Women May Be Flocking To Yoga To Stave Off Mental Illness, New Study Finds

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Researchers at Brown University claim to have uncovered a powerful psychological rationale that might explain why so many American women are flocking to yoga classes:   The practice offers them a powerful antidote to chronic depression, low self-esteem and attendant psychological disorders.

The study, the first to zero in on powerful gender differences in yoga, is bound to prove controversial.  No past study has sought to explain why comparatively few men are drawn to yoga despite over a decade of gender-neutral marketing that has emphasized the practice’s broad health benefits.

Willoughby Britton, who directed the Brown research team, says she did not set out to prove that men and women could derive different health benefits from yoga.  Her study sample included 41 male and 36 female students who volunteered to participate in meditation classes and to receive lectures and read educational materials about the origins and benefits of meditation.

But when Britton compared the research results by gender, she was shocked to discover that men appeared to receive almost no positive psychological uplift from attending the 12-week sessions.

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

These were not simply anecdotal differences.  The male and female study participants were tested using established psychometric scales that measure mental and emotional wellbeing.  In the language of academic research, the gender differences reported were “statistically significant” – which means the same disparity is likely to found in the population at large.

The 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.

Britton acknowledges that young women’s greater psychological vulnerabilities elevate 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 also documented the powerful mood elevation effects of yoga and mindfulness, but without specifically testing for gender differences.

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 men interested in yoga appear to have abandoned the female-dominated studio environment.  Some have turned to a hybrid 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 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.  In addition, Broga participants typically avoid chanting, invoking Hindu deities, or using Sanskrit nomenclature to describe their poses.

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.  For example, of the estimated 20 million people who practice yoga, nearly three-quarters are women.  Sponsors of these studies have never speculated on the source of this gender disparity.

In fact, 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, many of them already active in yoga.

Galland’s class incorporates four minutes of push-ups, not something you’ll find in a typical yoga class filled with women. And she’s even struck upon a novel incentive: As part of the $25 price tag, her sweat-soaked students can enjoy a complimentary beer.