Go to any yoga class around the world and chances are there will be more women than men in the class. I have practiced yoga all over the world and classes range from all-female to maybe a 40/60 ratio of men to women. So why do more women practice yoga compared to men?
Many years ago in India, yoga was only taught to men. Then in the 1930s, two women were accepted to study yoga and both, in their own way, managed to push the gender barrier. After yoga traveled to the West it underwent a transformation and developed a more female-focused portrayal.
There are the key factors that have led to yoga being female-dominated. The journey of yoga from India to the West helped it undergo a transformation that changed it forever.
Number of women doing yoga compared to men
When yoga came to the west, a gender shift took place, and now more women than men were practicing.
A study carried out in the US in 2016 found that in just five years, the number of people practicing yoga has risen from 20.4 to 36.7 million. Currently, there are around 6,000 yoga studios in the US and more seem to be popping up!
According to the study, the female to male ratio was at 72% to 28%. That comes as no surprise given what most of us see in any given yoga class.
I will point out that in more dynamic yoga classes, such as Ashtanga yoga, there are more men practicing than in an average yoga class. However, the ratio for men to women still remains very imbalanced. however, which meant that women still dominated the class.
Most men perceive yoga as being too feminine for them. Indeed when I tell men I have male students in my class they always seem very surprised! And yet when they complain of stiffness, or back pain, or stress I know that they would most likely benefit from it.
Yoga only for men
Looking back at the history of Yoga, it started out as a dominant male practice in India.
The man who changed this male-dominated trajectory was Krishnamacharya, who is also referred to as the “the father of modern yoga”. He is considered to be one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century. He taught in a way that was appropriate for each individual
Krishnamacharya taught four of the world’s most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century, who each went on to shape yoga as we now know it:
- Indra Devi (1899–2002) who opened the first yoga studio in California and went on to make yoga popular in the US.
- K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) who established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948 and developed and taught Ashtanga Yoga.
- B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014) was the founder of the style of yoga as exercise known as Iyengar Yoga. He is considered to be one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world.
- T. K. V. Desikachar (1938-2016) who was Krishnamacharya’s son. He developed Viniyoga, an approach that is claimed to be aligned with the Yoga Sutras.
Up until then, Hatha yoga was practiced only by men. Krishnamacharya also taught only men. Until that is, Indra Devi arrived in Mysore and thanks to an introduction by the Maharaja of Mysore, he finally accepted Indra Devi as his first female and a first western student.
The first female yogis (yoginis)
The two female yogis (yoginis) that helped open up yoga to women are Sitadevi Yogendra and Indra Devi. Below you will see a timeline of modern yoga, how it all started with the now famous speach Vivekananda gave opening up yoga to the West, followed by the contributions of both these pioneering female yoginis.
Sita Devi Yogendra (1929–2018)
Sita Devi Yogendra is the author of the book ‘Yoga Simplified for Women’, published in 1934. What is important about this book is that it is the first authoritative book on yoga for women written by a woman.
Her husband, Shri Yogendra, was the founder of The Yoga Institute in 1918, which is the oldest organized yoga center in the world. He is often referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Yoga Renaissance’ as he tried to revive Hatha yoga and make it useful and easily available in peoples’ daily lives.
Sita Devi Yogendra was introduced to yoga by her husband and soon after began teaching women and children at the institute.
She advocated that yoga should be practiced by both men and women and so she wrote books geared to women and thus opened up the world of yoga to women, who up until that time were not allowed admission into ashrams.
“…since Yoga claims to be a positive science, it is foregone conclusion that its various methods and exercises are undoubtedly equally useful to both man and woman. As such it makes no distinction between either caste, creed, nationality or, above all, between the two sexes. I have already observed that practical Yoga does not close its doors to women.”Smt. Sita Devi
Indra Devi (1899-2002)
Indra Devi was from Latvia and her original name was Eugenie Peterson. She moved to India in her twenties in 1927 where she became a film star. After her move to India, she then changed her name to Indra Devi.
Indra Devi was not only the first woman that Krishnamacharya taught, but she was also the first Westerner that he taught. After her studies in Mysore, Krishnamacharya gave her his blessing to go ahead and teach yoga. She initially moved to China where she taught the first yoga classes in that country.
We must keep both our femininity and our strength.Indra Devi
Indra Devi then moved to the US in 1947 and this is where she helped with the female-dominated trajectory of yoga. While in California she had many celebrity pupils (such as Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Arden). As Michelle Goldberg writes in Indra Devi’s biography (The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West), she is considered to have “planted the seeds for the yoga boom in the 1990s”.
Something worth pointing out is that after studying with Indra Devi, Elizabeth Arden then incorporated yoga into her health spa programs for the rich and famous. And so this then helped promote yoga and its benefits to housewives and women of across the US.
This alone was a turning point for significantly raise the popularity of yoga for women.
How yoga is portrayed in the media
When writing this article, as a little experiment I typed in Google images the word ‘yoga’. Image upon image I saw women in a variety of asanas. All slim, flexible, and mainly white.
I scrolled down again, then again, then again. Where are the men? Ok a man doing an advanced asana did eventually appear.
The more feminine image of modern yoga could thus also be attributed to the fact that the yoga industry has a tendency to use images of thin, flexible, toned, mainly white women to promote its work.
And so it should come as no surprise that people then often associate yoga with a certain image of perceived female perfection.
As a yoga teacher and yoga studio owner I have come across this perception of yoga time and time again. I remember one particular student who walked into the studio. She was of average height and slightly overweight. She asked me if she could start yoga classes. I said of course! She asked if it could be done ever by her. I asked.. what do you mean? She pointed at her body and said.. well look at me.
My heart sunk. I said listen, try out a beginners class and you then tell me if yoga is for you. Needless to say, 2 years later she’s still in my classes.
On a similar note..
I have had men ask me if men can do yoga. After explaining that well yes, of course men can do yoga, the next comment I generally hear is that they dont feel yoga is made for men, as it feels it is more suited to women and their flexibility.
If only they knew that women were not even allowed to practice yoga until fairly recently and that the point of yoga is not even flexibility. That is just a positive ‘side effect’ which has become the main reason that people practice yoga nowadays.