Meet Michael James Wong, the yogi encouraging men to take to the mat

Tomé Morrissy-Swan
Michael James Wong encouraging Tomé Morrissy-Swan to try yoga  - Jeff Gilbert
Michael James Wong encouraging Tomé Morrissy-Swan to try yoga - Jeff Gilbert

It’s Tuesday night, it’s been a long day, it’s snowing; I’m stressed. Living in London, that’s par for the course – minus the snow. But this Tuesday, I intend to take a different approach than the usual 'pub then sofa' antidote. This Tuesday, I'm about to try my first yoga class.

Why has it taken me this long? I am, after all, a millennial; yoga is supposed to come to us as naturally as ordering smashed avocado on toast. The answer to this is that I am a millennial man, and in the case of yoga participation, gender appears to trump age. According to one study in the US, while the age split of yoga participants is roughly equal from age 18 to 60+, the gender imbalance is glaring: 72pc of participants are women.

Many man just don't feel flexible enough to try yoga; we've been burned during those embarrassing football warm-ups, where we're told to touch our toes and barely reach our knees. In my mind, a yoga room would be rife with super bendy girls in Lycra doing Instagrammable poses, and a scattering of toned men with manbuns. Best keep my brittle limbering to the football field.

We're not trying to change the practice or dilute it in any way. It's not 'making yoga for dudes'. That would disrespect the sensibility of guys. We're not trying to dumb it down. It's about opening the door

We're not trying to change the practice or dilute it in any way. It's not 'making yoga for dudes'. That would disrespect the sensibility of guys. We're not trying to dumb it down. It's about opening the door

However, my teacher this Tuesday is a man who's on a mission to make yoga more accessible to men. Michael James Wong, a 35-year-old yoga teacher from California, founded the Boys of Yoga movement to help break down those stereotypical barriers. As it says on the organisation's website: “Some guys think yoga makes you less of a man. The truth is it makes you a better one. It’s time to smash the stereotype.

This month, Wong is publishing Sit Down Be Quiet, a user's manual for the modern man wanting to get into yoga and, he writes, "take control of his own identity and mental wellbeing." He says he is seeing more and more men attending his classes – even if women do outnumber men in our class today.

One of the aims of Sit Down Be Quiet is to make yoga accessible to us blokes. The case studies featured in its pages are men from all corners of the globe – most of whom are neither scarily strong nor mind-bogglingly flexible. “There’s aspiration, by all means, interesting and difficult postures, but it’s not something unattainable.”

Did Wong, who’s taught for ten years, change tack to encourage men? “We’re not trying to change the practice or dilute it in any way. It’s not ‘making yoga for dudes’. That would disrespect the sensibility of guys. We’re not trying to dumb it down. It’s about opening the door.”

Michael James Wong - Credit: Jeff Gilbert 
Michael James Wong thinks yoga can play a role in relieving anxiety and stress Credit: Jeff Gilbert

What, then, is yoga? “Yoga is a practice of connection, to ourselves, to each other, to the world," says Wong. "In the Western world it can be put in the fitness category, but that’s one layer of it.”

Physical it certainly is; the class puts me through several painstaking poses, using muscles I never knew I had. There's lots of balancing on one leg, but it's the downward-facing dog (hands and feet on the mat, bum in the air) that still gives me nightmares. The gentle child's pose offers respite when the going gets too tough, but the next morning my chest and arms are in considerable pain.

But the mental aspect is key. “Meditation and mindfulness are of equal if not greater importance," says Wong. "A practice that helps you quiet down and do less, to appreciate a sense of ease and calm has huge benefits for people in the modern world.” Indeed, Wong ends his class with a short meditation session that cures all the stress with which I entered.

This chimes with a passage in the book that piqued my interest. "This is yoga," writes Wong. "You just might have been calling it a different name." The list of examples he then gives includes a deep breath, a pre-match warm up, a stretch before getting out of bed, and backing down from an argument. To Wong, anything done in a mindful manner, keeping connected to the present, is yoga. “We have breakfast thinking about our day. At lunch we think about meetings. At dinner you can’t remember what you had for breakfast.” Even watching TV can be yoga: ditch the iPhone and focus. “A one hour class is 4pc of your day. It’s what you do with the rest where yoga has value, taking what you learnt off the mat into the real world.”

Mental health is clearly something Wong feels strongly about. It’s estimated that one in eight British men have suffered from a mental health problem; we’ve all seen the alarming stats on male suicides. Several studies suggest yoga can help combat anxiety, stress and depression. “Yoga isn’t an antidote or a silver bullet” Wong offers, “but it can play a role in supporting people’s lives in ways they need. It can help people stay connected to what they’re dealing with, to ask for help, to not have to be tough.

“We often deal with antiquated definitions of being a man. Being strong, tough, not crying. Those things are outdated. What yoga offers is a culture that redefines men. Men can be more mindful, aware and non-judgmental, brave enough to reach out for help, to not suffer in silence, to realise it’s OK to cry.”

Wong’s ethos touches on another subject that should resonate with men: modern society’s ultra-competitiveness. In his vision of yoga, the ego is left behind, there’s no judgment, and participants are firmly encouraged to do what’s comfortable. “What’s beautiful about yoga is you can’t win, you can’t be good.” Hang on a minute. Can’t be good? What about those headstanding girls? On several occasions during the class I lose my balance, struggle with postures, or show signs of frustration as my neighbours, in my mind, outperform me. Each time Wong encourages me to do an easier version of the exercise. 

And Wong dismisses my competitive thinking: “It’s about what you learn on the way down to touching your toes.”

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