Time to ditch the preconceptions of spa music and essential oils – this ancient practice can seriously boost both physical and mental performance
Think about increasing your physical performance, and you’re likely to picture heavy weights, fast sprints and intense circuits – not yoga. But athletes such as boxer Anthony Joshua are proving it’s an all-round, health-boosting addition to fitness. A study by Yoga Journal and Alliance found 28% of those practising yoga are now men. Many athletes are matching their success with this ancient practice, including ex-Premiership footballer Ryan Giggs who attributes his lengthy career to a bit of downward dog, and basketball star LeBron James who has taught yoga to aspiring players. So should you make time for some meditative fitness?
Mind and body
Louis D’Origny, yoga expert and founder of clothing brand OHMME, gravitated towards yoga because of its obvious physical benefits. ‘I found out the strongest, healthiest-looking person in my office was into it,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t realise how hard it would be. My yoga teacher told me to try it every day for three weeks, so I did and it really got me hooked.’
There are two sides to yoga, he says. ‘First, are the physical benefits – balance, strength and flexibility. You get better at doing day-to-day things that are genuinely useful, like bending over to tie your shoelaces. ‘Then there are the mental benefits. These are simple – it’s a time when you go to a class and that’s all you do. Maybe there’s music, maybe not, but you’re not in a permanent state of distraction like you can be in many situations. The act of concentrating on the movement and breathing just chills you out.’
Ex-American football player and yoga instructor Matt Miller agrees: ‘For men, the beauty of yoga lies in the “mind-body” aspect. Men are starting to speak publicly about mental health, but many won’t seek out professional help when they’re depressed. ‘Yes, you get the obvious stretching and flexibility benefits at a yoga class, but making a controlled connection with physical movements, static postures and controlled breath can help balance your hormones and nervous system to improve mental wellbeing. In effect, it’s a form of active self-help.’
Not just for girls
That said, it’s still all too easy to reinforce the myth of yoga as fitness for the less masculine, especially if you compare it to, say, high-intensity sports or heavy weightlifting. But as D’Origny says, ‘There’s nothing in yoga that’s just for women. You’re just used to seeing photos of women doing it. If you’re young and fit, there’s a lot of it that is extremely challenging.’
Fortunately, the idea that it’s for women is dying down: ‘Football teams are now doing it and boxers are trying it to improve their fighting,’ he adds. However, Miller understands why some men are put off, from first-hand experience. ‘My first taste of yoga was with high-level instructors, and I was hooked. But when I branched out into public classes I hated them. I didn’t understand what language they were speaking.’ He also struggled with an unbalanced gender-ratio. ‘I was one of the only men and clearly the worst. It left me feeling demoralised about myself.’ After fine-tuning his yoga expertise, Miller founded Broga, a yoga practice with a more masculine approach. ‘I vowed to change yoga so the people who needed it most would have a safe space to start from while still being challenged to their maximum.’
Yoga for a better world
As Miller’s muscle-bound classes show, it can be stripped of its ‘spiritual’ side. ‘However, one of the consequences of developing yoga is a deeper knowledge of yourself,’ says D’Origny. ‘You just become more attuned to your body. Getting closer to your physical body makes you care a little bit more. The more detached you are from your physical self, the less you care about the world around you. When you really know the mechanics of yoga, you start to have more awareness of your surroundings.’ So where do you start? There are lots of different kinds of yoga classes out there – so make sure you find the right one. ‘Decide what you want to get out of it,’ says D’Origny. ‘Do you want something challenging or restorative? Once you know what you’re looking for, you can choose the right class to suit you.’ Namaste, my dudes.