Are men really less flexible than women?

I recently read two articles on that apparently rare specimen: the male yoga student. In an undated Yoga Journal article, “Where Are All the Men?” Andrew Tilin, considers why men aren’t naturally inclined toward yoga. In a December 22, 2012, New York Times article, “Wounded Warrior Pose,” William Broad investigates whether men risk injury doing asana.

Yoga Journal Urdhva Dhanurasana

The takeaway from both articles (whether true or not) is nothing startling: Men are naturally less flexible than women (although even researchers “can’t specifically link it to differences in hormones, musculature, or connective tissue”). Men are more likely than women to sustain major injuries from yoga (women sustain more injuries overall, but less serious ones). Men are driven by competitive challenge and thus overdo to prove themselves (or they avoid yoga altogether). Men regard yoga studios as a female domain, foreign and discomfiting.

Reading the two, I rifled through my mental catalog of male yoga classmates, teachers, and students. Are they stiffer than female counterparts? Generally, yes. But, even among beginners, there are clear exceptions. In fact, I find a huge range in male flexibility, from rigidly immobile to off-the-charts elastic.

That said, my male sample size is much, much smaller than my female sample size. So my conclusions (and perhaps the cited studies’) might be based on invalid comparisons. Maybe the men who gravitate toward yoga represent particular types: men rehabbing injuries, retirees seeking relief from decades of wear-and-tear, musclebound athletes, husbands dragged to class by their wives, naturally flexible guys who take easily to asana.

Likewise, there might be self-selection in the female yogi cohort. Many women who are keen practitioners (who loved yoga asana from day one) are innately supple. We all tend to do what “feels good” or what we’re “good at.” Maybe flexible men end up doing more traditionally male sports, from martial arts to swimming, while flexible women are attracted to yoga.

Yoga Journal Akarna DhanurasanaTilin states that boys and girls are similarly limber until adolescence. Really? I recently taught a healthy, slim 12-year-old girl who struggled to do Adho Mukha Svanasana (much less Uttanasana) with a straight spine. Her pelvis was posteriorly tilted due to tight hamstrings. At twelve! Around the same time, I taught a couple of teen brothers; both were sporty, fit, and more flexible than the girl; but one was definitely tighter in the shoulders and hips. I suspect that genetics are more influential than gender.

If men naturally have more muscle than women do, how come some men are so loose? Once, after I taught my class at a community centre, the next teacher, a lanky 40-ish male, was warming up in the room. I turned away for a moment, gathering my belongings, and when I looked back he was flat on the floor in full Kurmasana, arms and legs shooting out, chin comfortably grounded. Splat!

Yoga Journal Parsvottanasana

I asked him about his yoga background, which is Ashtanga. He told me that he’d done distance sports, including triathlons, before trying yoga. “I was so stiff at first,” he said. “My classmates would make fun of me because my knees would be sticking way up in Baddhakonasana.” Is his case an example of transforming one’s flexibility, to heck with genetics (and gender, if it does matter)?

Ultimately, whether men are less flexible than women is neither here nor there. As a practitioner, you must deal with the hand you’re dealt, male, female, genetically loose or tight. As a teacher, you must see each individual body, avoid assumptions, and prevent injury.

Images: Yoga Journal, Urdhva Dhanurasana, Garcinia Cambogia for Weight Loss, Akarna Dhanurasana, and Parsvottanasana

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7 thoughts on “Are men really less flexible than women?

  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking writing, Luci. Yoga could benefit all.
    It is not necessarily easier to stay in a healthy yoga practice when one is so-called loose as opposed to stiff. Many of us have some parts of the body too loose, precisely because other parts are too stiff, whatever our body type/gender/personality may be. A well balanced yoga practice could assist each body to function more harmoniously, which will come with its own benefits for all the systems of the body. This includes the nervous system and the parts of us that either push too hard when we first learn yoga, or challenge too little to engage in real transformation. For me it remains part of the ongoing practice to balance the ever-changing dynamics of this ageing body.

    Louie

  2. Hi, thank you for your reflections on differences in approaches to yoga. As one of those rare specimens, I am neither here nor there, not the most limber and not the most stiff. As you eloquently stated, we deal with the hand we’re dealt. Yoga is a means by which we come to accept and to understand ourselves, hopefully becoming more compassionate, more sympathetically joyful, more equanimous, and more lovingly kind along the way.

  3. As one of those men more inclined to stiffness and injury due to competitive sports (in this case soccer) I began yoga to deal with the latter. Over the years I’ve ‘injured’ myself many times in yoga class and every time yoga classes have helped it to heal. It sounds masochistic but the lesson learned with each healing and injury has been worth the persistence. After 23 years of Iyengar yoga classes and practice I’m pain free a heck of a lot more of the time than in discomfort whether stress, muscle or joint related. Male or female, that’s a price well worth paying the odd injury for!
    Thanks Yoga Spy!

  4. So, as a woman who is very flexible, who was a wind surfer from 1979 to 2000 who has done yoga from 1984 to present, I totally get the differences between men and women. I LOVE iyengar yoga, practice daily, walk regularly and am going to resume my swim practice. I can injure myself in yoga and have injured myself with windsurfing, skiing, working… Working it out through yoga is always the healing experience. I always look for more males in my classes and study with both Donald Moyer and Michael Lucey, lucky me!

  5. It is right that men’s body structure are naturally less flexible than women’s. main differences are male hormones, musculature, connective tissue, body structure. Men are more likely than women to sustain major injuries from yoga. Most cases come in athletics. I have to read a book about Real Men Do Yoga: 21 Star Athletes Reveal Their Secrets for Strength, Flexibility and Peak Performance by John Capouya: http://www.amazon.com/Real-Men-Yoga-Flexibility-Performance/dp/0757301126/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1. The book describes that how a man can develop a body for athletes.

  6. As a male practitioner I really appreciated this article. I find that I excel in poses requiring strength and struggle in asanas requiring flexibility. My challenge for 2013 is to have both.

  7. As a competitive athlete Ive seen men who are very flexible, moreso than athletic women. I was not flexible at all as a child, but according to my “gender” I was supposed to be. I had major issues with flexibility and trying to even gain what would be considered normal flexibility- a lot of pain and some injuries because of the lack of flexibility. I’ve met many women who are not flexible, but others that are. It’s more a genetic thing (skeletal structure etc) than a gender thing in my experience.

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