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Peter Simon: Guys should embrace yoga, all of its benefits

When I first began practicing yoga, an instructor inadvertently set off a round of laughter when she said: “Welcome to class this morning ladies.”

Spotting me and a few other men scattered among the largely female crowd, she recovered quickly and gracefully by adding, “and gentlemen.”

But like everything about the simple yet highly exacting practice of yoga, there was a deeper if unintended message: Gentlemen, you’re missing out on something not only challenging, but relaxing and healthful.

Could you benefit by building strength, improving coordination and enhancing your flexibility and balance? Would you like to walk out of a yoga class feeling markedly sharper – both physically and mentally – than you did when you rolled out your mat just an hour earlier? That’s what yoga does for me.

While male participation is increasing slowly but perceptibly in local yoga studios, the practice continues to be dominated by women, and not just here in blue-collar, pizza-and-wings Buffalo. Nationally, 73 percent of all yoga participants are women, and females make up 80 percent of Americans who attend yoga classes at least 50 times a year, according to the Promoting Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Dipping your toes – yes, you practice in bare feet – into the world of yoga can at first be a bit intimidating.

Much of that hesitance is based on what a Washington Post story calls “yoga myths” that paint a false impression of yoga as a “women’s practice.” Those myths contend that yoga “isn’t a decent workout,” is too “touchy feely” and that men don’t have the physical flexibility to benefit, the story said.

In my view, yoga’s unfamiliarity and the fear of failure or embarrassment are major obstacles for men.

Yoga has nothing to do with first downs, slam dunks or home runs. Instead, you’ll learn such poses as downward facing dog, boat, cobra, happy baby, plank, mountain and bridge. As you become familiar with the movements and the transition from one to the next, the benefits and power of yoga become apparent. Without machines, weights or sophisticated equipment, you gain strength, learn to isolate and relax individual body parts, breath in a healthier, more efficient manner, and improve flexibility, balance and posture.

Accessibility is another key benefit. Ten minutes of yoga works wonders before bed or during a stressful part of the day, and tackling a few poses is a great way to start the morning.

Yoga is also excellent for cross-training, as weight lifters, basketball players and bicyclists are discovering. My hamstrings and lower back are tight as a drum from running 1,000 miles a year, and yoga, more than anything else, helps keep me on the road.

OK, it’s not quite that simple. There are times when I struggle mightily with a pose while the woman next to me – somewhere between the age of my daughters and my grandchildren – appears to have taken on the shape of a pretzel while balancing on a single fingertip.

Humiliating? Not at all, and that’s the beauty of yoga. You go at your own pace, seeking only improvement and personal gain. No one is judging. No one is keeping score. Worth a try? You go, guy!