It doesn’t sound or feel like a group of men preparing to engage in physical exercise. As tracksuit tops come off, the good-natured joshing and predictions of humiliating defeat for the opposition are missing and an air of calm pervades.
But that’s probably because we’re not going to be thrashing each other at squash or outdoing each other lifting weights. It’s inner calm that we’re after at this men’s yoga group in Ruislip, Middlesex.
After a bit of general chat about the traffic our teacher, Bram, invites us to lie down on our mats. It’s a Thursday. It’s been a long week and many of us are facing the prospect of a weekend of DIY and kids so Bram starts us off with some simple breathing exercises to help relaxation. Then we move on to some stretching and side bends.
As a man at my usual yoga classes I can expect to be in the minority – often the sole man there. The women in the class don’t say so but I imagine they regard men at yoga classes as sweet but out of place. But here it’s just us men, ranging from our 30s to our 60s, who are stiff, slightly awkward in our movements and plagued with bad backs but keen to learn. In fact, this class is the perfect antidote to the idea that yoga is for babysling-carrying, hemp-chewing New Men.
After a few minutes, though, I’ve forgotten that I am in a class exclusively for men and I’m just doing my own yoga thing. If someone else’s down dog is better than mine, then I haven’t noticed. In fact, the atmosphere is gently supportive as we struggle to get our bodies to do what we want them to.
Afterwards Bram explains that the content of the class is part-tailored to the gender of the participants: “I’ve included breathing because it’s relaxing, something that men find difficult – and because breathing is not competitive.”
Other than relaxation there seem to be two common reasons for joining the group. The first is a bad back (“mandatory here”); the second, which causes much amusement, is enforced enrolment by wives.
No one will actually admit to choosing a men-only class but one participant, Michael, says: “I went to Keep Fit with my wife and she got it straight away but my arms and legs were all over the place.”
David agrees that being the only hairy, sweaty man among a yoga class of women can be difficult. “It just feels more comfortable here somehow,” he says.
“I’ve played a lot of football and tennis but I never realised how inflexible I was until I came here,” says Peter. “I really don’t think I’d have enjoyed it in my 20s but, whenever I come back from a session, my daughter says, ‘Dad, you look so relaxed’. That’s the important thing, isn’t it?”
SIMON BROOKE Financial Times Weekend Supplement 15 April ’06 Page W.12