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Men and yoga

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

 

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Born to lose: the sad start and tragic end of Sid Vicious

by Dr John Barry

It’s easy for psychologists to feel empathy for a little old lady, sobbing quietly in a comfy chair in your therapy room. The cause of her pain is obvious – she has willingly told you all about it. You understand her pain, empathise with her, and she eagerly engages with your suggestions for therapy.

Much more of a challenge is the young man who acts in an erratic and violent manner, doesn’t want to talk to you, doesn’t want your help, and has little interest in what he is feeling or why he is feeling it. He doesn’t want your help, and you – very naturally – don’t feel inclined to help him.

John Simon Beverley (aka Sid Vicious) died 40 years ago today. He is exactly the kind of person who represents a challenge to psychologists, because he is such a challenge to our capacity for empathy.

The public image is of someone uncontrollably violent and anarchic, and ultimately a convicted murderer. But the underlying story is of a boy who grew up without a dad, raised by a mum who was a drug user and dealer. Clearly, not a good start in life. Prenatal exposure to substance abuse can impact behaviour throughout the lifespan, and we know that dads can have a stabilising influence on their sons. His own drug abuse began early in life and he became a heroin addict, which some would argue is a form of self-medication for emotional problems.

Some of the people around him who could have helped (for example, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren) simply encouraged his bad behaviour. In fact many people would have been disappointed if Sid Vicious didn’t live up to his name, and when you get positive reinforcement for behaving badly it doesn’t make sense to behave like a saint.

The violence of Sid Vicious is interesting: although he started lots of fights, he was in fact pretty bad at defending himself. One has to wonder whether getting beaten up was part of a pattern of deliberate self-harm, something he did in other ways, such as cutting himself with broken glass on stage.

Self-harm, violence and drug addiction are not the acts of a happy person, and one wonders whether Sid might have had a much different life had he found a therapist or a friend who could have influenced him for the better.

You have to wonder too how many other young men who are out there today who have similar problems and act out in intimidating ways, and have similar prospects for a tragic future if we can’t bring ourselves to listen to what they are telling us, through their words and actions.

One of the greatest challenges to psychologists, and society, is to empathise with people whose behaviour is violent or upsetting. This is a challenge we need to rise to if we want to work with such people and change their behaviour, ultimately to the benefit of us all.

 

About the author

Dr John Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network and Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is one of the editors of, and contributors to, The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health

The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health will be released in April 2019.

From the back cover:

“This handbook brings together experts from across the world to discuss men’s mental health, from prenatal development, through childhood, adolescence, and fatherhood. Men and masculinity are explored from multiple perspectives including evolutionary, cross-cultural, cognitive, biological, developmental, and existential viewpoints, with a focus on practical suggestions and demonstrations of successful clinical work with men”.

 

 

 

 

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