by Dr Sunil Lad
Through a culmination of nature and nurture, men are often portrayed to be “strong”, competitive and aggressive, whilst this has had certain advantages from an evolutionary perspective it also has a shadow side. Often with the men that I work with in prison exploring emotions and experiencing sadness are seen as “weak”, there is often difficulty in accessing these emotions, a limited ability to describe and label them, and individuals can often be disconnected and dissociated from how these feel within the body. Displaying vulnerability such as crying is often seen as a weakness, but as human beings these are natural ways to respond to the world where situations that bring on rejection, abandonment, humiliation and unfairness which are an inherent part of being human.
As a way to survive such overwhelming emotions they are often supressed by alcohol use, denial, minimisation, distraction, over- achievement to feel good, or emotions are bottled up and can lead to violence or suicide. Boys can often be ridiculed, shamed or punished for showing emotions such as fear, anger or sadness, and emotions are generally not accepted by many parts of society. Many men will often struggle to experience such emotions therefore having a safe space where they can talk about it can be difficult. Men may choose not to access talking therapy because talking about problems and emotions may not be seen as something that would be helpful (Holloway et al, 2018).
Yoga is an ancient philosophy that is being practiced across the world. Currently within the western world yoga is often seen and packaged through a fitness lens; in fact that’s how I first got started through the physical “asana” practice as a way to get fit and exercise my body, and then I found out that it’s a much deeper practice than merely moving the body and getting physically fitter. The way in which yoga is often perceived, especially for men, is that are they unable to get into the poses as they are not flexible in their bodies as women and not able to “do it”. This perception is often created by images of people in bendy poses, predominately women, who have different body frames and structure to men.
Within my practice I started to be more mindful about my connection to my body and that when moving initially I was forcing myself to go into a pose. I started to become conscious of when I wasn’t able to get into a pose, if there were others around me, I felt embarrassed I wasn’t able to get into the pose I recognised judgemental thoughts I had and tightening of my muscles which made it more difficult to move and restricted my breath. However I started to learn that when I had a more inquisitive and curious mentality and grounded myself in the breath, I had calmed my nervous system which allowed me to relax and go deeper into the pose. My body relaxed and I was less distracted by my judgements.
I have reflected on how as men we are often socialised to push harder, be self- critical and not feel good enough. Also there is often a limited space where vulnerability and insecurity can be explored, because there is a fear that showing it could lead to ridicule and humiliation, this all is an embodied experience that can be explored through yoga.
Yoga can be a tool in which men can start to undo these negative and harsh messages they have received, by gaining greater awareness about themselves in terms of body and mind patterns. The practice of yoga can develop awareness, proprioception and interoception, which are likely to help practitioners to understand and feel safe with emotions. Thus this might have an improved effect on mental health in men, as yoga becomes an accessible way to root yourself in the body and have an understanding of the self both on and then off the mat.
About the author
Dr Sunil Lad is a Counselling Psychologist working with men in prison with mental health difficulties, and a qualified yoga teacher. His chapter Of Compassion and Men: Using Compassion Focused Therapy in Working with Men appears in the new Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health by Barry, J.A., Kingerlee, R., Seager, M., Sullivan, L. (Eds.). DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1