Bear yoga is how big gay men make yoga work for them
As about a dozen thin, young women with yoga mats under their arms and their hair pulled back in buns filter out of the Loom Yoga Studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a very different crowd waits outside the door. The hallway crowd challenges stereotypical notions of the slender female yoga student. They are large and male and some cannot touch their toes; they trade Joan Crawford impressions while waiting for the yoga studio.
Once inside the studio, yogi Matt Johnson holds a tiny notepad and takes attendance while each bear sits at his station. A station includes a yoga mat, two blankets, two yoga blocks and a firm pillow called a bolster.
The men in the room vary in size, level of hairiness and state of undress. Some wear pants that end at their ankles, while Johnson wears butt-hugging blue shorts and a pair of thick, black socks with the brand "Nasty Pig" stitched around the rim.
This is Bear Yoga, the official name for the yoga class that caters to the gay community's bigger, hairier subset. While yoga has no gender, only 17.8% of yoga attendees are men. For bears, attending a yoga class might mean being the only man, the only gay man and perhaps the only big, hairy gay man in the middle of an exercise class.
This feeling of exclusion can mirror how some bears feel within the gay community. Lean, ripped physiques remain the gold standard represented in gay media and it is the body type gay men prefer in their partners.
According to the 2015 study "Bearing Bodies" in the journal Sociology of Sport, this leads to a vicious cycle for many bears: feelings of shame and stigma, lowered self-esteem, eating disorders and further weight gain. The pressures bears face as a stigmatized minority within a sexual minority group means they often seek out ways to be in community with one another. So can bears find solace and community in an activity that tends to privilege certain body types?
That's where Johnson's bear yoga class comes in.
Though many in Johnson's yoga class share bear identity, bears are no monolith. Just as bears are one subset of gay men — others include twinks and wolves — bear culture requires categories, as well. Older polar bears, Asian panda bears, buffed muscle bears, heavy grizzly bears, young cubs, furry and thin otters and black bears are just a few.
No two people illustrate the bear community's diversity better than newly married couple, Jon Fischer and Damiano DeMonte. DeMonte is reserved and a long-legged six-foot-four, while Fischer is five-foot-four with blue eyes, blond hair and a cheerful energy. Both possess an effortless gentle nature.
Though Fischer may not look the part, he professes that the bear community is where he feels most at home.
"I don't fit the stereotypical bear, I guess," Fischer said. "It's weird when you fall into different cracks of the gay community. I'm not the stereotypical gay in the sense of like a Chelsea boy, I tend to stick out because I'm shorter and in the bear community, where I feel the most comfortable I still feel like I don't completely fit the mold."
I joined the bears on an overcast Saturday afternoon. My first time in class was also DeMonte and Fischer's first time attending together. The couple began their relationship six years ago with a first date at the Brooklyn Pride Festival and a first kiss under the arch at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza.
DeMonte claims he would have never attended a yoga class were it not for Johnson's teaching style in bear yoga, which emphasizes yoga's fun and spiritual sides in a welcoming community.
"Yoga has this preconceived notion that you have to be really good at it and do all the different moves," DeMonte said. "Matt calls people out who are doing things differently, but not in a way where it's putting them down or picking on them. It's more of 'If you're not doing it this way, find this position where you can do it a little more easily.'"
He added, "It's about participating versus getting everything perfect."
When Johnson talks about yoga in theoretical terms, he references East Asian philosophy and cites Western philosopher Descartes' ideas about the division of mind and body. But he also understands the history many of these bears share, which includes an aversion to exercise that began, for some, with having to climb the rope in front of other students in gym class.
"What's crucial, I think, for a majority of people, is that they want to be around people like them," DeMonte said.
A sense of community draws bears to join the class just as much as the physical or spiritual exercise. One, Humberto Martinez — tall, black-haired with a soft voice — fretted at first that physical activity with his friends might strike too close a resemblance to a high school locker room. But those fears subsided.
Yoga's physical aspect doesn't worry Martinez — he's practiced for years and displays coordination and comfort while posing. But the traditional yoga classes Martinez began to attend while he lived in Miami had their downsides. He described to me exercising along the svelte, over-scheduled Miami elite, the kind who chide each other for having 11% body fat or for only running five miles a day.
"I was definitely the most overweight person in the room," he said. "I was the hairiest person in the room. And it was a hot yoga class, so a lot of the guys were shirtless and I definitely was not going to go shirtless."
Choosing to be around bears, Martinez contends, is a choice to surround himself with body positive people. The bear community gives him the tools to deal with the more stigmatizing aspects that often come with being a gay man.
"If I didn't identify as a bear, I would most likely have a very different psychology," he said. "We have a very different way of thinking about ourselves."
Martinez once attended a non-bear class led by Johnson. At that class, Martinez realized he missed having his friends around him. While yoga, to some, is another chore scheduled between picking up laundry and shopping for groceries, bear yoga resonates with students because it offers community.
"If I didn't identify as a bear, I would most likely have a very different psychology. We have a very different way of thinking about ourselves."
"It's very easy to get lost in New York, but if you're one of the yoga people, you know you'll see them that time every month," he said. "There's so many ways you can nuance it and say it's about the body, but it's just, there is some amount of it that's just like social and it's fun to be around people who are like you."
Johnson offers yoga sessions in two locations. When the bears don't meet at the posh industrial yoga studio in Bushwick, they use a sterile, stripped-down multipurpose room at New York City's LGBT center. Stacks of folding chairs sit in the corner and signs around the room's perimeter warn the bears not to touch the windows.
First to the 7 p.m. class is Mark Walter. The 52-year-old approaches bear yoga with the rigor of an AP student. He unfurls his own yoga mat and unpacks his own yoga blocks he's brought from home. He sports a FitBit. He has a healthy greying beard, chic square glasses and a slight native-New-Yorker nasal quality to his baritone.
Later, as he and I talk over coffee, he tells me that since he's begun yoga, men have begun to cruise him on the street again, and a smile stretches across his face. These little flirtations remind Walter that there is still room for gay men over 50 in the community.
"It is not easy to be a single gay man in this city, as you get older, especially. And then to get older and realize you're out of shape, it's ..." here he trails off, looking for the words. "You become part of that invisible part of the city. And I didn't want that, and I don't want that."
"You become part of that invisible part of the city. And I didn't want that, and I don't want that."
At 35, Walter's partner of 11 years passed away from an AIDS-related illness. Walter transformed from a relationship person to a career man. On the business side of the publishing industry, he was climbing ladders and closing deals, all the while ignoring his worsening diet. Walter confronted his weight gain as he rifled through pictures from his 50th birthday party. He walked into a yoga class weeks later, ready to shed pounds, gain flexibility and reacquaint himself with the man in his bathroom mirror. The group, he feels, was not welcoming.
"The environment wasn't for me. It was me in a room with thirty 20-year-old women," Walter said. "It's like, OK, I'm the only man here, I'm the only person over 50, I'm certainly the largest person here, I just don't feel like I'm part of this group. And who knows, maybe if I had kept with it, I wouldn't have felt that long term, but I felt that way."
While Walter feels like he stuck out in a conventional yoga class, here he is just one of the crowd. He is neither the skinniest nor the largest, the oldest nor the youngest, the hairiest nor the smoothest.
During a Wednesday evening class, Johnson walks around the room surveying bears who are attempting to mimic the stretches he demonstrates.
"I'm the only man here, I'm the only person over 50, I'm certainly the largest person here, I just don't feel like I'm part of this group."
As Johnson speaks, he doesn't give directions so much as suggestions. Yoga, he contends, should not force a bear to move his body in a way that doesn't feel comfortable.
"There's a whole culture on Instagram of, like, 'Look at me, I'm doing this really challenging pose," Johnson said to me later, over coffee. "You're not really doing this to call attention to yourself. You don't do yoga because you're awesome or you're an athlete."
I attempt a deep stretch that requires me to place my chest on a bolster, plant my palms firmly on the floor and twist my torso to my right. Johnson senses I am straining my arm. He leans over me as I'm face down and places my arm on the blanket with care, relieving my arm of its tension.
Later, Johnson asks participants to hook their left legs over their right legs, cross their arms and hug their torsos. We are all standing, twisted, in resting eagle pose. Thusly posed, butt out, arms wrapping around his torso, Johnson is statuesque, commanding and serene. He uses the moment to make a pun.
"Next time you are on the roof of the Eagle, try this resting eagle. The boys love it," Johnson tells the students, who snicker. The Eagle is the Far West Side's gay leather bar, and a go-to bear hangout.
The resting eagle causes me, and many others in the class, to fumble. Regardless, Johnson tries to de-emphasize the importance of posing.
He asks them to put their legs in the air and cross them.
"In a perfect world, your knees would be beautifully stacked one on top of the other," Johnson tells the room. "But this is not a perfect world." Johnson flicks the lights off.
It is bright and noisy in the courtyard behind the Loom Yoga Studio. A group of men smoke cigarettes only a feet from where Johnson and I sit. I heard Johnson's name many times before I began attending his class: in Facebook invites to Bear Yoga, on signs posted for the class at LGBT Center. In the courtyard, Johnson told me about his notoriety.
When Johnson attends parties, he says, people come up to him and recognize him as the "bear yoga guy." While it used to bother him that the class' reputation seemed to exceed its attendance, he now realizes that people will come to yoga when they need it, just as he did.
Johnson came out as gay at 18 years old, but he didn't really have queer friends until he was about 25. Part of that was because of more than one experience of sexual assault from another man.
"It took a long time to come to a point where I was meeting people I felt like I could trust and I could inhabit a community that felt like I could actually be a part of," Johnson said. Not only was Johnson ambivalent about embracing his gay identity, he was also ambivalent about embracing his bear identity, as well.
Then, he was introduced to yoga, and he realized just how much he and his body were not in sync.
"There's being out of touch with your body in the sense that you can't touch your toes and there's being out of touch with your body in the sense that you look in the mirror and you feel alienated by who you see," he said. "I had both of those things going on."
Johnson's doctor suggested he address his family history of cholesterol. His therapist referred him to a massage therapist to help with his post-traumatic stress. During his first session with a massage therapist, he recommended Johnson try yoga, which began to address both his doctor and his therapist's concerns.
Johnson still experiences triggers related to his PTSD, but he says that yoga has helped him feel present in his own body and to feel compassion toward himself in ways that his trauma did not allow him before.
"You wouldn't think you'd get that out of doing triangle pose," he says.
"You're there in that moment and you're in your body and you know, ultimately, the thing that matters is not your body, there is a spark of the divine or the universe that inhabits your body."
Johnson's original hope was that his students would eventually graduate out of bear yoga and use the modified poses they learned there to feel comfortable practicing in any yoga class. But the graduation process never really panned out: they keep coming back.
Bears may not enjoy every pose, but practicing yoga in a bigger body is only part of the draw. In these four walls, they nurture close friendships and put bodily anxieties to rest.