Mico brings yoga to tough guys

Chronic pain led to teaching path

Peter Mico used yoga to overcome a lifetime of sports and industrial injuries and regain flexibility and strength. Now he’s aiming to introduce the practice to other “tough guys” to help along the same path. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — Rugby took out the knees, years of working on concrete floors finished off the hips and back. By the time he was in his 40s, Peter Mico had what he calls “a whole litany of things” wrong with his body.

The defining moment that turned things around happened as he sat in a grocery store parking lot, watching other guys walk in and out of the front door. Nearly all of them, he recalls, had some kind of limp or obvious signs of physical pain that hobbled their mobility.

Like Mico, a lot of them seemed to be in their 40s and 50s — men who looked as if they might have played sports or spent their adult lives at jobs requiring daily bending, lifting and pulling. He envisioned himself as part of this army of relatively young males — still strong, but all shuffling along toward an old age that seemed destined for chronic pain and decreased mobility.

That was almost 20 years ago and much has changed since then. Most notable was how Mico turned from a self-described “tough guy” into a pliable practitioner of yoga. In his case, the toughness transcended the physical and dragged his mind along to the party. Eager to try virtually anything that could change this course, he became interested in what the ancient art of yoga might have to offer. First, however, he had to deal with a head full of notions about the kind of person who could take part.

“There’s a mystique,” he said, adding that the mystique has led to wide-scale misperception. “People think you already have to be super flexible before you can start, or that you have to wear tight clothing to practice yoga.”

Both images are sure to scare off the majority of guys who might express interest. Add to that the predominately female population that comes to yoga classes — the image of tiny, lithe ladies toting yoga mats and Nalgene bottles comes to mind — and it’s easy to see why a man might be nervous about crossing this threshold. It all ties back into the image of toughness. But Mico reminds that there are a couple of definitions for the word.

“Why would a tough guy want to do yoga?” he asked. “Because he is tough — he’s hardening up and losing mobility.

“And there’s the toughness of the mind,” he went on. “Men generally aren’t as flexible when it comes to trying new things. It’s just more difficult for guys to get there, but once they do, the benefits are amazing.”

That’s where Mico has a secret weapon that comes in quite handy. As he rolls out the mat to practice, there is no Spandex in sight. He’s dressed simply in a T-shirt, shorts and gym socks, looking more like a former football guard than a yogi. It’s that “regular guy” physical appearance that has started to generate a gender balance in the studio, called Downtown Yoga, that Mico opened just under five years ago on First Avenue.

“One thing that’s helped me is being a man and not having a perfect yoga body,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘If Peter can do it, you can do it.’”

The journey from initiate to teacher was mapped out by a combination of Mico’s own enthusiasm for what was happening in his life and the interest from friends who couldn’t help but notice how much better he seemed to feel. In short order, he was sharing what he knew.

“I was excited to tell people about what I’d learned,” he said. “And it turns out I was a pretty good teacher.”

Since opening Downtown Yoga, which is home to Mico and four other instructors, he has racked up more than 500 hours of training and gained certification in yoga therapy. Increasingly, he is working with guys who come to class looking for physical benefits and get more than they bargained for. One of the added benefits for women and men alike is the guilty pleasure of taking part in an activity that is meant to be all about you.

“It’s one of those few moments when you’re not thinking about your phone or your work or your children — and that’s valuable,” Mico said. “The stress reduction is huge. Everything gets more balanced and you get more perspective on things.”

Mico uses an assortment of “props” in his studio — blankets, blocks on the floor and ropes that attach to the walls — to help students maintain balance as they ease their way toward increased flexibility over time. The main idea he tries to instill in his students is that, despite the recent U.S. trend toward things such as “competitive yoga,” the practice is all about personal progress, not emulating what might be going on around you.

“Students can be too aggressive,” the teacher said. “The ‘alpha people’ come in and it’s amazing what they try to do in a class. It’s like they’re grabbing for the brass ring.”

As much as anything, yoga is about taking personal responsibility and circumventing the tendency to let the physical body slide into disrepair with age, then running to the doctor to say, “fix it.”

“It’s not a panacea and it’s not going to fix everything — it can’t,” Mico said. “But, with yoga, you’re taking ownership and you can remedy a lot of problems. Things start to open up and you’re healthier because of it.”

Having gone from a pain-plagued 40-something guy to a regionally known 60-something yoga instructor, Mico now spends part of the year traveling to places such as Santa Fe, Boulder and Fort Collins to teach workshops in the style of his teacher, T.S. Little. Part of his success in building the studio, along with adding quality instructors, has been the way he manages to juggle yoga’s ancient spiritual history with his own sense of humor. For instance, his Facebook name is “Yogi Schmogi.”

“There is a spiritual aspect to it, but you don’t take it too seriously,” he said. “Let’s just practice and have some fun at the same time.”

To learn more about upcoming classes, including “Yoga for Tough Guys — and Gals” and the free weekly sessions offered on Sunday mornings, call Downtown Yoga at (208) 255-6177, or go online to www.downtownyoga.us.

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