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September 5, 2021

What I learned from being the Only Man in Yoga Class.


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Men, we have been fooled.

It is an illusion that men are not emotional and do not have feelings. We are humans with normal reactions to our surroundings.

Talking about how we feel or attending a yoga class may ignite an inner turmoil, but it won’t kill you. In fact, you may breathe a sigh of relief. If you feel alone and trapped with your thoughts and insecurities, you may believe that you’re the only one feeling like this and that you have failed as a man. That is simply not true.

There are many of us who have been struggling—stuck in an emotional prison that we think we can’t escape. Unfortunately, we’re really just stuck in an old pattern of behavior. We’re battling with a history that’s holding us back, and we did not learn a healthy way to deal with our emotions. This we can change, but we need to break some patterns. And that can start with the simple step of taking a yoga class—even if you’re the only man.

Talking about masculinity and what it means being a man is an extremely sensitive subject. This discussion can create a lot of tension, which hinders a sane dialogue that needs to take place. And in a way, all this shows that men are sensitive and emotional, otherwise we would not experience this conflict and tension. So, to be clear, this is not about taking away any masculinity, it is about embracing a healthier view of our emotions. Being a “man” in our society often means committing acts of violence, acting out, and adopting self-destructive behaviors. In 2019, American men committed suicide 3.6 times more often than women. This problem can also be seen in schools, where boys are 6 percent less likely to graduate on time. It’s time to transform the discussion of what it means to be a man and embrace the fact that men must establish a better understanding of our feelings. This is particularly significant as we move away from predominately manual work and into a digitally overwhelming world.

Would you consider taking a yoga class, even if you’re the only man? How about asking for help, talking about how you feel, or doing other “un-manly” things? What reactions do these challenges trigger within in you?

These responses are often subconscious, making sure we don’t do anything that’s socially “wrong.” It is like taking your hand off a hot stove. You don’t think, “This is hot, I might burn, maybe I should take my hand off it.” Instead, you take it away automatically. That’s similar to these social behaviors. We have learned how we should react to make sure we will be part of the social group. The fear of being left out can feel like fears of starving or not providing for our family. It can be a strong subconscious behavior that’s holding us back. These patterns are absorbed as we grow up. Being emotional or talking about feelings is not viewed as manly. Men aren’t supposed to cry; they’re expected to suppress their emotions and “man-up.” Groups of boys and men are accustomed to bullying one another with condescending words or threats. Of course, there is a difference between men and women with emotions, but that difference is not as big as we think, and it shouldn’t stop us from learning more about our inner world.

In the book Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy, by Ted Zeff, the author discusses a study that shows the differences in how boys and girls express emotions. As infants, boys and girls cry equally when they are frustrated. However, by age five, most boys have suppressed almost all emotions except anger. Even if boys are socialized to control their emotions, the study shows that they react to the emotions with increased heart rate or sweaty palms—just like the girls. Thus, men have the same emotions, but we “aren’t allowed” to show that we are afraid or sad. Instead, what we are “allowed” to show is anger. You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that this has consequences when the boys become adults, both for themselves individually and for society.

This is an important issue to explore: a man’s fear to open up and his lack of access to resources needed to talk about it. In our society, men are so afraid of their inner emotions that they fight to prevent others from opening up. That’s because it would mean they’d have to meet their innermost fears. While that’s an illusion, it’s also why some men are terrified of entering a yoga studio.

Understanding and acknowledging your emotions can be overwhelming; it is a subconscious protection that most of us have developed. You act the “right way” in order to be part of a group and avoid risk. This is a major hurdle, and it can be difficult to accept. It’s like learning to ride a bike as an adult.

In the documentary, “The Work,” viewers discover men—inside and outside of prison—attending joint therapy sessions. During these sessions, the men share their feelings and fears. You see how they gradually let go of years of dammed-up feelings. In one case, a man wanted to weep for his dead sister. But he didn’t know how to cry; he had never allowed himself to do it. He was afraid of what would happen if he let go of his control. Whenever he experienced a powerful emotion, he turned to violence. During the therapy session, he learned to let go of these powerful feelings that he had kept inside. It’s an extraordinarily powerful scene when these feelings are allowed to surface; he screams and hardly knows what to do with himself. But he lets it all out, and afterward, he finds peace. This may be an extreme example of suppressing emotions, but it shows how strong the resistance can be to feel normal human reactions. It also reveals that even if you’ve held things in for a long time, you can still let things go and increase your self-awareness.

Like all humans, some men are more thoughtful than others and more open to the world around us. Maybe you’re not interested in discussing your feelings, but that shouldn’t stop you from letting others having that personality. Up to 20 percent of the population is considered a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). That percentage includes both men and women. Being an HSP means that you take in and process more information—you can be more open to sounds, smells, details, and sensing how others feel. But it can also cause overheating and being overwhelmed by all impressions, information, and possibilities. Learning more about this trait can be helpful for all—and especially for men, since we have the history of not allowing ourselves to talk about things. Just imagine a teenager who is hormonal and emotional. They’re experiencing many feelings and aren’t getting the support they need to explore their inner world. This will create an emotional prison of feeling wrong and can lead to self-destructive or violent behavior.

Of course, this is a huge subject—emotions, being a man, masculinity, and the different cultural and social aspects that affect who we are. But maybe one step is to embrace more empathy and understand normal human emotions, feelings, and thoughts. You may feel like you’re caught in a catch-22—aching to get out of an emotional prison but not having the tools to break free. This doesn’t mean we have to talk about feelings all the time. But knowing that we can ask for help when we’re going through rough times can be life-changing.

We are not alone with our thoughts; others have gone through similar journeys. If we allow ourselves to step out of our comfort zone, we can talk or seek help. Just know that this will take time. Similar to a broken leg, our minds and souls take time to heal; so be kind to yourself. As a first step, you can create a safe space for feeling your emotions when you need it the most. Talk with your friends, family, or spouse. Then, you’ll know how to act when someone asks for help.

As you go through life, you’ll experience loss, change, heartbreak, and happiness. If you bottle all of the hard things in, you will eventually break. There is a Swedish proverb that says, “Shared joy is double joy, and shared sorrow is half sorrow.” I think we often share others’ joy, but we also need to seek help or talk about the sorrow.

Let us help each other to break the illusion that men have no feelings and emotions. We are human. It starts with us. Embrace a new perspective and make changes for the future. I hope that we can make a difference for our children, women, men, and the whole society.

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