WHAT IS MASCULINITY? WEEK 3
"The continued exploration of real men, real yoga, an inquiry into what it means to be a man through the lens of yoga, ancestry and expectation.”
This is my third week of the men’s yoga group. This evening we slowly and sluggishly stumble into the room. Outside, it’s been raining for days and the air is intensely humid. We find our spots in the room and acknowledge the familiar faces around us as we mentally prepare ourselves for the hour ahead. The room is quiet this evening. A few jokes are cracked that help ease the silence and to remind us of why we’re here. It’s nice to be able to chill for a few moments, away from the busy day before we immerse ourselves into an array of twists and turns.
Mark, our yoga guru enters the room and immediately recognizes the mood and challenges the silence. A few more laughs are raised. There’s a few new faces in the group tonight, some are just passing through and want to share the experience. Our session starts by an open invitation to reflect on our day, the busy-ness of our daily life. We're asked to imagine that the noisy monkey chatter of our thoughts are the tips of mountain tops. (Ok, I'll go with it). Our intention this evening is to create a space, essentially a valley, between these thoughts for the purpose of evolving an experience of calmness and quiet reflection. This is true mindfulness in its prime. No wonder I feel so damn ‘Zen’ after each practice.
The theme of this evenings practice includes the social and generational narrative of what it’s like to be a man in today’s world. We’re asked to think about the narrative that we grew up with, about how a man should think, act and project himself onto others. Mark highlights that many of us carry such narratives from one generation to the next, without being aware of this ever-changing dynamic. We are challenged to think for a moment about this cycle and the fact that these stories are played continuously in our brains every day. Yet, it’s very possible to rewire this thinking. We only need to create a small amount of space to germinate new ways of thinking and being. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
"We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society". Alan Watts.
We start our practice and within ten minutes the room feels like a sauna (did I say it was humid today?). It’s damn hot. I’m pacing myself so I don’t over do it. I recognize there are parts of me that are being twisted and stretched and the ‘discomfort’ feels good. I’m aware of the various signals which my body conveys and I’m equally conscious about what suits my needs at that moment. Actually, that’s a pretty good lesson to to abide by in general really.
We’re invited to focus on our breathing. Mine is clearly heavy as I realize that I’m panting like a dog. We’re told to slow the breathing down to match the movement of each yoga pose. Though yoga has been practiced for centuries, there’s science to match it. Managing our breathing allows us to regulate our autonomic nervous system. By creating a balance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems (our ‘flight or fight’ response), we are able to slow ourselves down and create ‘breathing space’ in our mind. That is the essence of practicing mental self-care.
In my conversations with men outside the therapy room, many of them describe that they are uncomfortable with asking for help and relying on others for support, especially when it comes to their health. This is often represented in many avoiding the doctor like the plague (even if they had the plague). Equally, many would never seek help from a mental health professional. They would sooner prefer to fall off the ‘white horse’ in a blubbering heap than to admit they have a problem.
However, there is a change in this narrative. More men are initiating services or exploring ways to take care of themselves better. In this room there is significant evidence that some men understand that it’s possible to change, while evolving their ideas of what it’s meant to be strong, while maintaining their dignity and respect for themselves. In this room, authenticity is the key message.
We conclude the session by simply lying on the floor and I’m feeling pretty chuffed that I’ve survived. In this moment of pure, stationary bliss, we are introduced to an audio of Allan Watts, the famous British philosopher. With our eyes closed in this Zen space, we listen to the message that we are all innately addicted to our thoughts. From the moment that we learn to think, the monkey-chatter starts and rarely subsides. This is why activities such as yoga, meditation or similar practices are so important as a form of self-care. When we create a brief moment to calm the mind, we acquire a sense of restoration that makes us feel incredibly calm and reenergized.
Similar to previous evenings, some of the blokes from class meet up afterwards to have a bite and a beer (yes, so much for my self restricted intake – but boy, I earned this one). Over our burgers and salads, we discuss a random array of matters, including work, exercise, current pains and ailments, what brought us to this town and the class we just experienced. The conversations not too deep and meaningful, but it’s just nice to be in the presence of other guys who want to try something new to stretch themselves. No pun intended.
Thanks again to Mark Herron, Co-owner & Yogi and the amazing team @ Sukha Yoga for the inspiration for this weeks post. www.sukhayogaaustin.com.
~ Simon Niblock
Simon Niblock is Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping couples and their families find peace, direction and meaning within their relationships.