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Steffan de Graffenried owns the Updog Yoga in Athens, where he teaches yoga and martial arts. His yoga class usually has plenty of males — largely because Updog Yoga’s classes are described as strength-building.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Steffan de Graffenried owns the Updog Yoga in Athens, where he teaches yoga and martial arts. His yoga class usually has plenty of males — largely because Updog Yoga’s classes are described as strength-building.

Manly yoga
Some local men finding right moves through ancient exercise

By Danielle Komis
dkomis@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

Debbie Bateman can tell her friends she’s going to a yoga studio to contort herself into cobra, proud warrior and pigeon without getting any strange looks.

Yet when yoga enthusiast Clyde Whitley of Decatur says the same thing, he may face some strange looks — especially in a region that values football and other “manly” team-oriented athletic events. Despite the growing number of men in yoga, it still is considered somewhat unusual in the area.

“There’s been more interest, but then again, they (men) don’t come,” said Rachelle Martinez, yoga instructor at Decatur Athletic Club. “They think it’s a girl thing.”

Steffan de Graffenried, yoga teacher and owner of Updog Yoga in Athens, agreed.

“It’s hard for men in the U.S. to get involved in something non-competitive because we’re all taught to be conquerors,” he said. “But here in the West we don’t realize that the biggest thing to conquer is yourself.”

Ironically, most top yogis are men, he said. In India, where yoga originated 5,000 years ago, men once were the only ones who practiced because the poses were considered too strenuous for women.

“Men think yoga is predominantly for women but that’s just here in the U.S.,” de Graffenried said.

Male yoga fans

Debbie Bateman, left, and Clyde Whitley practice yoga in a class led by Noel Shinn, not pictured, at Body In Balance yoga studio in Decatur.
Debbie Bateman, left, and Clyde Whitley practice yoga in a class led by Noel Shinn, not pictured, at Body In Balance yoga studio in Decatur.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Some men have come around to the idea of yoga, despite what jokes their friends or family might make. Jon Alan Smith, a student of de Graffenried’s, started practicing a year ago at Updog Yoga and likes it so much he is building a yoga studio in his garage.

Never did the former football player, weightlifter and University of Alabama trainer expect to be a yoga enthusiast.

“I’m the short, stocky guy who always lifted weights,” he said. “All my friends are surprised. They laugh at me.”

While Smith’s yoga class usually has plenty of males — largely because Updog Yoga’s classes are described as strength-building — Whitley is always clearly the minority in his. He is one of only two men who regularly attend yoga classes at Body in Balance yoga studio in Decatur.

“I haven’t been able to get any other men,” said studio owner Jacqueline Holdbrooks. “For some reason men don’t seem to feel terribly comfortable with coming here. We’d love to have them.”

But Whitley doesn’t let his minority status stop him — he still attends classes three times per week.

Yoga improves his flexibility, strength and concentration.

“It’s opened me up,” he said. “It gives me better focus and concentration throughout the day and after class.”

The presence of men in the classroom is great for diversity, instructors said.

“I had a friend come in a couple weeks ago and said ‘Wow, there’s guys in here!’ ” Martinez said. “It’s not so sexist anymore.”

Why yoga?

Many men get turned onto yoga because it can prevent injury or improve their performance in other sports.

De Graffenried, who also teaches kung fu and tai chi, encourages his students to take his yoga classes for its cross-training effects. One of his longtime Kung Fu students’ progress was at a standstill until he began taking yoga.

“His body changed so much,” he said. “All of a sudden his kung fu just took off.”

Yoga is also beneficial for seniors or others with limited mobility or strength because it can be taken as slowly or quickly as the participant wants. Along with building strength, yoga can also be an aerobic and mental workout, enthusiasts said.

Most men underestimate yoga’s difficulty, men said.

Whitley would like to invite his male friends to come to yoga class, yet he’s concerned it might be too intense for them.

“I would tell them to come on but I don’t think they could take it,” he said.

Yoga is difficult, but also a welcome challenge, Smith said.

“It’s an hour of hard-out stuff,” he said. “But after a hard yoga session you get a sense of well-being. It’s worth it. I can’t reiterate that enough.”

What is yoga?

Yoga originated in India 3,000 years ago. While the philosphy of yoga is really a way of life intended to connect mind, body and spirit, the word “yoga” in the Western world today usually refers to yoga poses, or asanas.

Poses are designed to create balance, strength and flexibility in the body by supporting your own weight. Yoga poses can be done in quick succession to create heat or more slowly to increase stamina. Yoga often provides a cardiovascular, strengthening and stretching workout.

Stretch it out

Updog Yoga Center, Athens: www.updogyogaathens.com; 206-5488

Body in Balance Studios, Decatur: www.bodyinbalancestudios.com; 476 -2021

Many local fitness centers also offer yoga classes.

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