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Byfield men’s group embraces yoga

Mike Houlihan (left), owner of Roots to Wings yoga studio in Newbury’s Byfield neighborhood, instructs Craig Grimes (center) and Jim Young, both of Byfield, during a class for men.

Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe

Mike Houlihan (left), owner of Roots to Wings yoga studio in Newbury’s Byfield neighborhood, instructs Craig Grimes (center) and Jim Young, both of Byfield, during a class for men.

On a drizzly evening in a second-floor yoga studio, candles flicker in the dim light, incense drifts through the air, and mellowing music intermingles with chirps and peeps from crickets and sparrows outside.

On their mats, barefoot students move from one pose to another: leg lifts, supine twists, downward facing dogs, planks.

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This could be any night in any exercise studio anywhere in America, but here, you won’t find stretchy yoga pants and sports bras, jealousy-inducing flexibility, or even anyone with double X chromosomes.

This is yoga — for guys only.

“I just find it incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling,” said 43-year-old Craig Grimes of Byfield, a general internist and new yoga devotee.

They call themselves the Turkey Squad — a group of men who have taken up yoga at Roots to Wings studio in Byfield under the tutelage of 48-year-old Mike Houlihan. They are admittedly inflexible (or at least they started out that way), and many are self-described “men’s men” who golf and play hockey and mountain-bike. But at least one night a week, they roll out their mats, twist their bodies into positions they thought only women could master, and try to seek inner calm in an increasingly hectic world.

“I kind of naysayed the whole thing — that it wasn’t really a workout — ‘Who needs to be flexible?’ ‘Who needs to relax? I don’t need to relax,’ ” said 44-year-old Tom Girard of Newbury. But since trying yoga for the first time in January, “I’m more connected with the way I feel and the way I move. It’s the most relaxing hour of the week.”

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Believed to predate written history, yoga has been practiced for thousands of years almost exclusively by men in the eastern world — with women, in many cases, even excluded from doing it.

Yet here in the United States, the discipline has become dominated by women, with many men, as a result, shying away.

According to Yoga Journal, an industry publication, 15.8 million people in the United States practice yoga, but just under 28 percent of them are men.

“There’s a misperceived femininity,” said Grimes, who had never tried yoga until six months ago. “It’s just not something that most men think about. I never really thought about it, to be honest.”

Still, that is a mindset that is slowly shifting.

In February, for example, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants made news when each team prepared for Super Bowl XLVI with yoga techniques. Meanwhile, the popular book “Real Men Do Yoga,” by John Capouya, profiles 21 athletes, including Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett and NFL football veteran Shannon Sharpe, who have worked the centuries-old discipline into their regular routines.

Then there’s the popular, self-named yoga system developed by former professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, and the new “Broga,” a yoga practice particularly meant to assuage the male ego, now offered in Somerville and on Martha’s Vineyard.

Roots to Wings began offering its eight-week Turkey Squad classes in January — named, as Houlihan described it, for the guys who got benched or pulled aside by the coach in high school — and it now has more than 50 participants.

Houlihan stressed that it is not intended to be exclusionary, or a “guys club.” He simply wanted to create a class that focuses on the areas of a man’s body that tend to need more flexibility — the hamstrings, for example, or the back, hips, and neck and shoulders — and he figured that without women around, men would be more inclined to let their guard down and “break down their barriers.”

Grimes acknowledged that it would have been intimidating to walk into a studio full of “very flexible women.”

“I like coming with guys,” he said, “because we’re all equally inflexible.”

Whatever their abilities, though, Houlihan said he was confident the practice would resonate with men.

“I knew there were so many guys who could really benefit from yoga,” he said from a seat in his Byfield studio, situated kitty-corner to the Newbury Town Library. “I’m doing this to get a bunch of men in a room so they can soften. This is about allowing these guys to open up.”

That said, he was skeptical starting out.

His wife, Beth, has been doing yoga for years, and when she initially urged him to try it, his response was typical: “I’m not interested in doing yoga; it’s for girls.”

But in his early 40s, things changed. Working as a chief information officer, he was constantly on the road, high-strung, and had what he called a “hard edge.” Then he started having issues with high blood pressure and cholesterol, headaches, nausea, muscle pulls. Worst of all, he just felt older than he should have.

So he gave in and tried yoga.

Since then, he has lost about 40 pounds, changed his eating and sleeping habits, and expanded into the deeper aspects of yoga related to the inner self, as well as Chinese medicine. And two years ago, he left the corporate world to teach yoga full time through Root to Wings, which he runs with his wife.

“When I found yoga, the experience I had was so great I had to share it,” he said, calling the ancient practice a “tangible way to release the anxieties and stresses and sorrow.”

Which was palpable during a recent evening session, as the 10 men assembled in the studio exhaled, inhaled, and let out loud grunts and groans as they pushed through the routine.

They started the session laying flat on their mats, breathing deep, releasing tension.

Then came belt work — wrapping it around one foot, then the other, stretching to the ceiling, then to each side.

“It’s amazing how straight your legs are, compared to January,” Houlihan marveled as he navigated between their mats, the wood floor creaking slightly.

“Find your edge,” he urged, “when a little less stretch wouldn’t be enough, and any more stretch would really be uncomfortable.”

Various mat poses followed: lunging one leg while twisting and stretching the opposite arm to the ceiling; holding steady with bent elbows just a couple inches off the floor; standing with one leg curled in like a flamingo, both arms pointed straight to the ceiling.

After some final breathing exercises and meditation, the class disbanded, some stopping to chat and sip on Houlihan’s homemade tea (a mixture of dates, gogi berries, licorice bark, and other ingredients).

Girard, as he toweled off, said he is more flexible now, and feels a difference in his overall perseverance.

Grimes likewise said he has increased strength and a “tremendous sense of balance,” not to mention that he is much more limber than he has ever been.

His New Year’s resolution? To be flexible enough to touch his toes.

“Now I can. It seems so simple,” he said, “but it’s something in my life that I’ve never been able to do.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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