Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Yoga for Soldiers

My life here is a little bit out of the ordinary.  You got that, right?  Anyway, twice a week I teach yoga to small groups of (mostly) men from the defense forces who are here as peacekeepers.  Yep, yoga for soldiers.

Teaching the troops has been a really educational experience for me as a teacher.  After all, they are pretty much the polar opposite of my own body type: small, female, thin without much muscle.  And what's more, they are not exactly your average beginner Yoga students.  First of all, they have been training their bodies for years, so generally they are very physically aware.  And secondly, they follow instructions!  LOL.  By which I mean that they respond well to verbal cues about the body, which is a skill that it took me years to develop.

I feel that I'm pretty lucky: in addition to teaching the gents of the Oz and NZ army, my twice weekly group classes have also gone from being nearly all female to having an almost equal male to female ratio, mostly thanks to a bunch of keen helicopter pilots and body builders.

So, what are these guys looking for in a Yoga class?

In my experience, these men, who are relatively fit already, come to yoga because they are looking for flexibility and injury prevention.  The majority of my women students are after weight loss, muscle tone, strength and fitness - most of which these guys already have!  What these men suffer from are tight hamstrings, stiff shoulders and lower back issues, to name the most common.  Many of them have also been injured from intensive physical training, sports, or combat, so injury prevention and/or recovery is a big theme as well.

Most of them are runners and/or weight trainers, and some do short interval training.  So building lung capacity and breath awareness, increasing oxygen intake, and developing a longer physical routine can also be motivating factors for them.  As they progress through the practice, those that get into it will come to see yoga as a way of honing their strength in a more uniform way and developing balanced bodies with flexibility as well as muscle, as well as enhancing their focus and concentration during athletic activities.  For more ideas of what might motivate these athletic guys, have a look at this website, which is the site of a personal yoga trainer for elite athletes!  She provides a neat list of physical and mental benefits that athletic types can expect from yoga.

Teaching the Troops

I have found that my best approach is to focus first on the physical benefits and then to let the mental benefits slowly sneak up.  People who are generally very physically focused will probably be put off (at least at first) by a spiritual approach to yoga.  So I usually start a practice with breathing exercises instead of meditation, and finish with a guided mind-body-awareness practice instead of chanting.  We work on challenging the breath and building awareness of 3-part breathing, the role of the diaphragm and shoulders, and how to expand lung capacity.

Other things I have found in working with this demographic is that I have to hit the level of challenge just right.  On the one hand, they are much stronger and fitter than most beginning students.  So I will introduce strength poses fairly early on, such as Chaturanga Dandasana, Plank and its variations (one-armed, or plank with leg lifts or knee bends), Navasana and Bakasana, to keep them challenged.  Arm balances and standing balances are great because they require strength as well as balance and give that special sense of achievement or reward for your efforts - Bakasana is a good one because it doesn't require much flexibility in the hips, as many others do.  For standing balances I like Tree with arm variations like Eagle to challenge the shoulders, and also poses like Warrior III which require a lot of core strength and focus.  I have found that the guys are more than willing to try 'scary' things like Bakasana - and I have seen a few of them get it on the first or second go (and it took me only, oh, 4 years or so?!)!

On the other hand, my muscle-bound students need encouragement that yoga can be accessible for them despite their low flexibility.  So I generally don't try to push them with too many seated forward bends or postures that require flexible hamstrings or bendy backs, which can be really frustrating and discourage them because they won't see much progress even over a 6-week period, and may not stick with the practice.  Although I do insist on paschimottanasana and janu sirsasana, with the emphasis on lengthening the spine - knees bent if necessary - I also offer lying down hamstring stretches and hip openers so they can go deep into the hamstrings without compromising the lower back.

Because most of these guys have limited hip and shoulder flexibility, we work on those areas through the standing postures, with a heavy emphasis on alignment too.  Poses like extended angle pose, warrior I and II, lunges with both hands inside the forward foot, and the occasional supine pigeon are good hip-openers, and poses like utanasana, Prasarita Padotonasana and parsvottanasana can be done with hands clasped behind the back to open the shoulders.  For all forward bends I try to encourage them to keep their knees bent and emphasize lengthening the spine in order to protect the tight hamstrings and slowly open up the lower back. 

Being, if you will, a bunch of boys, these guys are prone to challenge each other and themselves, so I try to discourage their competitive edge by emphasising breath and drishti, and by reminding them over and over to respect their limits and not push too far.   I also find that warming up properly is extremely important to make sure that they are stretching with the minimum possible risk of injury, so we start the practice with lots of repetitions of sun salutations.

Mind Body Balance

Over time (sometimes not very much time!) the mental benefits of yoga will start to shine through.  These can include improved relaxation and sleep habits, heightened focus and concentration, better overall energy levels and mental alertness, and emotional stability are all in the list.  And yes, some of my longer-term muscle men now chant with gusto, hands in namaste and all.  :)

These mental benefits of yoga have led to it also being used to treat soldiers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, something Svasti blogged about yesterday, and something I found a short article about on this blog as well.

Your turn!

All in all it's been a great teaching experience for me and I've learned so much and am still learning.  Now, it's your turn....   Fellow teachers, what have been some body types you have learned a lot from working with?  Fellow students, what have you learned from people with different body types from your own?


  1. My own bizarre twisted and spiralled body. It's taught me more about teaching than any trainer has ever been able to.

    When I first started teaching I taught Astanga. I had a guy who was a body builder come to the beginner's class. When I asked him to bend down into uttanasana he literally reached the top of his thighs. I thought he was joking but his muscles were that tight. He was a challenge for sure. I have never met someone so inflexible. Having said that he once picked me up and raised held me above his head with no effort. I tried to explain the concept of balance to him (as well as appropriate student/teacher relationships ;))

    That's an amazing story, teaching soldiers is certainly and experience you'll take with you.

  2. Wow, I love this post - thanks for letting us learn a little bit from your experience. How do you get the soldiers in the door in the first place?

  3. Thanks for this post. As a guy (though not a soldier), I went through a very similar process that you described, moving from the physical, then mental, and finally to the spiritual. I think your advice is good in general for helping men feel more comfortable in a yoga class.

    Many friends will ask me about the benefits of yoga, especially for preventing or easing injuries, improving golf game, etc. Emphasizing those benefits to guys is a great way to get them in the door to try it out. All the other benefits will sneak up on them eventually.

  4. Teaching athletic and intense guys is another whole world! I teach at a gym and lately, I have no idea why, I've been getting a lot of younger guys. I'm assuming that they are college football players here because they are HUGE! Sometimes I will have an all guy class and most of the time it is an even balance between men and women. It definitely creates a challenge to teaching. Keeping it athletically challenging enough for the big guys but mindful and calming enough for my older ladies. What I love the most is how yoga is bringing these two demographics together and they are both seeing the benefits. They keep coming back, right?! I am having so much fun with it and can't wait to introduce some side planks and arm balances. The most difficult part is when all the huge dudes line up in the front row...i can't see any of the other students!

  5. How cool! I find that muscley man demographic a tricky one to work with in a mixed levels, mixed gender class i.e. all my classes! It must be such a joy to have a few of them all in one group.

    I find legs up the wall a great hamstring opener and lower back releaser for those types and then fish on a bolster for a back bend (oops but then that's a prop situation although I find you can improvise easily by rolling up a thickish gym mat). Anyway, I do this at the end, fish then wall, with guided relaxation then straight into a shorter savasana. It's nice for them to feel the opening in the chest and legs without locking into that teeth gritting, fight the body thing that comes so naturally to strong, athletic people.

    The body type I've learnt the most from has been... I'm not sure... they are all so fascinating and every time I think I've figured out a perfect formula for a specific type the universe hits me with an anomaly... every time, without fail... it's become my own little joke with the gods.

    My own body is a constant source of weirdness and discovery. I have scoliosis which is what brought me to yoga in the first place. Over-open hips that have become a wee bit arthritic since I started doing thai yoga massage or is it since i hit my thirties.

    Anyway, i've learnt a tremendous amount in the last year from my left shoulder which was injured in a fall and when I first started my biggest teacher was my then incredibly stiff hamstrings. I've had fibroids for 2 years (hereditary) and that's how i finally surrendered to yin and restorative yoga and finally 'getting it' in that department has been the hugest blessing in my practice and my teaching.

    Part of me still feels a bit weird as a 'yoga teacher' to see this 'litany of woes' all in one (online!) paragraph but I really do feel like each creak and crunch has been a wonderful gift.

  6. What a great post. My evening classes have become almost completely even gender-wise, and I have to constantly remember what inspires which group and how to phrase my prompts. But it's all good. I've made many of the discoveries as your other readers and it has made my understanding of the practice even broader.

    I enjoy the intensity these fellow tend to display, and I also enjoy the mellowness they pick up from my other students. Such a good mix!

    (and what a cool thing that you can introduce these soldiers to the practice)

  7. What a great post with wonderful insights. I find that teaching to college students is much the same way. Most of them are late teens (still in high school taking college classes) and early twenties. They enjoy the physical workout and challenge and def soak in the body awareness and relaxation ~ much needed! Isn't it wonderful being a teacher! We learn so much from them! Hope you are well. I've def missed your blog in my absence. It feels GREAT to be back!

  8. AWESOME post...thanks so much for letting us learn with you : )

  9. Thanks for stopping by, everyone!

    @Rachel - It's so important to learn from ourselves first and foremost! That story about your student literally picking you up though - made me laugh out loud! But yes, many of the buff guys I've taught have similar flexibility issues and as they get older they become much more prone to injury. Good for them for doing something about it!

    @Tiffany - it was the pilots who started it all. They spread the word, then some of the soldiers asked me to come teach. Fairly small numbers but when they get hooked, they really get hooked. It's so great.

    @Alex- thanks for stopping by! I think men tend to be naturally more goal-oriented when it comes to a physical practice. So the initial lure of improving that golf game or breathing easier during a long run is what often motivates guys to come to yoga. Also, two words: Kathryn Budig. In the respectful, artistic sense of her being able to do amazing strength poses, while naked. :D :D

    @Babs - go gender balance!! I think it's such a healthy atmosphere to have a balanced class, and it allows for a little more fun and play. When the girls see the guys trying some tough poses they might just give it a go, but they'll feel better about themselves when they see how much more hip flexibility they have. Etc. I'm all about the yin-yang. :)

    @Dragonfly - It is great to be able to tailor a class just to these guys. I find the hardest thing is to make sure they don't injure themselves trying to compete with one another! As to your home practice, it's wonderful that you have found a restorative, nourishing practice. I wish I had access to more props for relaxation poses for my troops, especially for back and shoulder openers. They get such a kick out of savasana, imagine if they had pillows! At the moment we are practising in an open air space so it's a bit tricky (and there are ants...) but maybe I can improvise something...

    @Brenda - yay!! Bring in the boys. They add such a great dynamic to a class, and yes, the two sexes really do seem to balance each other out in a group setting. I have found adjusting them to be a real challenge since I am so tiny compared to them... guess that's another post!

    @Heather - Welcome back!! We've missed you! Yoga for teens sounds fascinating... did you take a training for it or does it just come naturally?

    @Jamie - Now go find a big buff boy and try it out! LOL

  10. Hey, thanks so much for linking to my post! I'm still very new to yoga teaching, and I'm just sorting out my first classes, so all of this stuff is very useful to me. Namaste! :)

  11. i teach to a dude who cant go into child's pose. im still thinking out a similar alternative..

  12. @ Svasti - the blogosphere, and our blog community, is a GREAT resource for expanding your teaching!

    @Emma - Isn't it amazing how something that I take so for granted is so challenging to some? It's glorious how differently we are all made. I had a lady once who had real trouble with child's pose until we rolled up a blanket and placed it underneath her between her legs... Then, she found bliss! ;)

  13. My Yin Yoga class is the one where all the men are. Mostly they are part of a duo (their wives found the class and brought them to it) but some have begun to attend on their own when their wives cannot make it.

    I think they enjoy the challenge of the stretch and the meditative aspect in Yin. The fellows who come to my class are as you described: athletic and stiff. But if they can hold a pose for 3-5 minutes and breathe the whole time, they leave class feeling tons better.

    I do have lots of props to work with so I am able modify poses to suit the bodies but even without props I think most people can do Yin.

    Thanks for your great post. It is fun to read about other teacher's classes.

  14. @Sara - my soldiers loooooove Savasana. I think the relaxation is the highlight for them.

    I've never done restorative without props! It's always seemed to be the motivating factor for me, i.e., if I can hold this pose for 3 minutes I get to lie on this soft pillow... :D

  15. Great post. I’m so glad you posted something on chaturanga. Leeann Carey, an amazing yoga teacher, says that it is one of the best strength poses, which is probably why it is easier for the soldiers. She has a free yoga video on this that I think your readers might like: http://planetyoga.com/yoga-blogs/index.php/chaturanga-dandasana-four-limbed-staff-pose/