5 Challenges Men Face on the Yoga Mat + How to Overcome Them

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The original version of this article was a guest post of mine, posted here on Yogiapproved.com. 


Yoga can challenge us in all kinds of ways.

Being a man, well that comes with it's own unique blend of struggles on the mat. Whether it's our anatomy getting in the way, or our egos taking a bruising - yoga is great at kicking our butts. 

We often have the strength component down, but find ourselves lacking in flexibility. That means many poses will be difficult right off the bat, and often even the simplest of poses are not accessible to us.

It can be super discouraging to see the rest of the class bending like a wet noodle when you can't touch your toes - but there are ways we can overcome these challenges, and reap the benefits for ourselves and our practices.

When you're ready, here are the 5 challenges men face on the yoga mat.


The Challenges

#1 Forward Bends

Forward folds can be a real eye-opener as to just how stiff your hamstrings can get. 

In the beginning there's every chance you won't be able touch your toes, or even your knees - and that’s okay.

Men often have tighter hamstrings and they're made worse by our usual activities. Old weightlifting dogma tells us a tight muscle is a strong muscle, and so stretching is overlooked by many in the gym.

If you have tight hamstrings, forward bends are going to be tough. We all know to bend our legs to protect our backs, but if you're bending so much that you're squatting rather than folding, then you're not getting the benefit of the stretch.

It can be really frustrating for men, as hamstrings can take a long time to unlock - especially if they've sat behind a desk for years. You might find that even after months of regular yoga classes they will stubbornly resist loosening up. 

It wasn't till I started spending 10 minutes a day – focused purely on stretching my hamstrings – that I started making real progress.

How to overcome this challenge: 

Practice stretching your hamstrings in isolation before attempting more compound movements. Reclining Big Toe Pose with the help of a belt around the foot is great at isolating the hamstrings from the lower back; allowing you a safe, deep stretch. Make sure to keep your knee bent when you lift it to your chest, before attempting to straighten it.

#2 Hip Openers

You need to stop comparing yourself to that yogini in the splits because you are not built that way my friend.

Men naturally have much narrower hips than our female counterparts, giving us a reduced external hip rotation. In practice this means those hip opening poses that girls seem to so easily float into, won't be accessible to us right off the bat.

Some hip openers such as Pigeon pose, also recruit further muscles into the stretch. If you've tightness in your hips, hamstrings, glutes or lower back - you may have difficulty with Pigeon. 

I also found Yin yoga to be particularly helpful; the longer time spent in poses allows you to comfortably reach a stronger stretch that can penetrate into the deeper layers of tissue.

How to overcome this challenge: 

Child’s Pose is a great way to ease yourself into hip openers if Pigeon Pose isn’t yet accessible for you. You can determine the intensity of Child’s Pose by how wide you spread your knees (the wider your knees, the deeper the hip opener). Use blocks to rest your arms or head on and gradually remove the props overtime so that eventually, you can rest fully on the floor.

#3 Backbends

Wheel Pose always looks impressive, but those childhood throwbacks to walking like a crab along the floor might make you think it's easier than it actually is. Your body has changed a lot since then and the pose is challenging for many reasons.

The key to a good backbend is not about having a flexible back, it's about having an open chest and shoulders.

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With chest day being a favourite at the gym, it's not surprising that these are common pain points for men. Guys who regularly lift weights often have a low range of movement in their upper body. An issue not helped by days spent slouched over a computer desk or a steering wheel. If you can't get your arms over your head, many backbends will not be accessible to you.

How to overcome this challenge: 

Focus on opening up your front side through easy backbends such as Cobra and Extended Puppy Pose. Cobra will introduce a gentle stretch into the lower back and Extended Puppy Pose will help open up those shoulders to free up your arms for more advanced backbends.

#4 Twists

Remember a time when your back was soft and supple?

No? Me either.

Whether it's due to bad posture or our daily activities, 21st century life has a way of tightening up our backs and stirring up all kinds of aches and pains.

Unlike the muscles in our arms or legs, stretching the muscles in our backs is difficult to do in an effective, targeted fashion. So all those niggles from sitting hunched over your keyboard for too long or lifting incorrectly at the gym, they all add up.

Twists are the perfect tonic for a tight core and back. Easing tension in the area, breaking fused tissue and promoting healthy blood flow. Which is great if you can effectively execute a twist, but hardcore gym junkies can often have a hard time looking over their shoulder let alone executing a full spinal twist.

In our attempts to get bigger and stronger, we tend to sacrifice our range of movement. If twists are a struggle to get into; start with Revolved Abdomen Pose and let gravity do the work for you.

How to overcome this challenge: 

When practicing Revolved Abdomen Pose; make sure to keep both shoulders on the floor throughout the twist. If you allow your opposite shoulder to lift off the floor, you'll negate the effect of the twist and put both your neck and spine under strain. To protect your lower back in the twist you can squeeze a block between your legs.

#5 Endurance

So you can comfortably run a half marathon and you can bench 200 lbs - you must be fit right?

Well sure, that may be true, but yoga is an entirely different beast. Yoga will have you moving in ways you've never experienced before, so all the cross training in the world can't guarantee you'll be able to keep up with the seasoned yogis.

So many guys come into their first class expecting an easy ride and end up getting their asses kicked. Which would be fine if it weren't the most effective way to make sure they never try yoga again. 

In yoga we've got to leave our egos at the door. On the mat there's no place for competition against ourselves or others. In our practice we explore our limits but we also respect them. Forcing ourselves into positions, and foregoing proper alignment to keep up in vinyasas will only end in injury.

How to overcome this challenge: 

It takes time to build up the endurance to keep up with fast paced vinyasas. If you find yourself falling behind, there's no shame in taking a resting pose to catch your breath. This is your practice after all; nobody will judge you for sitting in child's pose for a little while. You can join back in whenever you're ready.


The Bottom Line

Whilst we do have some natural weaknesses, we also have natural strengths. Our greater physical strength lends itself to all sorts of asanas.

We're particularly adept at arm balances and chaturanga is usually accessible to us right from the beginning.

The important message to take from this isn't the spotlight on the issues or the helpful tips, but the mindset that it's absolutely okay to struggle with these things.

It's okay not to be great at everything yoga asks of us, or just about anything in yoga at all. The value is in the journey, not the destination. So whenever you find that frustration creeping in, take a deep breath, accept your body for where it is in the moment and have faith that these challenges will become your successes.

Being a man, we have our own unique blend of struggles on the yoga mat.  Fortunately, there are ways we can overcome these challenges, and reap the benefits for our health and our practice. #yoga #yogainspiration #yogaeverydamnday #yogigoals
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