A New Twist on Yoga

Developed with men in mind, broga has garnered a devoted following on the Island in recent years.

I just couldn’t imagine going to a yoga class. But that’s what everyone – my massage therapist, my chiropractor, my osteopath – was suggesting.

My wife went from time to time. The participants were mostly, if not all, women. I didn’t know any men who were yogis. It didn’t seem as if it would be for me, but I can’t say exactly why. Maybe I wasn’t comfortable going in stiff and limping, unable to touch my toes, while everyone else could. Maybe it seemed too foreign, too New Age. Probably it was all of those things.

Then Robert Sidoti called to invite me to a new class he was teaching. I’d known Rob for many years, mostly through a Friday-night softball game in West Tisbury. A native Californian, Rob has that ease about him that suggests everything is all right. He made yoga sound cool, tough even. I wanted something to whip me, challenge me, and help me feel better. He got my attention with broga.

Plowing through pain

Two months prior to my first class, while traveling in Mexico, my back had given out. In the middle of the night, in a small village north of Mexico City, it went into spasm, stranding me in a white-walled hotel room for several days before I was able to crawl into a taxi to the local clinic. Another week passed before I was able, with the aid of pharmaceuticals, cortisone shots, and a cane, to board a plane and fly home to the Vineyard.

I’m a landscaper by profession, and for years my back had bothered me. I attributed the aches and pains to working on my knees, bent over for hours, for days, for years. Like many men, I pushed ahead, working as I always did, either ignoring or suffering through it, despite my body telling me I needed to care for it. Eventually I started to get massages, then came weekly chiropractic visits. Both my masseuse and chiropractor suggested I stretch or try yoga. I did nothing. I saw a back specialist who suggested I undergo surgery to relieve pressure in my lower lumbar. Not even forty, I was determined to try everything else first. The specialist said: Try yoga.

“Guys don’t start to look for yoga until something is wrong with them,” Rob says. “Most guys pop a couple of aspirin when they are hurt, but we don’t examine where it is coming from.”

We carry our concerns around in our bodies. Whatever is happening, we often don’t check in. Maybe our core is going a bit soft; maybe we are stressed out at work or worried about money. Rob says, “Often men just plow through life without taking a moment to look in, to look around, and examine.”

One February evening two-and-a-half years ago, I found myself rolling out a mat over the hardwood floor in the common house at Island Cohousing in West Tisbury, preparing for my first foray into yoga – excuse me, broga.

I had borrowed my wife’s yoga mat. I wore gray sweat pants and the T-shirt I’d worked in that day. I didn’t take off my socks. I was the antithesis of the lululemon-attired yogis gracing magazine covers – more like a Ben Stiller character. It didn’t matter. There were several men fiddling with mats, chugging from water bottles, looking around for cues on what to do, not really knowing what to expect, but for one reason or another giving broga a try. There were a half dozen other guys who had never done yoga before.

The room had a gym feel, minus the mirrors. It felt familiar until Rob began getting us into the first postures. Then it was downright difficult. I shook, quivered, sweated, twitched, winced, and groaned. And that was just from sitting and crossing my legs. I didn’t know stretching could be so difficult. Then came the push-ups, leg lifts, and headstands. I didn’t realize how out of shape I was. Except for my back, I would have said I was in decent condition.

Holding plank

Rob doesn’t care if people chuckle when they hear the name broga. It’s a humorous word that registers macho but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Part of breaking down defenses and getting men to buy into the practice is having a name that sounds cool without sounding pretentious.

From hot yoga to yin yoga, from prenatal to geriatric, there seems to be a yoga style for everyone. The name broga distinguishes Rob’s style of yoga from the dozens of others that have sprung up in our culture of flexibility.

On Martha’s Vineyard alone, there are no fewer than fifteen yoga studios and dozens of private instructors. Go to nearly any town of reasonable size in America today and you will find yoga being offered. It is being promoted everywhere for everything from lowering blood pressure and improving cardio fitness to assisting with weight loss and reducing stress.

Yoga is a large part of Rob’s family life. His wife, Sherry, not only teaches yoga but she’s studied yoga all over the world. She says yoga was developed as a way for men to “get in touch with themselves.” She explains, “In India, at thirteen or fourteen years of age, boys would begin to practice yoga. It was like a boot camp to balance the masculine and feminine.” Created some five thousand years ago, yoga is full of lessons passed down from teacher to student for generations. Most of these teachers were men.

Before developing broga, Rob had been a personal trainer and yoga practitioner for many years, and he’s worked in the construction and landscaping trades. He knows how taxing a physical job and sports can be on the body. So is sitting hunched in front of a computer or over a drafting table. And most men do nothing for the bodies they entrust with their livelihoods. Through his own yoga experience, Rob began to see how other men could benefit from the ancient art of stretching and breathing. He just wasn’t sure how to get them to try it.

Then he met Adam O’Neill at an Island potluck dinner a couple of years ago. Adam had been a college athlete and was suffering from sciatica. He came to the Vineyard during college, living here on and off for a couple of years. Rob had been thinking about ways to get men into yoga, and Adam had been thinking about what cues men take from our culture to avoid the practice. Their conversation led them to join forces, and they’ve trademarked broga, as in yoga for brothers – for men like me. Rob is the creator and heart of broga, while Adam serves as co-founder and president, handling the business and marketing side of the brand from his home in Boston. In addition to offering classes on the Vineyard, Rob teaches broga regularly in Somerville and has taught it in California during the winter. He and Adam meet frequently to discuss ways to grow broga further by training instructors and licensing a workout program.

Rob’s class is designed to counter the stigma that yoga carries for many men. It’s a kick-your-butt workout based on yoga postures, such as downward-facing dog, plank, and crow, along with some classic moves familiar to any guy who has participated in a team sport or fifth-grade gym class.

Everything about broga is designed to ease men into the yoga experience, from the sound track featuring bands such as Radiohead, Beck, and Ray LaMontagne to the language Rob uses – he says “relax your grill” and calls the “happy baby” pose “dead bug.”

“Broga is a gateway into yoga,” Rob says. “It is still honoring yoga, but from my experience, men aren’t into the incense and flowers. Guys are used to gyms with weights, and the camaraderie of team sports.” Broga class tries to replicate this familiarity so men can settle in and let their guard down.

Jumping into crow

Over the past two-plus years, I’ve gotten to know the guys rolling out their mats next to me. Billy Dillon has been a master carpenter for more than thirty-five years. He lives in Chilmark with his wife, Amy, and it is partly because of her that he is here. He saw her yoga experience and this led him to believe yoga would be good for him – as opposed to something like weight lifting.

When I asked him one night after class why broga, he told me he used to run marathons, but the impact of running hurt his back, as have decades of construction. Billy is in very good shape, but like the stories of many men who have come to broga, there was something missing in the traditional exercises he’d been doing. “Broga isn’t just about getting into shape,” he says. “It’s about getting in tune with everything in your life, getting your life in shape. It evens the keel.”

There is a montage in the film Fight Club when the narrator – after the brawls he arranges have gained popularity among men looking for a spark in their otherwise mundane lives as waiters and valets and accountants – starts seeing guys with black eyes, broken noses, and busted ribs everywhere he goes. They acknowledge him with a look and a nod, saying in effect, “I know you.” They’d shared something. They’d sacrificed blood and suffered bruises together. And through this, they had found out about themselves, about each other. They’d manned up.

This is how I began to feel seeing other men on the Island who had dedicated themselves to the same discipline as I had. In this age of the man cave, where men go to escape, drink, and get lost in the fantasy of televised sports, it is important to have rituals that nourish us as well – a place where we don’t run away but honor, respect, and feed ourselves.

Newcomers drop in to check out the class all the time now that they have become a fixture on Monday and Wednesday evenings at Island Cohousing. There are usually six to ten participants, half of whom might be women – turns out many like the workout they get from broga. Sometimes Rob arranges a special extra session with regulars at a beach or at someone’s house. In general, it seems as if older guys have injuries and want to get fit to stay active, while younger guys do it to stay or get in shape.

But yoga is not merely an exercise regime; it is a way of life. I didn’t know this when I began. Within the practice of postures, there are teachings on breath, on how to live a good life, on how to treat others, on how to honor the divine. I won’t pretend to understand all that is going on.

I begin to watch my breath more during my practice and during my days. I notice it at work during stressful times, and around my family. I notice how it tires and quits and rallies. I watch it come in and go out. One moment. Another.

I can’t do most of the advanced asanas, or postures. I still can’t jump into crow, which is the one I want to do more than any other: Starting in a high push-up position (a.k.a. plank), you bend your knees, hop, and bring them to balance on the backs of your triceps, balancing on your hands. I’m getting there.

There are many things I can do that I couldn’t do before, such as touch my toes. And I’ve noticed when life has me “standing on my head,” I’m better able to relax and breathe through it. When I started broga, my back hurt not simply because I worked bent over all day, but also because my back muscles were weak, my abdominals were weak, and I was holding tension and stress in my hamstrings and the muscles of my lower back.

Rob points out the importance of “dedication to the self” or “owning your life.” This is one of the unexpected benefits of broga. In addition to the physical changes that have taken place – my back no longer bothers me at all – there are the mental and spiritual ones.

Sometimes in class, when we are holding a difficult pose, Rob will read a quote. One that has stuck with me is from Charles Bukoski, the gruff, heavy-drinking poet. It goes, “Your life is your life. Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission. Be on the watch. There are ways out. There is a light somewhere. It may not be much light but it beats the darkness. Be on the watch. The gods will offer you chances. Know them. Take them.”