The practice of Yoga is more popular than ever. But despite universal benefits, a plethora of techniques which vary greatly in form and intensity, and teachers up and down the country eager to pass on their yogic knowledge, Yoga is still more often practiced by women than men. There are a variety of reasons behind this disparity, but with research increasingly suggesting that Yoga can have a profoundly positive impact on people’s mental health, Yoga can provide a form of self-care to men who may not always feel empowered or permitted to look after their own well-being.
Why do men practice Yoga less than women?
The good news is that the practice of Yoga (which is growing in popularity generally) is being increasingly taken up by men, with a 2016 Yoga In America study finding that 28% of all Yoga practitioners in the USA are male—up from 17.8% in 2012. It is likely that since the time of this research, the gap has closed even more, but it is still important that the Yoga community works to ensure that everyone (including trans and non-binary people) feels at home on the mat.
Perhaps the most powerful, if hard to define, barrier to men practicing Yoga is perception. Women are often shown as both Yoga teachers and practitioners, and the concepts of well-being and self-care in themselves are often positioned as inherently feminine. It is also true that, while the evidence base for Yoga’s myriad benefits is robustly scientific, in the public consciousness Yoga may still be predominantly seen as a gentle exercise to help people ‘tone up’ and get more flexible.
Men’s fitness publications tend to focus heavily on gaining muscle (which isn’t seen as a benefit of Yoga), and when one male yogi conducted his own informal investigation into why men are less likely to take up Yoga, the results were interesting. Some feared that they were too inflexible to start the practice, while others thought of Yoga as too ‘feminine’ or ‘spiritual’ to interest them.
Men’s mental health
Overcoming this perception and welcoming more men into Yoga studios could have an impact that goes far beyond their physical health. The statistics concerning men’s mental health in the UK are stark, and these only refer to those who have been formally diagnosed. Many experts believe that men in particular may avoid mental health treatment and be unwilling to share what they are experiencing with medical professionals. According to the Mental Health Foundation:
o Men aged 40-49 have the highest suicide rates in the UK.
o Men report lower levels of life satisfaction than women according to the government’s national wellbeing survey.
o Men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women: only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men.
o Men are nearly three times as likely as women to become dependent on alcohol, and three times as likely to report frequent drug use.
o Men are more likely to be compulsorily detained (or ‘sectioned’) for treatment than women.
In the past, men have been expected to live up to what have traditionally been perceived as masculine traits like strength, stoicism, dominance, and control. Throughout much of our history, admitting any ‘weakness’ could lead to real-world social detriment for men, and even in some cases be actively dangerous. We know now, for example, that men executed for cowardice in the First World War were often suffering from PTSD, or reacting to entirely normal ‘flight’ impulses in the face of astonishing violence.
The cultural hangover of this still stubbornly holds out against progress and can stop men from seeking ways to support their mental well-being, but in recent years the narrative has started to shift. Work from mental health campaigners is helping to destigmatize mental illness, and it is becoming increasingly acknowledged that self-care should not be confined to one gender.
The benefits of Yoga for men’s mental health
Yoga has been found to relieve symptoms and support recovery in a variety of mental health conditions, including in illnesses that have a higher incidence in men such as schizophrenia and addiction. Research suggests that Yoga acts across the nervous and endocrine systems to change, at a physiological level, the way we feel. There is also compelling evidence that both Yoga and mindfulness can result in real, physical changes in the brain, which point to underlying biological mechanisms behind the anecdotal reports that Yoga makes people feel calmer, less stressed and more at peace with themselves.
One particularly promising example of the ways in which Yoga acts as an effective adjunct therapy is in cases of depression. Those suffering with depression exhibit higher levels of the so-called ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, and it is linked to related brain changes in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are associated with decision making, the formation of memories and emotional regulation, and in cases of clinical depression these areas of the brain appear to lose volume. On the other hand, the amygdala, which is the area of the brain which governs the stress and fear response, gains volume and becomes more active. For people with depression, cortisol levels are higher at every point of the day when compared to control subjects.
Research published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry has observed reduced levels of cortisol in people who practice Yoga. Experts theorize that pranayama induces the body’s relaxation response, while mindfulness can also reduce levels of cortisol in study subjects. In groundbreaking research, it was also found that mindfulness meditation can, over three months, reduce the size of the amygdala while increasing the volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.
Reductions in the level of GABA neurotransmitters has also been demonstrated to have strong links with mental health problems, with major depressive disorders associated with GABAergic deficits. One seminal Yoga study observed a positive correlation between acute increases in thalamic GABA levels when compared to a metabolically matched walking exercise, potentially increasing feelings of calm and contentment in those who practice.
The amount of research into Yoga for mental health is both vast and continually growing, which means we can only touch upon particular examples here. But the positive impacts observed in studies into depression have also been found for mental health problems such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD, as well as related lifestyle issues such as sleep problems and professional burnout.
Whether they are looking for a way to manage their emotional well-being in times of stress or have been diagnosed with a mental health problem and want to add another layer of support to their wider treatment plan, Yoga can become a source of calm in men’s lives. Far from requiring a base level of fitness or spirituality in order to start, Yoga is accessible and adaptable, and letting go of any expectations they may have of Yoga and themselves is one of the freeing parts of the practice.
We still place a burden on the shoulders of men to be a certain way; to compete, be brave, cultivate strength and eschew vulnerability. To not conform can be intimidating, but Yoga offers a private space for men to explore and work through feelings at a deeper, less self-conscious level. With Yoga, there is no requirement to explain themselves to others, but as their practice develops and their self-awareness grows, it may become easier to discuss their emotions without feeling embarrassed.
It is clear that, as a society, we still have a long way to go in the sphere of men’s mental health (and indeed, mental health in general). Although just one part of a wider picture, Yoga can give men the tools through which they practice some much needed self-compassion and help them protect their mental well-being as they journey through life.
About the Author:
Heather Mason is the founder of The Minded Institute (themindedinstitute.com), a leading Yoga therapist, researcher and campaigner who aims to bridge the worlds of Yoga and healthcare.
(Reprinted from Om Yoga & Lifestyle magazine)