Yoga is steadily gaining popularity in the Eastern Panhandle. One individual is advocating for a larger role for men in the community. Bryan Ortez is a young man with an incredible tale of adversity through challenging pain and loss of mobility. I have been his friend for almost a decade. There was a time when Bryan was unable to walk due to crippling back pain. He has found a path towards healing through the practice of Yoga and is currently teaching a male focused class in Charles Town, WV.
I caught up with Bryan at his Male Yoga Class on a warm Sunday afternoon. Bryan had some great insight into the power and benefits of Yoga and talked about the importance of sharing the practice with others in the community.
Nicholas: So what brought you into Yoga?
Bryan: When I was twenty, I had back surgery. I had always been very unhealthy, and I just wanted something that wasn’t too extreme but helpful for me. I did yoga on my own for a long time until my injury progressed and got so bad that I couldn’t do anything except struggle to find out how to heal. That’s when I started coming to yoga classes, and after about two years I started feeling like I was back on my feet again. I was able to get back to work. Now it has been three to four years, and I am much better than I have ever been.
Nicholas: What was going on in your life that caused you to have those back injuries?
Bryan: I worked a lot and didn’t have a healthy childhood. I wasn’t very active and was not fitness oriented. I didn’t develop a strong body as an adolescent. I feel like that really led me to having those problems. The type of work that I did; the labor, standing in a kitchen, sitting in a classroom are really straining on your lower back. I didn’t recognize that at the time because I didn’t know any better. I think that’s how the injury began. Having a spot in my body that didn’t function well and not doing much to counter it led to other problems.
Nicholas: What were other problems you noticed with your back injury?
Bryan: I just mean that it wasn’t just my lower back any more. The pain in my lower back spread to my hip, the front of my body, my hip flexors, my legs and hamstrings. My quads started hurting. I started having knee problems and developed a limp. I developed tightness in my shoulders, my upper back, and my whole body felt like it was on fire. I was in 100% of the pain 100% of the time.
Nicholas: Where is your pain now?
Bryan: It’s no longer all over my body. It’s specific to my lower back. As I learned more about it, I found that it’s a very common area for people to develop a problem, even when people have an active lifestyle and are fit. There are many complicated muscles in your hip, your lower back, your spine and core. Almost anything can go wrong. I’ve gotten back to where I can feel like I’m really working on the original spot where the injury started. I no longer have much of the accessory pain, but getting into that spot has been really challenging. The most challenging is the pain, even though I am stronger then I have ever been, there are still extreme levels of pain at times.
Nicholas: So yoga has not been a cure all for you, but it has certainly been something that has been very helpful for your back pain.
Bryan: It hasn’t cured me, although I feel like it is possible with yoga. That keeps me coming back. I don’t expect to be cured, but for the first time since I had the injury, I have felt better most of the time. I limit my activities. I don’t do nearly as much as I used to, but when I feel good, there is very little pain. When I feel bad, it’s not nearly as bad as it was before. With yoga I figured out a way to manage my pain. Hopefully one day I won’t have the same problem. The injury that I developed, hopefully that will go away. The pain will always exist, but hopefully this extreme pain will have [diminished] and won’t be as limiting. I’ll be able to do all those activities I don’t do anymore; maybe I can do them again.
Nicholas: You went from doing yoga on your own to taking yoga classes. What was the motivation to move to the next step of teaching yoga?
Bryan: I got more comfortable coming to classes. That was really helpful. The yoga community is pretty inviting and helpful. They like to talk about yoga and make sure everyone is doing yoga. My teachers asked me to do teacher training. I think a big push for me was getting a teaching job with my college degree. That is less laborious than my previous jobs, which led to the injury and being unable to work. Still, only doing the teaching job was a struggle, and I had lots of days where my pain was out of control. I didn’t know what to do. I did not have time to keep coming to classes, and so I said I was just going to do it. I paid the money for the training. I wasn’t sure I was going to teach yoga afterwards. I just wanted to at least have a foundation where I could take care of myself.
Nicholas: What does it mean to have a men’s yoga class? Why is that important to the community?
Bryan: Yoga is often seen as this strange thing. If anybody thinks of yoga, they think of someone contorting themselves into an odd shape, or they think of people lying around with relaxing music and meditation. It’s sort of both of those things and not really either of those things. I think that men, American men at least, feel alienated from yoga. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but the popular image of yoga is of women doing yoga. Men’s and women’s bodies have different levels of flexibility and strength in certain areas. The class is designed to invite men who do practice yoga to come out and practice in a space where there won’t be a majority of women. Most spaces have a majority of women. There is nothing wrong with that, but it does not provide much of an opportunity to socialize and learn more about yoga like if you are coming to a group of our own peers. You don’t have… I don’t know what the right word is…people are attracted to someone or someone is attracted to them, or overstepping boundaries…
Nicholas: Gender tension?
Bryan: Yeah. Weird stuff also comes up in yoga. You can get gaseous in class or you find a position makes a certain part of your body uncomfortable and you may not feel comfortable talking about that with someone of a different gender. It can be a little uncomfortable. Having a group of people where you do not have that gender tension, I think, helps people feel like they can talk about those things and not feel afraid to bring them up.
Nicholas: So what I’m hearing you say is you think that having a peer support in yoga and having that ability for other men to explore, discuss and participate in understanding their bodies could be really helpful.
Bryan: Yes, I do. I think it’s a really good thing. I have had groups of men in class and they seem more comfortable in the class then in others where there is a small group of men and mostly women. I have some really great friends in class and most of them are women, but I still feel like having this space is important to grow the male community. Men are only about 16% of the yoga community. So [I’d like] to grow the yoga community for men because it has so many health benefits: reduced back pain, lower blood pressure, relaxation and stress management, core and leg strength, increased flexibility. Women gain many benefits from practicing yoga, and men are missing out on the opportunity to take better care of their bodies.
Nicholas: So would you say that yoga suffers from, suffers is the wrong word, but I am going to use it anyway, suffers from gender segregation in sports activities or in health?
Bryan: I am not familiar with that, but it could be a possibility. We do segregate our physical health and seeing the face of American yoga as being mostly women is probably very alienating. .
Nicholas: It’s not as accessible.
Nicholas: What kind of men would you like to see in the community come to this class? What kind of demographics would benefit from yoga?
Bryan: I think all men in the community can benefit from yoga. I come from a background of being severely disabled and limited in what I can do. I feel like I can offer a lot of people that help; where they don’t know what to do for their body and don’t want to have pain anymore. I feel like I can offer something, at least through my experiences of trying to deal with and work with my pain and my limitations. That can benefit men across all ages and socio-economic backgrounds because disability can affect the young or develop over time. A lot of older men experience mobility limitations and are people I frequently see in yoga classes. They are practicing and working on their strength but are also working on healing their bodies. They are careful in their poses, and that is very important. Even when practicing yoga regularly it is important to be careful. Yoga is also for young people who are already physically fit, have good endurance, strength and flexibility. They can improve all of these areas and not only do more vigorous flow of practice of yoga, but they can also benefit greatly from a much calmer practice of yoga to really let their bodies feel nourished and healthy.
Nicholas: Anything else you want people to know about Men’s Yoga or anything the community should know about yoga?
Bryan: I want a men’s class to be a bridge for beginners and experienced male practitioners to meet, practice, and learn from each other about their bodies. I want them to take [what they learn] to another regular yoga classroom with a mixed group setting. I think having a class that welcomes beginners and experienced people can help develop a stronger identity of what yoga is. I would rather not watch yoga fade away as a trend or from the American consciousness; [I wish] for it to grow into its own school of thought and physical practice.
Nicholas: So it taking root in the consciousness of men, are you saying that would be helpful for the longevity of staying in the American consciousness?
Bryan: I don’t think that it needs men to be strong, but I think to continue to grow, men need to be pushed and pulled into the field.
Nicholas: …To be inclusive.
Bryan: Yes, and it is inclusive already. It just needs that extra pull to get more people to really start questioning; is it because it is trendy and fun or is it because there are real health benefits?
Bryan is a Certified Yoga Instructor at Jala Yoga in Charles Town, WV.
His instructor profile reports that he “completed his 200 hours of Yoga Teacher Training with Jala Yoga in 2015. His classes include the knowledge gained from his experience recovering from years of back injuries. Practicing with injury has helped him cultivate a way to access strength while finding ease in the postures.”
You can register for his classes online. The Sunday Men’s Class is held from 4:30pm to 5:30pm at 307 West Washington Street Charles Town, WV, 25414.