelings.
The primary text of Daoism is Laozi’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way). It was written in a time of continuous conflict between rivalling civilisations led by men. Some historians believe that the goal of the Tao Te Ching was to help end conflicts and aggression. The scriptures emphasise becoming a good person. Not by doing good things but by cultivating yin qualities such as gentleness, reflection and peace — qualities that Western culture might view as feminine. More than 2500 years later the same inner conflicts still seems to dominate the perception of masculinity.
Be a brave warrior: practise yoga
The way for men to end inner conflict is to become brave warriors and protectors of the yin within the yang by familiarising and expressing vulnerability and inner feelings. How? Through yoga! The benefits of yoga for men has been documented and shared for many centuries where specific yoga poses have shown to improve physical and emotional courage.
In 1974 the Benarus Hindu University conducted a study to assess the effects of vigorous yoga on men. After a six-month trial of yoga, testosterone production increased by 57 per cent. In 2001 Russian scientists conducted a similar study where yoga increased testosterone levels by 16 per cent. Scientists believed that specific yoga poses revitalised the endocrine gland by improving the microcirculation of blood though men’s organs.
Both testosterone and oestrogen share a similar structure as the stress hormone cortisol. During longstanding social, emotional and physical stress, testosterone and oestrogen are reduced in order to keep on producing cortisol. This negatively affects mood, alertness, physical strength, presence and sleep. Indirectly yoga has shown to support and boost the parasympathetic nervous system. This calming effect lowers cortisol and improves testosterone and oestrogen levels.
On top of this, the practice of yoga enables men to expand their understanding and expression of themselves and their inner feelings. Studies have shown that a three-six month yoga routine for men consisting of pranayama (breath techniques), yoga asana (postures) and meditation improves sleep, mood and social interactions.
Reclaiming strength and openness
So does yoga make men softies? No, men who practise yoga feel physically and mentally more resilient and strong. It increases feelings of self-worth and masculinity where men become socially more open towards each other’s experiences and feelings. Especially when groups of men practise together.
The following poses help to honour the yin and yang of oestrogen and testosterone in men. They stimulate blood circulation within the testes, calm the nervous system, improve strength and stretch in the back of the body and help to open the heart. After practising this yoga sequence, it might as well be time to reclaim the true identity of Guan Yin.
A yoga sequence for men
Incorporate these poses into a daily practice with warm-ups such as sun salutes. Build strength, resilience and openness by holding these poses for three-five deep breaths.
Cobra pose (bhujangasana)
In the aforementioned studies this pose turned out to be the optimal testosterone booster. It stimulates blood flow in the back muscles and the testes, promotes flexibility and movement of the spine, and supports a greater body-mind state.
This pose is about empowering the body to come up through the strength of the back muscles. Be sure to use the back muscles to come up with the chest before using the arms.
Lie face-down with the legs extended, feet hip-distance apart and the tops of the feet on the ground. Place the hands below and slightly outside the shoulders. Rest the forehead on the floor. Breathe in and down into the lower abdomen; breathe out, pull the belly in, press the pubis and tops of the feet deeper into the earth and extend the tailbone. Breathe in; come up with the head, neck and shoulders. Keep moving slowly and dynamically until the spine feels warm and the abdomen can support the backbend. If the back muscles are engaged and fully supportive, start to extend the arms slightly while keeping the chest lifted. Keep the pubis and tops of the feet still connected with the earth. Exhale when coming down slowly, rest for a few breaths.
Locus pose (shalabhasana) traditionally is a pose aimed to lift up the legs by engaging the hamstrings and glute muscles. This preparation is aimed to extend each leg while engaging the glutes and hamstrings independently, without dropping into the lower back or ribs or lifting out of the hip.
Come onto forearms and knees; engage the muscles of the core by energetically drawing the knees and elbows together. The spine is straight with the neck in line with the spine. Lift the left knee up and towards the chest without rounding into the back. Flex the knee as much as possible. With a flexed knee, lift the leg slowly back and up, flex the knee as much as possible by engaging the heel of the foot towards the buttocks, the spine is straight the whole time. As slowly as possible, extend the leg and notice the strong engagement of the glutes and hamstrings.
Flex the knee again and reverse the movement (heel to buttocks, knee to chest, knee to ground). Repeat up to five times before going to the other side.
Locust pose (shalabhasana)
This pose stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It strengthens the neck and pelvis. This pose requires physical effort by applying pressure of the arms into the floor while engaging the back muscles. Start with raising one leg at a time before lifting up with the legs.
Lie facedown on the mat, the legs extended with the inner feet touching. Place the arms stretched under the body with the palms of the hands down. Stretch the chin slightly forward, extend your tailbone and press the pubis into the hands/ground. Breathe in; hold the breath while pressing the arms deep down into the earth as you lift one leg or both legs. Beginners raise the leg up on an inhalation. Exhale while lowering the legs.
Chest opener with twist
This pose helps to open and stretch one side of the chest. It prepares the body for deeper breathing. Men tend to be tighter in the chest and shoulders. This helps to open and expand the chest. It is an ideal preparation for bow pose (dhanurasana).
Lie facedown on the mat reaching the right arm out at shoulder height, the palm facing down. Place the left hand below and slightly outside of the left shoulder and chest. Press the left hand deeper into the earth while turning the body on the right side, keeping the right arm reached out. This creates a stretch in the right arm and shoulder. If the stretch is deep enough, stay here and breathe calmly and deeply. If needed, bend the knees up to offer some support. To increase the stretch, lift up the left leg, bend the knee and place the foot behind the right leg on the floor. Breathe and stay for three-10 breaths. Come back slowly and rest for a few breaths before changing sides.
Half bow preparation
Lie facedown on the mat and come onto both forearms, keeping the elbows under the shoulders. Place the right forearm parallel with the mat. Bend the left leg; reach the left arm back to hold on to the outer ankle. Breathe in, lift the chest, breathe out, press the pubis deeper into the earth and extend the tailbone. Breathe in; lift the left leg up from the ground while pressing the ankle deeper into the hand. The right leg and foot press back into the earth
Breathe here before changing sides.
Dhanurasnana (bow pose)
This pose stimulates the adrenal glands and kidneys as well as improves reproductive function. It opens and stretches the chest and heart space.
Lie facedown on the mat. Bend both knees and reach the arms back, holding onto the outer ankles. Breathe in, lift the chest, breathe out, press the pubis deeper into the earth and extend the tailbone without lifting the legs. Breathe in; keep the chest lifted and open while you lift the thighs off from the floor. Press your ankles into the hands; reach the feet higher towards the sky while engaging the back muscles. Stay here for three-five breaths and try to strengthen and deepen the bow by engaging the back muscles, lifting the inner thighs and pressing the ankles into the hands. Slowly come down on an exhalation. Rest with the face on the backs of the hands and, if needed, windscreen-wipe the legs from side to side.
Finish this sequence with a seated twist and a forward fold before resting in savasana.