Not every fitness activity draws equal numbers of men and women. A good example is yoga, the Hindu breathing and posture practice that attracts 30 million adherents nationwide. About three-quarters of yoga practitioners are women, and close to 90% of the women trained to be yoga teachers are women, too. Some men do practice yoga, including a hybrid dubbed “Bro-Ga.” But a much higher number are drawn to muscle-building activities like weightlifting or to hybrid strength and endurance regimens (including Cross-Fit).
Do most men reject yoga because they misperceive it as too soft and feminine? Many women think so. They are constantly urging men to “give yoga a try.”
But it turns out that men’s aversion to yoga may reflect deeper underlying gender differences. A pioneering 2017 study conducted by Brown University professor Dr. Willoughby Britton found that men do not gain the same emotional and psychological benefits from yoga as women do — and therefore the practice likely holds less intrinsic appeal.
Britton conducted tests on 77 Brown college students who were practicing yoga and measured its effects. To her surprise, most students, male or female, reported no major emotional or psychological benefits from the practice. However, among those that did, women reported three times the level of psychic and emotional relief.
Britton’s says she didn’t set out to prove that there are differential gender effects from yoga, but the differences she uncovered were stark. Her research, while based on a relatively small sample, employed validated psychometric scales and employed rigorous statistical testing.
That means the differences she found aren’t coincidental, or a reflection of sampling bias. Instead, they’re likely to be found in the population at large.
Britton says the results validate yoga as a tool for women to detach form negative emotions and to gain greater self-acceptance.
“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,” Britton notes. “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 on women — 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.
Past studies have also shown that depression and anxiety levels found in adult women are twice those found in men. As women enter high-performing jobs in male-dominated environments and must juggle work with child-rearing practices they are getting stretched and stressed to the limit, research suggests.
If Brittany is right, yoga offers some maturing women a special kind of psychic and physical relief – as well as the added comfort of a spiritual “sisterhood.”
Britton’s research on yoga and gender is only the first of her studies to challenge some conventional wisdom about yoga and mindfulness.
In a separate study conducted with her husband, Dr. Jared Lindahl, she found that many contemporary meditation practices may be triggering negative reactions in practitioners and inadvertently undermining their spiritual and emotional well-being. Her research also showed that these distressing experiences are not limited to people who have a history of mental illness.
One of the negative experiences Britton and her husband uncovered was meditation’s disruption of sleep. Many ardent meditation practitioners fail to see their practice in the larger context of their daily self-care, and some become sleep-deprived and even delusional, their research suggests.
“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 notes. “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.”
Britton is no academic newbie. She received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arizona in 2007, and is the recipient of two National Research Service Awards and a Career Development Award (CDA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
As a follow on to their latest research, she and her husband are working on a workshop training program — entitled “First, Do No Harm” — to show meditation teachers and simple practitioners how to avoid the potential pitfalls of their practice.