Posted in partnership with MindBody.com.
What is it like to be a man starting yoga for the first time? Of course, every man who has started yoga has a different story of their first lesson and their relationship with yoga. Every man is starting from a different place physically, mentally and spiritually, and will, therefore, be looking for and valuing different things in their yoga practice.
That being said, if you’re a man and your first experience with yoga was through the physical practice of yoga asana, then you were probably stiff and inflexible like I was when I started. Learning the difficulty and inaccessibility of many poses was both humbling and exciting for me. Exciting because it showed how much room I had for improvement and the potential for a whole new realm of movement possibilities. I wanted to be more flexible, graceful, and capable of doing fun body movements–and of course stronger.
I know this isn’t everyone’s goal in yoga. I can imagine for some people, the limitations in strength and range of motion might be frustrating, and all the necessary work to improve might not be worth it. For those people, I recommend a yoga asana class that focuses on breath and mental mindset/intention setting.
It is important to start your yoga journey with the knowledge that easily touching your toes or balancing on your hands in handstand does not make you an experienced yogi. Yoga is the union between mind, body, and soul into the present moment. A practice of meditation, pray, singing, volunteer work, philosophical study, dance, craftsmanship, and much more can all be yoga. What matters most is the intention, frame of mind, and heart. That being said, here is a list of asanas that all men might benefit from.
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
This is one of my favorite poses! When I started yoga my hamstrings were very tight, so Downward Facing Dog and flowing through Sun Salutation felt impossible. The tightness in my hamstrings gave a lot of resistance into my posterior chain (back body), putting limitations into my hips and pain in my lower back. So, improving my hamstring flexibility was priority number one. One of the benefits of Uttanasana is it inverts the head below the heart, which changes the flow of lymph in the upper body, promotes relaxation, and helps to stretch out the compression of the spine from gravity. I would always show up early to class to spend a few minutes in Uttanasana and loosen up my hamstrings for the rest of class.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Muhka Svanasana)
This is the pose that you will spend the most time practicing in Vinyasa or Hatha yoga class. Downward-facing dog (downdog for short) requires length through many of the body’s main muscles. While requiring lengthening, it also builds strength in many of the same muscles. You can expect stretched out legs and torso, stronger arms, a more free and open shoulder girdle and more. Downdog is also an inverting pose with the head below the heart. Some refer to this pose as a “resting pose,” but unless you are very open and flexible, downdog is a pose you need to practice in maintaining the actions necessary to do the pose well.
Crescent lunge or high lunge is a variation of Warrior 1, where the back heel is lifted instead of rooted. I recommend crescent lunge for men because it is easier to align the hips and stretch the psoas and hip flexors compared to Warrior 1. Not only is crescent lunge a power stance that can stretch open the hips, but it is also a pose that generates a lot of lift and length through the torso and upper arms. Over time, one may even be able to find a backbend in the pose.
Extended Side Angle (Parsvakonasana)
I recommend this pose for men because it requires open hips and inner thighs, something men tend to lack. While many poses stretch the hips and thighs, extended side angle does so from a wide power stance. Extended side angle is a strong, rooted pose that requires opening at the same time. Finding the right balance between firmness and softening is a balance we all need to practice in our lives.
Camel is a “heart-opening” pose, meaning that a lot of space is opened up in the chest for energy to flow through the heart and lungs, creating a strong stimulation to the nervous system. Camel pose is not the deepest backbend, but it can be a real challenge for beginners. For me, when I started practicing yoga asana, camel pose would make my heart beat climb and I would often come out of the pose light-headed or dizzy. The action of controlling the pelvic tilt and pelvic floor/diaphragmatic lift, the lengthening of the spin, the external rotation of the upper arms, and the bending backward from the mid and upper back are all quite challenging but worth the time and discipline for deeper backbends. Above all, camel pose taught me how to control my breath and diaphragm (bandhas) to keep my heart rate down; a very useful tool.
Chair pose is a power stance. It requires flexibility and focus. Aptly named “chair”, if a teacher holds you in chair pose, it will test your ability to “sit” with discomfort. But patience will reward a strong back and legs.
A pose most men could really benefit from, Goddess is a highly functional post that requires hip mobility. The ability to squat our butts onto our heels is something that many people in the East, Middle East, and Africa can practice throughout their lives. A Western lifestyle leads to the ever-decreasing ability to squat down. This will, in time, lead to the inability to easily get up and down from the ground, which is highly important for the elderly who need to be prepared in case they ever fall down. Goddess pose is a pose I’d recommend doing every day. Goddess is a calming yin pose to balance out the heating and energetic pose that is chair pose.
This is the pose I see practiced poorly, most of the time. Chaturanga is a difficult pose to do correctly, even for men with strong upper bodies. There is much more detail that goes into chaturanga than a simple pushup. Not quite like a pushup that requires the elbows to be opened wide, It the pose has the elbows drawn near the rib cage. In chaturanga, you need back –and chest–engagement. The key is to prevent your shoulders from pronating forward in the pose, creating a little retraction of the shoulder blades, which helps to build rotator cuff strength. Chaturanga is a difficult pose to master, but one that will lead to a solid foundation for sun salutations and more advanced arm balances.
This fun arm balance requires, focus, pelvic floor engagement, and a sense of play. Since crow is an entry-level arm balance, it is one students spend a lot of time with on their journey to more advanced arm balances. It is fun to watch students perfect this pose, as they start to become more compact and achieve more lift and levity while on their hands. The floating sensation you can achieve in crow pose will leave you feeling light and wanting to practice more. true yoga practice should engender that sense of play, lightness, curiosity, and desire to try again in all poses. These are attributes and characteristics to nurture for a happy life on–and off–the mat.
Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
One of the more eye-catching poses, handstand requires a lot of focus. Once you start learning, you will fall, again and again, so with this pose; courage is necessary. Handstands require you to confront your fear and move on anyway. Handstands teach that patience pays off. Nothing spells discipline and commitment like a straight inverted line. With plenty of details to focus on and become aware of, the handstand is a truly advanced pose, but can be fun to work on. There are many different ways to enter a handstand, as well as many different shapes to create while upside down. Handstand can lead to high levels of concentration and expressions of creativity.
Seated Twist (Ardha Matseyandrasana)
No practice is complete without several twists. There’s a saying that you are only as young as your back is flexible. Twists are necessary for keeping that youth. Every day, it is beneficial to twist and bend the spine, as that helps the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, as well as to help the organs detoxify and fulfill their functions. I recommend a seated twist because then the focus can be on creating length in the spine first, a solid position of the hips and shoulders, and a deepening of the breath which increases the benefit of the pose. These are all harder to achieve in a standing twist.
I still find great joy in practicing these poses. It’s important to remember that it’s less a matter of what poses you practice, and more about how you practice. For me, one of the biggest joys of yoga is pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal. Pratyahara is withdrawing from the external distractions and focusing on the sensations within the body. Drawing into the body and listening to it during yoga practice can be an act of moving meditation. In this state of mind, the benefits of a physical yoga practice can be better reached and enjoyed; on and off the mat. I encourage all men to give yoga, and its many different styles and approaches, a try.