Women May be Practicing Yoga to Ward Off Mental Illness, Study Finds

Men and women may approach yoga with different goals -- and derive different benefits.

A shocking new study may have uncovered the real reason why so many American women appear to be flocking to yoga: The practice offers them a huge potential antidote to chronic depression and low-self-esteem.

The study, conducted at Brown University in Rhode Island, compared the effects of a semester-long “mindfulness” practice on male and female practitioners. The men involved received almost no positive emotional uplift from attending the university-based classes, based on Buddhist and Daoist meditation techniques, researchers found.

By contrast, the women reported that mindfulness classes lifted their low mood and allowed them to achieve greater compassion for themselves. Overall, female participants reported three times the emotional benefits from the mindfulness practice as their male counterparts did.

The study sample included 41 male and 36 female students who volunteered to practice meditation and to receive lectures and read educational materials about the origins and benefits of mindfulness. All told, the 77 students practiced about 71 hours of meditation in a 12-week long academic semester setting.

Willoughby Britton, who directed the research team, said it was the first study she knew of that focused on the contrasting benefits that men and women might derive from mindfulness practices.

Previous studies, including a quadrennial yoga industry report sponsored by the trade magazine Yoga Journal, have documented the disproportionate involvement of women in yoga, both as students and teachers. Of the estimated 20 million people who have practiced yoga at least once in the past year, nearly three-quarters are women. In addition, about 85% of the 50,000-plus registered yoga teachers nationwide are female.

Sponsors of these studies have never speculated on the reason there’s such a surprisingly strong female bias in yoga.

However, over the years, many yoga women have complained that men, because of their gender socialization, tend to disparage yoga as a “lightweight” calisthenic routine and are averse to twisting their bodies in pretzel-like postures while focusing on deep breathing and meditation.

In fact, the new Brown study suggests that women may have developed an approach to yoga and mindfulness that corresponds to their own unique psychological and emotional deficits — ones that many college-age men may not actually share, at least not to the same degree.

And yoga classes may also function as female-bonding communities in which men may not feel fully accepted or welcomed by women – another factor discouraging their involvement.

Britton acknowledges that young women’s greater psychological vulnerabilities elevates the importance of mindfulness classes, which could even prevent the onset of mental illness and other debilitating conditions among women as they grow older.

“Emotional disorders like depression in early adulthood are linked to a litany of negative trajectories that further disadvantage women, such as poor academic performance, school drop-out, early pregnancy and substance abuse,” she said in a university news release. “The fact that a college course could teach women skills to better manage negative affect at this early age could have potentially far-reaching effects on women’s lives.”

Past studies have documented the powerful mood elevation effects of yoga and mindfulness. For example, in a 2005 study in Germany, 24 women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed” took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Women in a control group maintained their normal activities and were asked not to begin an exercise or stress-reduction program during the study period.

Among the yoga group, depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%. In addition, complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group.

Britton said she plans to conduct additional studies to learn more about the unique gender benefits of mindfulness classes. Other studies now underway have begun detecting the same unmistakable “gender effect,” she added.

“Mindfulness is a little bit like a drug cocktail — there are a lot of ingredients and we’re not sure which ingredients are doing what,” Britton said. “But I think a strategy of isolating potential ‘active ingredients’ and using slightly more innovative designs to tailor to the needs of different populations is what’s called for.”

In fact, a growing number of male yoga students nationwide appear to have abandoned the female-dominated studio environment. Some have turned to a hyrid practice known as “Broga” (a combination of “yoga” and “bro”), which features all-male classes with a greater emphasis on physical fitness, including amped up cardio sequences.

Yoga instructor Robert Sidoti, based in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, who first coined – and trademarked — the term, has trained hundreds of Broga instructors in at least 30 states, a growing number of them online. The organization’s first-ever summer retreat will be held in Vermont in August 2017.

“We rarely go into poses that require deep forward bending, twisting and binding,” Sidoti told Reuters some time ago. In addition, Broga participants typically avoid chanting, invoking Hindu deities, or using Sanskrit nomenclature to describe their poses.

Apparently, some women put off by mainstream yoga have also begun joining the growing Broga movement. Last month, a Brooklyn yoga instructor Emma Galland, set up a Broga class at a nearby gym, drawing dozens of men, some of them already active in yoga.

Galland’s class incorporates four minutes of pushups, not something you’ll find in a typical yoga session. And she’s even struck upon a novel incentive: as part of the $25 price tag, her sweat-soaked students can enjoy a free beer.

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