There’s a quiet revolution taking place in the gym world. Men in their thirties, forties and fifties are turning their backs on endless running and weights — for so long the preserve of the middle-aged fitness campaign — and taking up yoga.
A decade ago most men didn’t know an asana from their elbow, and many would have balked at the idea of limbering up as a route to a better body. Yet yoga centres are reporting an influx of male newcomers. Sport England has reported that the number of men practising yoga for 30 minutes a week increased by 55 per cent between 2010 and 2014. Teachers at fashionable yoga studios say that some classes now attract more men than women. Triyoga, which has studios in Camden, Soho, Covent Garden and Chelsea, says that some hot yoga classes are now 50 per cent male. The private yoga teacher and therapist Amy Ku Redler (yogamassage.co.uk), based in London, says that men make up half her clientele and they “love yoga, as it’s really good for their sport”.
It undoubtedly helps that sports stars are singing yoga’s praises. The golfer Rory McIlroy says that yoga and breathing techniques have improved his play and the tennis player Andy Murray believes that hot yoga has boosted his fitness. The footballers David Silva, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Hart have enthused about how it has kept them in top condition. It’s also thriving on account of celebrity approval — if George Clooney, Russell Brand and the singer Adam Levine do it, it must no longer be the preserve of new-age types.
If anyone is living proof of yoga’s emerging macho status it is Patrick Beach. As tanned and toned as an Abercrombie model, Beach has his own YouTube channel, a contract with H&M, which will result in him and his impressive biceps adorning some advertising campaigns, as well as 291,000 followers on Instagram.
Several times daily this globe-trotting yoga guru treats his followers to a display of what can only be described as the most manly of yoga moves. We are not just talking about downward dog here, but handstands often spectacularly performed on one hand, and other inversions involving eye-watering amounts of effort. Just before we speak, Beach, 30, has posted an image of himself supporting his body weight on his fingertips. He’s on a boardwalk in Gran Canaria, where he is teaching, his tanned body rippling in the sun. His accompanying comment reads: “No natural talent, just hard work and dedication.”
Really? Can anyone look like this? Beach insists it is possible. Originally from Seattle, he was a keen basketball player in his teens and was introduced to yoga by his mother when he was 20. “I didn’t really know much about it,” he says. “I also thought it was predominantly female and not going to be my kind of thing, but I was intrigued — and I loved it.”
Almost immediately, he says, there were physical benefits. “I’d been suffering from insomnia and I suddenly found that I was sleeping better at night,” he says. “The more I got into it, the more I paid attention to what I ate, much more so than when I’d been doing a lot of sport.”
In the decade that followed, Beach experimented with different varieties but it was Vinyasa yoga, involving a smooth-flowing series of moves, that remained the biggest draw. “There’s so much focus on creating balance and it’s all about achieving the postures through a combination of effort and ease.”
About four or five years ago he started doing more and more yoga — his toned torso and impressive biceps are the result of years of practising for up to three hours a day. As his expertise grew, he wanted to share it with the world — but the number of like-minded yogis in Seattle was limited so he started posting pictures and videos on Instagram. Bit by bit he accrued followers who wanted to learn from him and those who had no intention of practising the moves but marvelled at his abs.
Yoga can teach men how to be calm at the same time as increasing strength
However, you don’t have to be able to do one-armed handstands, he says. Any amount of regular yoga can make a difference and the men he teaches are astounded at the rapid improvements that take place once they try it. “A lot of men come in for the first time who look incredibly fit but they struggle to make it through a class because their strength is uncoordinated and not functional. Yoga creates stabilisation in the small muscles of the body as well as overall strength, which is what sets it apart. It’s essential that men do yoga as a stress relief, which we all need now. Yoga can teach men how to be calm at the same time as increasing strength, co-ordination, flexibility and balance.”
For men in their middle years, yoga is particularly beneficial. A study from the University of Ontario published three years ago showed that the average drop in flexibility of hip and shoulder joints is about six degrees a decade from the fifties onwards. “It’s a sad fact of life that as we get older our bodies lose their youthful flexibility,” says the fitness trainer Matt Roberts. “As we age, our speed of recovery declines. The cellular rebuilding after any activity takes longer and the blood supply into muscles, tendons and ligaments falls gradually so that tissues lose elasticity.”
There is also the matter of hormonal changes that occur as men get older. “With men, levels of testosterone fall as we age and our muscle cell reproduction speed falls too,” Roberts explains. “It’s easy to see why we suffer more from inflexibility as time goes by.”
Sports injuries, even from years ago, are a further blow to bendiness. “Any scar tissue from previous injuries, however small, lessens the ability of the body to use that muscle when you reach middle age,” Roberts says. “It’s a culmination of these factors that sees men struggle to bend and move freely as they age.”
So what can be done? Adopting a specific mobility routine at least five days a week is the only way to offset the decline, Roberts says. “A bit of stretching is not enough,” he adds. “You need to be doing movement-based exercises that have the distinct objective of increasing your mobility effectively.”
Yoga, he says, is definitely an option — and things can improve within weeks. “Once you’ve added stretching and yoga to your mix, you should keep it there,” he explains. “Variety is what’s important as you get older. By all means run and lift weights but neglect mobility training at your peril. It really matters.”
The top yoga poses for men
Chair pose: for strong legs and core
Start by standing with your feet together, and your palms together at your chest. Shift weight to your heels as much as possible. Extend your arms overhead, then bend your knees and sink down into an imaginary chair. Hold the position for up to ten slow breaths.
Warrior 2: for flexibility
Stand with your feet apart and your arms at your sides. Exhale as you step your feet about 4ft apart, with feet parallel. Turn your right foot out to 90 degrees. Pivot your left foot slightly inwards. Your left foot should be at a 45-degree angle.
Raise your arms so they are shoulder height and parallel to the floor with palms facing down. On an exhalation, bend your left knee to align directly over the ankle of your left foot, with the left shin perpendicular to the floor. Sink your hips, bringing your right thigh parallel to the floor. Keep your back leg straight and your torso straight — do not lean towards the left leg.
Turn your head to gaze across to the tip of your left middle finger and hold this position for up to ten slow breaths. Repeat on the opposite side.
Chaturanga: for biceps
Start in the top of a push-up, also known as the plank pose, and lower by bending the arms until your shoulders and elbows are at the same height, creating an L-shape in the arms. Control the arms to keep them from winging out to the sides and pull the belly button to your spine. Try to hold the position for five full breaths — or as long as you can — keeping the body fully engaged.
Cobra: for a strong back
Lie flat on your stomach with your forehead on the floor. Roll the shoulders up and away from the ground, rolling the back towards the tailbone as you begin to pull the belly button towards the spine. Place the hands lightly on the floor just to the sides of the chest and press the top of the feet into the floor to take the weight off the front of the body.
Gently begin to press into your hands and inhale as you lift your chest away from the ground, keeping the neck long. Feel the work of the pose coming from the strength being built in the lower back. Breathe normally and hold for up to ten slow breaths. Repeat.
Boat pose: for a six pack
Start on your back with the hands by the hips. Begin to roll the shoulders off the ground lifting the heart up to the sky, squeeze the legs together and lift the heels 6in. Keep looking up to the sky and focus on keeping the lower back hovering 2in above the ground. Try to make sure that only the tailbone is making contact with the floor. Try to hold the position for up to ten slow breaths, keeping the core muscles engaged throughout.