In a Time of Broken Masculinity, this is what I want my Male Yoga Clients to Know
I wrote an open letter to my male yoga clients, which Elephant Journal published. Please enjoy!
To my male clients:
Before beginning this letter, I feel obliged, given the current state of contemporary gender politics, to first note that this is not a letter of sardonic wit, but is, in fact, a letter of genuine appreciation.
I recently met a brilliant female scholar at the University of Oxford, and through our conversation, we discovered a shared interest in India. My love of India came not through yoga, but through my husband, as it is the country of his birth. As a result, I have visited places most westerners would never stumble upon—deeply conservative ancestral villages, in which women veil their entire bodies. (They are not Muslim as one might initially suspect. They are, in fact, Hindu.) As is so often the case between western women who have travelled in India, we began discussing issues of female safety. Fifteen years ago, the scholar lived in New Delhi and travelled solo throughout northern India; I was stunned, as travelling in that region as an unaccompanied female is something I would never do, nor would my husband’s family advise. (It seems that every day now, on page three or four of a Delhi newspaper, there is another story of gang rape.) The conversation veered toward teaching yoga in the west and questions about the nature of the men who attend my classes. The scholar noted that she still regularly encounters male students who would rather only be taught by men. She assumed that this would also be true within the yoga community—that there would be men undesiring of being taught by a female yogini. And she is probably right. But the truth is that I don’t meet these men because they don’t come to my classes.
For weeks the conversation has pulsed through the synapses of my brain as I engaged with my male clients. Just last month, two middle-aged men, clients who have been with me for years, hugged each other after a practice. They embraced with such warmth that others paused, as they rolled up their mats, to watch them. A few women wiped tears from the corners of their eyes, and one texted me later about the awe of witnessing such a beautiful moment.
And it was a beautiful moment, but the truth is that moments of genuine affection between heterosexual men should not be so uncommon that it brings an entire room to a pause. The truth is that I should not have to write a letter like this, and yet, here I am, writing it, because we live in a time when it is unclear what it means to be a man, to be masculine. As a recent New York Times article suggests, “America’s boys are broken,” though I do not think it is limited to America.
Across too many cultures, men are left with too few options to express themselves. Anger is seen as appropriate, and why wouldn’t it be? Like animals locked in cages, some men must feel claustrophobic being unable to express emotions deemed too feminine—emotions like love, sadness, and vulnerability—emotions that are universal. To be vulnerable is a completely earthly experience—experienced by every living creature—and yet, for men, it is seemingly unacceptable.
So, we live in times when men are boxed in by culture and a hyper-sexualized media leaves women’s bodies vulnerable. In my teaching practice, I’m aware of any shirt that might expose too much cleavage, though I would not so much as blink if a man removed his shirt entirely. Men can wear leggings that outline genitalia, though women’s leggings must be tight enough to hug the figure, but loose enough that no “camel toe” is exposed. Issues of women’s bodies, clothing and the media, are pervasive, but what occurred to me only recently is that I have never felt sexualized by any of my male clients. Perhaps I am lucky, or perhaps yoga is one of the few sanctuaries that “softer” men have for expression. (I should note here, regarding those “softer” men, that my client who has been with me since the beginning of my teaching practice—for six years—a wonderful man who has devoted his life to championing the welfare of the planet, was imprisoned for protesting the Iraq War by illegally attempting to take hammers to bomber planes at a British airbase. If that is not macho, I do not know what is.)
Though, it is not to say that I haven’t had my yoga practice sexualized by other men. Once, a man I knew from walking my dogs, told me that he desperately needed yoga, but that he could not come to my class for he would get too “excited.” I’m grateful that he spared us that situation (though he could have spared me the comment). Likewise, another man (who had a dubious plan of starting a yoga vacation business), asked me how I dealt with the men who came to my classes.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you’re a pretty girl. Surely some of them must come onto you.”
Somehow, he did not realize that he was the only person objectifying me, rather than my phantom predatory male clients.
Yet, despite the positive experiences I have had with so many men in this world, in my adult life, I have become angry. Like so many women, I’m furious that I am less safe than the opposite sex—that I know about carrying keys in my fingers when I’m walking alone at night, that strange men feel it is completely acceptable to interrupt my conversations or comment on my body, that I have the transit police number on speed-dial after a group of men drunkenly groped me on a train two years ago. I am so justifiably angry.
Yet, what I see in the media, day in, day out, is this continued hellish blame game: feminist or anti-feminist, black or cop, right or left. The list is endless and global media, more often than not, acts as a constant cultural war-mongering machine. And this is not to say that we should not feel called to action—we live in worrying times—but we should also pause, much like those embracing men in my class did, and value what remains right in our world. Male or female. Black or cop. Right or left.
It never occurred to me, until speaking with that female scholar, that the men who attend my classes represent some kind of elevated man, unafraid of being led by a woman. I wish we lived in a world in which I did not have to be grateful for this, but we don’t, and I am. I am so profoundly grateful for the variety of men in my classes.
Three weeks ago, a police sergeant who has been coming to my classes for the last two years told me an astounding story of his singing Carpenters’ songs to deescalate a situation involving a young autistic man wielding a knife. Until only two weeks before the event, police protocol would have called for the young man to be tasered, which would have been hugely traumatic for all involved. But due to both better training and a willingness to be soft, to be nonviolent—to practice that basic yogic precept of ahimsa—trauma was averted and goodwill restored to a level greater than what it had been before, because this sergeant made the profound decision to practice empathy and peace—to literally sing instead of tase.
The men in my classes do more than just show up as men willing to participate in something too often seen as feminine. They also heal wounds within me that harken back to a childhood spent with an abusive alcoholic father. When I share practice with these men, who become vulnerable in the space, through their injuries, their emotions, their cultural understandings of masculinity, I am also healed. I am shown the divine masculine again and again.
Yet, these classes are only possible because of the majority who attend, the women, who also heal wounds in myself and in each other. My gratitude toward the women is no less than it is toward the men, though encouraging a woman to attend a yoga class led by a female is far less challenging than encouraging a man to do the same—and again, I wish it was not our world, but it is.
Despite noting my equal opportunities gratitude, there will be those who will want to nail me for taking this conversation back to men when men have dominated recent history and continue to wield far more power. Yet, from my vantage point, it seems that many who seek power are the most afraid, the ones least able to surrender the ego, the ones who remain frightened children in adult bodies uncertain how to navigate the world with any kind of credible emotionality. Those men in my yoga classes hold their masculine power so strongly that they do not care about being seen as “feminine.” They express themselves freely; they sit on mats surrounded by women, with a female teacher advising about body mechanics, breathing techniques, and ways of leading a more compassionate life. They respect the space and the practice because they respect themselves and their masculinity.
Gandhi knew that to achieve his aims, violence would never suffice. Yet, culturally, violent rhetoric is the norm. To begin to heal, we must begin in an energy of nonviolence, and gratitude is what I know to be the most effective healing energy of all. So, here is to you, the beautiful, strong men of yoga, who honor the divine feminine whenever it is presented. Here is to you, the resilient men who are unafraid to embrace, unafraid to be vulnerable. Here is to you, my male clients who bring light each time you step up to the mat. And, of course, here is to you, every person of this world—male, female or otherwise—working to bring harmony and peace to an increasingly discordant world.