From yoga to pilates: why men are ditching the dumbbells and bending it like a bloke


It is 7am in a school hall in Stockwell and I am performing the Pilates move known as ‘oysters’: lying on my side, legs elevated, top leg opening and closing like a grotesque mouth. It’s an embarrassing position to be in, made more so by the fact that I am the only bloke in a class of seven or eight females, from lissom twenty-somethings to stiff-kneed 60-year-olds. In any other situation I’d be condemned for ‘manspreading’.
This is my life now. Twice a week I drag my baggy, 14-stone, 49-year-old carcass on to my bike and cycle to my local secondary school to do an hour of Vinyasa yoga (Tuesdays) and an hour of Pilates (Thursdays) with what my wife refers to as ‘your ladies’. Not that I know their names. It would feel awkward to exchange anything more than a nod with a bunch of female strangers who will soon be staring at my middle-aged arse as we assume the downward dog position. They don’t seem to mind my presence; possibly they regard me as a sort of misfit mascot — a testosterone novelty in a bastion of oestrogen.
My position is more singular at Pilates, where I am absolutely the only man. At yoga there is sometimes another, a lithe chap half my age and weight. I don’t talk to him either, because I’m scorchingly jealous of the nonchalant ease with which he swings up into a headstand. I try to batten down such unworthy thoughts, since they run counter to the mental calm that should accompany yoga. But I do still take a certain Pyrrhic pride in the fact that I find it easier to touch my toes than he does.
I’m not the only bloke cottoning on to exercise forms that have, for whatever reason, been female-dominated. For too long, Sting and Russell Brand perpetuated the idea that yoga was for self-regarding tantric navel-gazers. But Colin Farrell and Robert Downey Jr are now yoga acolytes. Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and Andrew Flintoff swear by Pilates. Even the grandad of laddism, Keith Allen, has spoken of easing spinal problems with yoga and Pilates.
‘In India, yoga started with men and young boys practising,’ says Catherine Sykes, the 27-year-old teacher at my Tuesday sessions. ‘The westernised practice is very female-dominated. In yoga magazines everything is advertised with the image of a young, white woman in a leotard.’
Catherine trained at Yoga London on Portobello Road under Rahoul Masrani, 33, who believes it offers specific benefit to men: ‘Men suffer from a lot of stiffness in our bodies the older we get and yoga can remove that. Aside from the obvious physical benefit of becoming more supple, leaner and stronger, there are psychological benefits — it’s a tool that helps us to calm our minds, which a lot of us are looking for in the hectic, fast-paced world we live in.’
Personally, I love the fact that both practices suit people of all abilities. They’re not competitive and you work within your body’s limits. In Vinyasa yoga we flow between poses, there’s minimal equipment needed beyond a mat, little contemplation beyond an awareness of one’s own body and breathing, and none of the sweaty anxiety that I imagine attends Bikram.
So far, to my surprise, I’ve stuck with my classes for seven months. If anything I find the Pilates more physically challenging than the yoga, but both soothe the back pain and the clawing self-doubt that are the constant companions of a freelance journalist’s life. In conjunction with a boringly sensible diet (fish, chicken, veg, a couple of glasses of red wine), they’ve helped me lose almost a stone — without compromising my masculinity.
Because it seems there is still a germ of male competitiveness lurking in my breast. I ask Catherine the question I really want answered: Am I any good? ‘Yes, you are,’ she says. ‘A lot of younger men are less flexible than you are…’ Ha! I knew it. Team sport is for wimps: real men stretch. Even if it is in a class full of ladies.