PHILADELPHIA — On a perfect November Saturday afternoon, when they could have been pumping iron at the gym or hanging out with friends over a couple of pale ales, half a dozen men slipped through the back entrance to a Spartan yoga studio on the main drag of Westmont, N.J.
They were there, bravely and voluntarily, to spend two hours doing yoga.
Never mind that the ancient Indian practice linking breath, body, and spirit was developed and taught by men. In America, yoga is a woman's domain.
A 2012 study by the Yoga Journal found that 82 percent of yoga practitioners were women.
Walk into most classes and if any men can be found, they are in the back corners, where they can fumble through poses without attracting much notice.
Anatomically, women are no better equipped than men to do yoga, said Larry H. Chou, a physiatrist at Premier Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine in Havertown, Pa.
"The resistance has been psychosocial. There was this perception that yoga was less manly," said Chou, who has consulted with professional sports teams and was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Sports Medicine Center.
Furthermore, because men in America tend not to stretch as much as women do, they are not as flexible, Chou said. "People like to do what they are good at," he said. "And they're not so fond of doing what they're not good at."
Though the gender imbalance in yoga classes has social advantages for some men after class, many find it demoralizing to be surrounded by women who, in general, can twist themselves into poses with much greater ease.
"It's a challenge," said Alain Benitez, who recalls his first yoga class as a humbling experience. "Out of a group of 30 or 40, I was the only man, except for the teacher's boyfriend. I learned a lot about how much ego we carry. It was kind of humbling."
In the five years since, Benitez has devoted himself to the practice. After studying with several teachers, Benitez began leading his own classes. Last year, he joined the small but growing number of yoga teachers offering classes geared exclusively to men.
"We have specific limitations," said Benitez, 32, whose day job is conducting allergy research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Our broader shoulders do not help with balance. Our minds race a little bit faster. We have a hard time getting into a meditative state."
In the safety of a yogic fraternity, Benitez said, his students feel more relaxed.
He helps them get there by speaking their language. When they lie prone for cobra pose, he tells them, "if anything needs adjusting, now is the time. We don't want pinching." And he notes there is something reassuring when more than half the men in the room cannot reach past their knees, let alone palm the ground.