Yoga for All: Q&A with Jen Murphy

Jen Murphy is not your typical yogi; she’s a fitness enthusiast who’s dedicated to making yoga inclusive to all, especially men. Her book, The Yoga Man(ual), welcomes men to the mat without intimidations, encouraging them to let go of any preconceptions and figure out how to make the practice work for them. We recently caught up with Jen to learn more about her book, and her unique approach to yoga.

How did you step into the fitness world?

I was always an athlete growing up. I ran most of high school as a distance runner, and if that’s all you’re doing, it can be quite problematic for your body. I started to get injured in high school and that inspired me to get my personal training certification when I was in college. I was actually a personal trainer all through college at Northeastern University and it really made me focus on the importance of strength — particularly strength for injury prevention. Yoga was kind of just coming online then in terms of something that was mainstream.

When did you try yoga for the first time?

I really didn’t get into yoga until my senior year of college. I tend to be a very Type A person, and even something like Vinyasa was hard for me because it forced me to slow down. I think that ultimately is why I’ve come to love yoga so much. Yoga also really helped to loosen up my tight hips from running and it taught me how to breath more consistently as a runner. I found all these different things that yoga was really improving — in my physical aspects of my life, and then also in my day to day life. If I’d get stressed at work, I would pause, take some deep breaths and be like, “Wow, I feel better.” It made me more self aware.

How did you become a yoga teacher?

A lot of people jump into, “I want to be a yoga teacher.” And that was not the path I followed. I decided I wanted to try as many different styles of yoga as I could before even thinking of getting a certification. Some of the types felt silly to me, but then other ones taught me a lot. I think that’s one of the big points of The Yoga Man(ual): there is no one-size-fits-all for yoga.

What’s one of the more unique styles of yoga you’ve tried?

There are some classes I go to just for fun. Like, there’s one in Hawaii that basically looks like a rap video. You’re shaking your booty the whole class. And some people say, “Well, that’s not yoga.” I disagree with that. I think yoga has something to offer everyone and that’s why it was important for me to take as many classes, as many different styles as I could, and then find a style and a teacher that really spoke to me.

One of the things we love about your book is this concept of finding what works for the individual. Would you say that the best way to find your yoga style(s) is to just jump in?

Absolutely. First, look at your personality and think about what your body needs. A good example of that: I’m very Type A, so I really enjoy the Vinyasa because it can feel like a workout, and it’s challenging. However, I also know that as an athlete my body really benefits from Yin yoga. It’s restorative, but spending a whole hour doing four poses or five poses is really difficult for me. So, my advice is to find that balance of what you really enjoy and what your body really needs.

That’s great advice. Why do you think some people are intimidated by yoga?

I’m actually in another teacher training right now and I love what our teacher says: “Instagram has damaged yoga.” I think in the media, particularly social media, there is that “wow” factor of seeing someone bend into a pretzel — and for a lot of people, that’s really intimidating. Most bodies don’t do that, and that’s not what yoga is about. That intimidated me! As a runner, I could barely touch my toes and my hips were so tight that just sitting cross legged was actually really uncomfortable.

Do you find that men are less inclined to try yoga?

I think more and more men, at least in the last five to ten years, are seeing the benefits from a mind-body connection. A lot of CEOs are using meditation and yoga as a way to really reset and focus, and we feel that that actually makes them better leaders and better decision makers. And, you see so many athletes, like football and hockey players, all using yoga now. It does not need to be a 90 minute class. You can take three poses and incorporate that into your training. I think that’s what men are connecting to. They may not have time to do three 90 minute yoga classes a week, but as part of their training, they maybe do pigeon pose, legs up the wall, and even sit in a meditative posture for five minutes after their workout. Even those little things have benefits. Again, it’s not about touching your toes; it’s about finding weaknesses – whether physical or mental – and using the practice to work around or improve those weaknesses.

How did you come up with the idea for The Yoga Man(ual)?

There are a lot of men in my life. I’d run ultra marathons with guys; they really pushed me. And, every now and again, one of the men would want to go to a yoga class with me or learn more about yoga… but it was always very hushed, like, “Don’t tell anyone else in the running group that we’re gonna go to yoga class after the run!” They’re just so silly. Then, an editor friend approached me and said, “There’s no real book on the market that looks at yoga particularly from a man’s perspective and breaks it down.”

What does the title mean by “manual”?

It’s not a “how-to.” I’m not telling you to do exact poses; it’s explaining the hurdles a lot of men (and women for that matter!) face before even thinking of stepping onto a mat. It might be that they are intimidated by the words, or not having any clue what the different styles are, etc. So we break all of that down in the book. And, it includes stories from real people. When you hear that someone like surfer Gerry Lopez or chef Seamus Mullen are huge yoga converts, it helps make it more approachable.

Was there a lot of research involved to capture the man’s point of view?

I tried to find the male instructors who I thought had a really strong practice, a really fantastic philosophy around yoga, and who just seem really relatable. I asked them to break down specifics of the practice, whether that’s the breath or how to use different props for the man’s body.

Did anything surprise you when researching the book?

I was surprised how many men were willing to share their embarrassing ones, even the celebrities in the book. Most men have told me their biggest fears of getting into a yoga class are “What if I fart?”and “What if someone next to me farts?” So, we tried to be funny about that and write a section on studio etiquette because those things do happen and it’s okay.

What brought the men you spoke with to the mat in the first place?

Almost every man I interviewed came to yoga because they wanted to impress a girl! Whether it was a girlfriend they were just in love with or a teacher they had a crush on. And whether it worked out with the girl or not, all the men stuck with yoga. That was the other interesting take away! And, by the way, yoga class is the last place you want to try to hit on a woman.

Totally. One of the other great things you talk about in the book is how to incorporate yoga into your busy day or even when traveling. So, where’s the strangest place you’ve ever practiced yoga?

Flying takes such a toll on the body, so I have been that person who’s in the corner at JFK practicing a little flow sequence in Terminal A. It’s funny — people give you funny looks at first and then, they want to join in. I had one woman who was a janitor come up and ask if she could follow along. It’s better than sitting and scrolling through Instagram or shopping at the crappy souvenir shop.

And the most beautiful place you’ve practiced?

That’s a good question. There are so many beautiful places. I think Nepal — just the aura of Nepal is so spiritual to begin. I find it’s really powerful to practice outside; it challenges your focus more. You have the distractions of the wind, or the rolling waves, or the surface under your feet might be different, but it’s a really powerful thing. And it’s great to have a mat that will support your joints, but not having a mat is not an excuse to not practice. I’ve practiced on the carpet, on a beach towel, and on my hotel room towel.

That’s awesome. Here at Beyond Yoga we celebrate body positivity. In your experience, how does yoga helps with self love and acceptance?

I think a lot of people first go to the mat for the physical benefits and then they find the more emotional, spiritual part. If you look at some of the most accessible teachers out there, like Elena Brower who I love or my teacher now, Shannon Paige, you’ll realize they are so not perfect and they all come to the mat to help heal some part of their life. Having a really strong teacher in front of you who’s willing to share their imperfections helps people realize no one is perfect.

Do you think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations of what a yogi should look like?

I always say that there is that problem because a lot of yogis look the same — they are tall and skinny. I’d love for a beautiful coffee table book to come out showing women (and men for that matter) in all shapes and sizes doing yoga. When you travel to other countries, the women are super curvy and they’re in splits and backbends, and it’s beautiful. They have rolls; they’re not stick figures. I don’t think we see enough of that in American society within the yoga world.

What would you say to someone who tried yoga and didn’t like it?

Yoga is for everyone! But it can mean different things to everyone. You might have one teacher in your first class who really doesn’t resonate with you, but then the next class you find your perfect match. It’s kind of like dating, so just because you’ve had one bad yoga experience doesn’t mean it’s not for you. I would say, “keep searching.”