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In São Paulo, a vulnerability course for men teaches them to be less 'macho'

In São Paulo, a course on male vulnerability is teaching participants to be less 'macho'. Retreat attendees, engaging in activities that promote "male vulnerability," perform connection exercises. Image: Personal Archive (FOR SUBSCRIBERS ONLY)

By Rodrigo Bertolotto

From TAB, in São Paulo

02/10/2022 4:00 AM

2:20-9:11

Hand squeezing the perineum until it produces a shock, tongue spread over the chin, and fingertips tickling the crown. All this with parallel feet, bent knees, contracted sphincter, pelvis forward, chest puffed, and panting breath. The posture is complicated, but I try to concentrate to unravel the manly emotions that inhabit me. Standing among seven other participants. Skin to skin, hair to hair.

The male vulnerability course advertised the motto "find connection with yourself and others". To get there, one had to go to Sumarezinho, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the western part of São Paulo, turn onto a tree-lined street, open the gate of a mansion, cross a garden, and enter an annex — consisting of a closed room for privacy in nude practices and another glassed room for clothed ones. In the guardhouse on the sidewalk in front, the street guard barely suspected the comings and goings: "I heard they do yoga there," he tells the reporter.

Less violence and more emotion form a new idea of manhood Objectified? See the lives of men who make a living from their bodies The future of sex: how technology influences the search for pleasure The therapist Daniel Bittar, 31, guides the group. "To reach a vulnerable state, you have to surrender to sensations and emotions. Allow yourself to be observed and touched," he instructs early on.

In the midst of the exercises, there are tears, screams, and even nausea. But nothing that catches the attention of the neighbors. "Once we tried to do a catharsis in the courtyard, and the police even came because it was so intense that people thought a crime was happening here," Bittar recalls.

Various types of classes on masculinity have emerged recently. At one extreme are virility coaches, promising to bring back the lost macho after a few sessions of chest-pounding and primal roars. On the other hand, there are retreats that deconstruct this ideal, opening up possibilities in a time of faltering patriarchs. Among them, the emphasis can be more psychological, sociological, philosophical, or spiritual — Bittar's experience leans more towards the latter.

Armor of guilt I sit on the floor in front of a Bulgarian guy. I interlace arms and legs with him. I close my eyes, regulate my breathing, and hold his hands. An active meditation begins with a sweet musical track and Bittar's guidance. He instructs us to feel the warmth of the sun and magma flowing through the body from top to bottom, with roses blooming in the chest, the brain turning into a crystal, among other images inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.

At the end of the activity, each person gives their testimony. I mention that I felt a sweetness and delicacy, unimaginable for me until then in a gathering of gentlemen. The therapist translates the sensation: "It's because affection, touch, tenderness, and breath in the exercise generate an energy that aids in the 'unarmoring' process."

Breaking emotional barriers to reach the sensitive and sentimental self, in fact, is the initial and main action of the course. Leaving backpacks and clothes at the entrance is simple compared to unburdening oneself from the weight of histories of abuses, pains, and fears shared there.

"I have these barriers myself. You get rid of one and realize there's another. Selfishness and narcissism make you close up," confesses Bittar. "I consider myself highly spiritualized, and suddenly I find myself feeling envious of another man on the beach because he's taller or more muscular than me. This feeling needs to be worked on; it's not helpful to push it aside and continue with my namaste self-image."

A group gives a gentle massage to a workshop participant to awaken masculine sensations and emotions. Image: Personal Archive

In another exercise, naked and standing, I exchange a gentle massage with a guy from Recife — in the middle of the practice, besides the fingertips, I feel the touch of another part of his body that advanced to my leg.

Most activities are done with closed eyes. However, when journalistic observation is needed for the report, I slightly open them and see other pairs with bodies and lips pressed together. Our teacher soon warns us: "Guys, each one focuses on and perceives their own process. Don't worry about the exchange. Relax, this is just the beginning."

Next, it's time to stand in the center and have the body touched gently by 16 hands. Contacts range from neck caresses to blows on the genitals — challenging the homoaffectionate boundaries of an intruder coming from heterosexual crowds.

What the eyes don't see... That meeting started without anyone introducing themselves. Each person could only speak about what they were feeling at the moment, a process the guide called "heart sharing." "Empathy," "support," and "acceptance" were the most repeated words. If someone started talking about past scars, Bittar would interrupt and ask the person to stick to the impressions of that moment. "If you over-psychologize the thing, you don't allow yourself to feel what is really happening," explains the therapist.

Only at the end of the journey was there a "formal presentation": each person took off their clothes and stood in front of others and the mirror on the wall just behind the group. In addition to stories about romantic, family, and religious relationships, everyone had to talk about what they thought of their bodies.

The last to present was a guy covered in tattoos and muscles. "For me, it's hard to be naked in front of so many people. But I gathered courage because I'm not the only bold one here," he said, to the general laughter.

A pair embraces during practices at a retreat to develop "vulnerable men." Image: Personal Archive

Two former overweight individuals exposed their dilemmas with their bodies. "When I came home from school and told my mom I had fought because they called me fat, she would say, 'don't mind, you're healthy.' When the fight was because I was called gay, she would retort, 'but you also don't stop swaying and prancing around, kid,'" one of them recalled.

Another, tall and athletic, recounted how he felt vulnerable after having to amputate one of his legs. "I always felt strong and powerful. But what is more vulnerable than being hospitalized for two months, unable to touch the ground and depending on someone even to clean your butt?"

In my turn, I revealed my condition: "I'm here as a straight spy." All my colleagues looked astonished. The therapist later revealed that I was the third case since he started his courses in 2018.

Sex, addiction, and tantra Bittar recalls that it was excessive consumption of pornography that led him towards body therapies. He started studying the energetic touch of Reiki (Japanese integrative medicine), and then delved into the so-called "neotantra," a Western adaptation of the Indian spiritual doctrine of over 1,500 years.

In 2019, he traveled the world in search of these teachings, going to festivals in Portugal, temples in India, retreats in Bali (Indonesia), and a season in Koh Phangan — a Thai island known as a tantric paradise. Back in Brazil at the end of 2020, he resumed his courses.

"Sensations from touch trigger raw emotions, which are then elaborated into more refined feelings. This can lead to intuitive states and also to a rational understanding of this feeling. In the end, you connect with your subjectivity and your surroundings, stepping out of your narcissistic shell," theorizes the therapist.

Therapist Daniel Bittar leads meditation to access emotions in the "male vulnerability" course. Image: Personal Archive

One of his students experienced a turnaround with the experiences. He reported having a castrating relationship with his father, which made him feel anger towards his body and his more feminine side. He sought relief by using methamphetamine and ecstasy, substances that numbed his pain and heightened his pleasure in group sex sessions.

"These drugs took me to a surreal climax. It reached the point where I wanted to live there, but the crash afterward was much stronger, a very dangerous energy. Tantra gave me a similar sensation, more diluted, without the down. And I even reached peaks of pleasure, love, and acceptance. It's easy to swap these drugs for tantra, and with that, I escaped a process of self-destruction. I was already aware of it in psychotherapy. But it was very mental, and I wasn't going anywhere," says Marcelo (fictitious name because he fears that the account of his experience with drugs could harm his career).

Where's my man? I return home somewhat airy after the course. Terms like "homo," "hetero," or "bi" lose their previous meaning, and the desire is to reach a place without signs telling us where we are or if we have arrived. I resonate with other male affections, and I feel that this unstable frequency can be a force.

Masculinity is not the ability to open olive jars, change tires, know how to apply a chokehold, or down a shot of aguardiente. It is also not in idealizations like "prince charming," "masked avenger," or "lone gunslinger," much less in labels like alpha, beta, gamma, sigma, and other variants.

After all, what is a man made of? I don't know (and no one knows). I imply, but I don't explain.