The practice of yoga is growing in popularity among men, who are discovering its benefits for endurance and muscle tone.
Real men do yoga in the UAE
"No, you won't have to stand on your head ... No chanting, no incense, no gurus," John Capouya boldly exclaims in the introduction to his best-selling guide book Real Men Do Yoga. "And no, it isn't a chick thing".
Attempting to show that yoga's not solely a preserve for the fairer gender, Capouya quotes a string of male sports stars in his book, who all rave enthusiastically how the ancient mind and body practice has improved their on-field performance. These include the baseball pitcher Barry Zito, the basketball ace Kevin Garnett and the American football running back Eddie George, who graces the cover of the book, showing off his ripped physique.
But it's not just US sportsmen who are fervent exponents. The Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs has put the longevity of his playing career down to his keenness for yoga; Scotland's habitual grand slam runner up Andy Murray is a diehard fan; while the New Zealand rugby union team turned to a yoga instructor to prime them for their recent world cup-winning campaign.
Earlier this year, it was reported across world media outlets that elite warrior units in the US, such as the Navy Seals, were insisting troops take up yoga to reduce injury levels and instil mental toughness. The latest research from the UK from the University of York, released last month and contributing to a growing body, showed that 12 weeks of yoga classes led to a small improvement in how well participants could perform their daily activities.
Yet despite this roll call of burly blokes, all proclaiming its benefits for endurance, muscle tone and strength, yoga is still seen by many as irredeemably feminine - particularly in this part of the world.
Paul Jones is one of the few male yoga teachers in the Emirates, having taught at the Zen Yoga studios in Dubai since 2008. Although the gender imbalance has improved recently, he says men are still well in the minority in his classes. He blames this on cultural perceptions.
"Many guys think that physical activity has to be rigorous and competitive - either lifting heavy weights or bashing into each other," says Jones. "If it's not this, then some think 'what's the point of it?' Because you're not building up big muscles, and it does involve some degree of self-reflection, it's seen as something very feminine, which actually if you try it, you'll find it can be as exhausting and challenging as many other sports."
Jones explains that despite yoga's association with ladies, when the exercise originated in India 5,000 years ago, it was exclusively practised by men. So why did this change when it spread outside the subcontinent?
"The first people to bring it to the West were men in the 1960s," says Jones, "but it arrived at a time when a new emphasis was being put on women's health and well-being, and so it kind of became a symbol of women's empowerment and feminism. Then there was the way it was marketed, with celebrities like Madonna and supermodels doing it. So it became a kind of aspirational activity for a lot of women.
"But now I think more emphasis is being put on men's well-being and health, so hopefully we'll see more guys getting involved."
Ria Haffar, who teaches at the Abu Dhabi Country Club, believes that fear of being outdone by women is another reason why many men are put off yoga.
"At my mixed classes, I think there were guys who'd want to take part, then they'd come along, see all these females and run away," she says. "I guess they thought 'they're all really flexible and I'm not' and feel intimidated and shy."
Hence Haffar has now started male-only beginner's classes, which she says have been a success, drawing up to 15 men per session.
"I see the guys, and they're embarrassed when in the mixed class, but they're not when they're here," she claims. "But when men do yoga, they're brilliant at it because they have more strength than women.
"And it's doing them so much good. You're filling up your lungs with more oxygen, so you're feeling more wide-awake."
Among the benefits that a regular yoga practice produces outside the class, says Haffar, is that it "improves concentration and focus".
The Body Tree Studio in Abu Dhabi, formerly known as Yoga Tree, has also recently launched male-only sessions. The instructor Michelle Daniel saw other reasons to get involved.
"Men tend to get very stressed at work and they can really let this stress get to them, which is a reason so many guys suffer from heart attacks and other diseases," she says. "This is particularly the case in the UAE, where there's not really any escape from your pressures.
"The thing about yoga is that it creates a kind of sanctuary away from the stresses of your life. You know, you're just alone on the mat and you're breathing deeply and relaxing. So it's very good for things like high blood pressure, hypertension, insomnia and other stress-related things."
Those men attending the classes confirmed that yoga had had notable positive impact on their lives.
Marc Weston, a 48-year-old British civil engineer who has become a regular at the Abu Dhabi Country Club classes, said years of cycling at a top level had left his legs "as stiff as a board".
"I couldn't even touch my toes when I first came, now I can and it's also really improved my cycling," he says. "I'm stronger, more powerful, have better endurance and I recover quicker. I guess some guys won't want to do it because they think it's a girls' thing. If you come and try it, you'll find there's nothing girlie about this. It's hard and it hurts."
Rafael Suffredini, 22, an American student who goes to the Body Tree Studio classes, confesses to other advantages of the exercise.
"I started because my mum told me to do it because I had really irregular sleeping patterns," he says. "I always thought it was a flamboyant kind of thing, and that guys didn't really do it. But my mum said I was being stupid and told me to go. I started, and now I come twice a week and it's definitely helped me sleep a lot better at night."
As Copouya writes in his conclusion to Real Men Do Yoga: "so we've demolished the idea that yoga is a chick thing".
Those who try the practice are on board; whether the rest of the male population agrees, however, remains to be seen.
- With files from Reuters
- Paul Jones teaches mixed classes at Zen Yoga Studios in Dubai Media City at various times, with 90-minute classes costing Dh75. For more information, call 04 367 0435. Men-only classes take place at Abu Dhabi Country Club at 6.30pm on Sundays, which are free for members and Dh50 for non-members. Call 02 657 7777. The male classes at Body Tree Studio are on Wednesdays at 8pm, costing Dh60. 02 667 6579
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