Gender Roles in Certain Exercise Classes Get a Fresh Twist

Larry Cohan and Joel Schneier may not look like pioneers. After all, they are, respectively, a 52-year-old law partner and a 46-year-old tax accountant.

But as practitioners and instructors of yoga, they count among a small contingent of men who've made an entree into this female-dominated form of exercise.

Schneier, for example, characterized his classes — he teaches at various synagogues, including Temple Sholom in Broomall and Temple Sinai in Dresher — as almost entirely women.

"I've often been the only man in the teacher trainings I've done, too, which is a little surprising," said the Mount Airy resident, who has been practicing regularly for about seven years.

Leah Weisman, who's been teaching yoga locally for 19 years, has also witnessed the trend.

"Men sometimes come with their wives and partners, but for the most part, I see women in my classes," said Weisman, 47, who's taught at Germantown Jewish Centre and Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, among other religious institutions.

This phenomenon begs the question: Why is yoga, which was originally practiced by men in India, considered mainly women's turf in America today?

According to Temple University professor Michael Sachs, who studies kinesiology, ideas about sport and exercise in Western culture relate back to ascribed gender roles.

"There is the societal image of men being macho, being the protector who goes out and hunts," he said. "Back in the 1800s and 1900s, women were not allowed to participate in overly vigorous activities, while men took up competitive and collision sports."

While these cultural norms have disintegrated somewhat over time — former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann has reportedly dabbled in ballet and tap, for example, and Super Bowl Champion Emmitt Smith famously competed in the ballroom dance show "Dancing With the Stars" — most men still generally gravitate toward traditionally "masculine" forms of exercise, said Sachs.

To many men, this does not include yoga, which consists of a series of breathing, posture and meditation elements, and which is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "union."

"There is a misperception that yoga is easy or that you just kind of lay around," explained Weisman. "That it's not a real workout."

But according to yogis, this notion couldn't be further from the truth.

"Modern yoga taught in most studios provides a tremendous workout," attested Cohan, who teaches a physically demanding brand of power yoga at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood. "It can help with muscle tone, strength, cardiopulmonary flow."

His "student," Jacques Barber, 53, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed.

"I think I'm much stronger and more flexible now," said Barber, who started attending classes after a ski injury two years ago. "Anybody who's tried yoga knows it's really hard."

For Eric Brunner, a 50-year-old human-resources manager at Temple University — and Weisman's husband — the 25-minute yoga routine he follows every morning is more of a preventive measure. "If I want to keep doing some of the things that I love doing — like basketball — way into my 50s, I know I need to take care of myself. When I started practicing yoga, I stopped feeling the stiffness in my joints. I have more energy now."

Brunner added a prediction as well:

"I think, over time, yoga will become more popular with men," he said. "Marketers will realize that as soon as they put the word 'power' in front of it, men will get interested."



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