Yoga has significant mental health benefits for men: Psychologist Melissa O’Shea

Dr Melissa O'Shea practices yoga in the tradition of Krishnamacharya and explores yoga as a complementary approach to improve mental health.

A new study by Associate Professor Melissa O’Shea from Deakin University’s School of Psychology has found significant mental and physical health benefits for men who practice yoga.

Dr O’Shea is a registered Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Academic with over 20 years of experience. She has led one of the first clinical trials to examine therapeutic yoga as an adjunct to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

Associate Professor Melissa O’Shea from Deakin University’s School of Psychology (Image source: Kyo Yoga)

Dr O’Shea told The Australia Today that she herself practices yoga in the tradition of Krishnamacharya:

“I have had a long interest in yoga and returned to the practice over the years before deepening my practice when time permitted.

Through a deeper and more consistent practice, I experienced the benefits physically, emotionally and spiritually, and with this, an interest to learn more about yoga. This inspired me to enroll and complete a teacher training program in the Krishnamacharya tradition.”

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In her research project to use yoga to treat mental health treatments amongst men, Dr O’Shea observes:

“As my understanding of the practice and philosophy of yoga developed, I could see synergies with my own professional discipline of Clinical Psychology and was interested in how the practice could complement other mental health treatments. 

I was fortunate that my academic role allowed me to bring my interests in psychology and mental health and yoga together and I have led a range of studies to further understanding of the benefits of yoga for mental health.”

However, she adds that the biggest hurdle for many men is having the courage to join a class.

Yoga (Image source: Canva)

Dr Shea’s study entitled “’The only man on the mat’: yoga as a therapeutic pathway for men’s mental health” published in the journal Australian Psychologist asked men who were engaged in a yoga practice: what mental health benefits if any, they experienced as a result of their practice? Further, she also asked the participants what barriers they overcame when they considered taking up yoga.

Dr O’Shea adds that often yoga studios are seen as women’s spaces and some men found that intimidating and were embarrassed to exercise with women.

She observes:

“Yoga combines breathing exercises, physical postures and meditation and has been shown to help with depression and anxiety but men represent less than 20 per cent of participants in Australian yoga classes.”

She further adds:

“We wanted to find out what was stopping more men taking up yoga, given the physical and mental health benefits of regular yoga practice.”

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Yoga (Image source: CANVA)

Dr O’Shea said separate research published last year revealed up to 25 per cent of Australian males, aged 10 to 55, have experienced a diagnosed mental health disorder in their lifetime.

She adds:

“We know many more men struggle alone undiagnosed as they are less likely than women to seek mental health support and, when they do, the drop-out rates for men are as high as 44 per cent.”

Dr O’Shea said the research findings were raw and revealing.

“The men told us they felt like they were “the only man on the mat” or “it was a little intimidating the fact that there were a lot of people there, like young girls, super flexible and they all seemed to know what they were doing” or “I couldn’t touch my toes…I was pretty embarrassed really”.”

She says that joining a men’s only class in Geelong, Victoria, was a turning point for a group of men. These men “discovered a space where they felt motivated by each other’s presence, enjoyed a sense of comradery and laughter and it felt ‘like a safe space for men.'”

Yoga (Image source: CANVA)

Dr Shea reveals that participants reported initial physical health benefits that often extended to mental health benefits, including stress reduction.

She adds:

“One participant described feeling “calmer in all situations . . . a lot calmer”.

11 of the 14 participants in Dr Shea’s study started practising yoga after the age of 40. The participating men in this study said they now saw yoga as a form of physical activity they could maintain as they age.

Further, the low-impact nature of yoga helps both their physical health and ongoing mental health benefits.

She observes:

“This study tells us yoga can be an effective means for men to self-manage their mental health. Increasing the availability of men’s only yoga classes may be a great way of supporting men to step onto the mat for the first time.”

Dr O’Shea visited India in 2019 and shared the findings of her research work with colleagues. She plans to continue to explore yoga as a complementary approach to mental health alongside psychological interventions for a range of mental health conditions.