Yoga has quickly evolved to become one of the most popular wellness practices in the United States. Over 30 million Americans routinely practice yoga for its numerous health benefits ranging from: alleviating chronic back pain to assisting in addiction treatment and recovery. Although there are benefits for both men and women, a large survey conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that only 28 percent of regular yoga practitioners are men.
As a doctor, mental health professional, and registered yoga teacher, I routinely discuss yoga with my patients as a mindfulness-based practice with a growing body of evidence. I offer to both sexes the belief that we should all be doing more yoga, but a specific invitation to men who may be hesitant to embark on their own yoga journey. In an attempt to get more men on board, let’s examine the evidence.
1. Yoga brings stillness to the mind
Meditative practices, like yoga, are consistently shown to slow everything down. During yoga class one might hear ujjayi pranayama described as a particular style of breathing. Deep and refreshing inhales and audible cleansing exhales. Prana (Sanskrit for breath) is one of most important parts of a comprehensive yoga practice. Evidence has demonstrated that pranayama can reduce heart rate and respiratory rate as well as lower blood pressure. Nidra yoga, specifically, has been found to increase dopamine in the ventral striatum (part of our brain’s pleasure center). In other words, yoga feels good.
2. Yoga may enhance cognition
I am not saying that yoga will make you smarter, but I will share a lovely study with you that utilized brain imaging to compare 13 people who regularly practiced yoga and 13 people who did not. The yogis showed increased grey matter volume in the hippocampus, a brain region implicated in learning and memory. It also showed that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in executive functioning, did not have to work as hard when presented a task in the group who regularly practiced yoga.
3. Yoga in depression management
As the body of evidence grows, it would not surprise me if one day yoga is considered a standard of care treatment for several psychiatric conditions including major depressive disorder. A 2017 study that examined 38 adults supported that people who were struggling with depression had significant reduction in symptoms after 8 weeks of hatha yoga twice per week versus 8 weeks of attention and control education. Men and women grappling with depression may benefit from yoga and evidence supports this idea.
4. Yoga for improved sexual function – this is folklore, right?
There are indeed some fairly recent studies that support benefits of yoga for improved sexual function. It is interesting that science is now beginning to explore this, when in fact ancient yoga was practiced predominately by men and sexuality was front and center as William Broad writes in his book The Science of Yoga. A study published in the Journal of Sex Medicine showed reduced premature ejaculation symptoms in patients prescribed regular yoga. One may speculate this is secondary to yoga’s ability to reduce anxiety, and anxiety often underlies a host of sexual dysfunctions.
5. Yoga may help you sleep better
There is compelling evidence that yoga improves sleep. By many estimates, about 60 million Americans struggle with a sleep disorder. It comes as no surprise that if we are sleeping better, then we feel better overall. A cardinal symptom of depression is poor sleep, and in some cases I have seen depression all but vanish as poor sleep is appropriately addressed and treated. Studies have also shown that sleep restriction may adversely impact testosterone levels, which may be of interest to many men. Yoga has been shown to improve sleep across all parameters, from how long it takes to fall asleep to how long we stay asleep. This offers another good reason to engage in a regular yoga practice.
As a wellness advocate, doctor and yogi, I encourage anyone who is thinking about yoga to give it a try: men, women, young or old. At the very least, it is a fun experience with numerous health benefits for the body and the mind.
Gregory Scott Brown, MD is the director of the Center for Green Psychiatry, PLLC an Austin-based wellness advocacy platform and outpatient clinic that will begin seeing patients in July 2019. Dr. Brown is a general psychiatry resident at the Dell Medical School and an integrative medicine fellow with the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine.