Bent out of shape
Practitioners of “Bro-Ga” don’t have to be experts—or bros.
As I strained to complete a standing forward fold, my previously steady breathing grew ragged as I tried to pull my forehead ever closer to my knees while keeping my legs straight. My back and hamstrings protested while a boppy ‘60s rock song played over the speakers at the back of the room. Ellie Girdis, founder of Midtown Community Yoga and practitioner of nearly 10 years, called out, “Hold it here for one more breath before releasing. Now, let’s come down to our mats.”
I, like many others, chose January to set my fitness goals for the new year. I injured my back at the gym over six months ago, causing tightness and pain in my right leg. After months of inactivity, I decided to ease myself back into a regular workout routine with a class at Midtown Community Yoga called “Bro-Ga.” Ostensibly, yoga for bros.
“That was our main thing, was to have a noncompetitive, extremely welcoming, like, all levels [class],” Girdis said. “It really doesn’t matter if you’ve done yoga or not, and Bro-Ga was in particular for dudes because for the most part, you know, guys were the minority in yoga classes. … We just wanted it to feel a little more welcoming to a group of people that might not necessarily be brave enough to walk into this gang of girls who can do the splits and whatever.”
Girdis said it’s a common misconception that Bro-Ga is exclusively for men, and that the class is instead geared toward making any and all yoga newcomers feel comfortable. It features a rotating schedule of instructors who each specialize in one of yoga’s many different disciplines, and a playlist full of rock, rap and other upbeat music to make the setting less formal. Girdis said there also used to be a cooler full of beer afterward, but they’ve since given up the brews as part of a New Year’s resolution.
“It was just like a sampling of yoga, you know?” said Girdis. “Like, our catchphrase was, light yoga, heavy jams—and you don’t even have to be able to touch your toes.”
While the class usually averages around a dozen people, Girdis said, inclement weather on the night I attended meant that I shared the room with just three other participants. The large studio space was heated by a few industrial-sized heaters bearing the brand name Reznor. I wondered if Nine Inch Nails would be featured on the playlist.
Katie Brouner was one of the other attendees that night. She started practicing yoga around three years ago and said Midtown Community Yoga, and Bro-Ga specifically, helped her overcome her initial skepticism about yoga’s enigmatic reputation.
“So, my motivations at first were strictly weight loss, and I had a lot of animosity towards—not yoga, the workout, but yoga, the mindset,” Brouner said. “I had my mind set on, ‘People who do yoga are a certain way, and it’s so silly, and this is not me,’ to actually realizing that … it’s a mindset, and I had the wrong mindset, and now I’m willing to change it because yoga makes me happy.”
Brouner said her desire to lose weight and get more active was hindered by her perception of the spiritual aspects of yoga. Bro-Ga, she said, was a helpful introduction to an unfamiliar setting, and she was encouraged to see the diversity of the attendees.
“Bro-Ga’s the best one to go to for a first-time person, and it definitely shows you that it isn’t about people who can do headstands and splits and wear their Lululemon and, you know, just, ‘I’m above you because I’m spiritually awakened,'” Brouner said. “It was nice seeing all age ranges, all abilities working together and just not feeling intimidated at all by where we were when we started.”
As Brouner works a 9-to-5 job, she said the Wednesday night, 7 p.m. start time fits her schedule. And while she started yoga for the practical benefits, the meditative aspect has become part of her midweek routine.
“I don’t go to church, and I’m not religious, [but] going to yoga is where I can check in with my life, check in with my mindset, check in with my body,” Brouden said. “The cliché is set my intentions and my priorities, what I’m planning to do—just making my life better instead of being miserable with my life and not doing anything to change it. Yoga has given me that inspiration.”
I spent a lot of effort at Bro-Ga attempting to clear my mind of obvious thoughts like, “This hurts,” or “No way I can bend like that.” As we progressed through the hour-long session, though, my busy mind settled. In between the gentle stretches, twists and folds, the tightness in my lower back began to release—a feeling that was months overdue.
In the class with me for similar reasons was Lucas Feger, who has been coming to Bro-Ga on and off for the past two years. He uses yoga to regain lost mobility from previous injuries—although he was originally inspired to take up practicing after a couple he met at a music festival told him it was the key to their impressive dancing.
“I separated my shoulder, and I’ve had ankle surgery so I can’t really move it the way that I would like,” Feger said. “Certain positions hurt, so I’m just trying to get past that and get it back to normal. I have really bad back pain, too. I have really bad scoliosis. I don’t take painkillers or anything like that.”
He also said the eclectic playlist—which includes the likes of Metallica, Pink Floyd and the Wu-Tang Clan—is a welcome distraction for his often over-active mind.
“It’s really helpful because I have a hard time shutting my brain off,” Feger said. “So, the music helps me not think of the shit that I am always thinking of and just be able to disconnect for a little bit.”
It just so happened that the speakers shorted out during our class ("Just one of those nights,” Girdis laughed from the front of the room) and so we had to go without for the last half hour. I didn’t mind, though, as I found it easier to focus on my breath. Individual motions are synchronized with inhalations and exhalations in yoga, meaning breath control is important to maintaining rhythm—something I lack naturally.
After we finished the class lying flat on our backs in the traditional shovasana ("Corpse Pose"), Girdis told me that Bro-Ga has changed slightly since it’s inception in 2015. Many of the original practitioners have had to leave for various reasons, and some newcomers are unsure of the class’ accessibility.
“As we get more and more new clientele, we want them to know they’re welcome,” Girdis said. “And so, it’s one of those things where we’re like, ‘We’ve got to change the name because everyone thinks it’s for bros.'”
As this was my first class at Midtown Community Yoga, the usual $10 drop-in fee was waved as per their policy—also helpful for newcomers who might see cost as a barrier to entry. I may return to Midtown Community Yoga in the future, but regardless of whether it’s for Bro-Ga or a different class, Girdis said it’s more important to approach yoga at your own pace.
“You don’t need to have any, you know, rigid ideas about what your body should be able to do, which we all have,” she said. “It’s just better to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to do what my body can do right here.’ And maybe that’s different than yesterday. Maybe it’s more than yesterday, or less, and that’s fine. Like, whatever, you know. Nothing’s permanent.”
Not even Bro-Ga.