Most of yoga’s benefits are universal and well-documented. Neither age nor gender matter as far as the practice being a boon to joint health or concentration, among other examples.
That said, yoga does impart certain benefits particular to women, including easing pregnancy and perimenopause and strengthening key parts of the body after childbirth. Also, yoga boosts bone health, which matters a lot for women, given they’re at higher risk than men for osteoporosis.
But one of yoga’s biggest benefits for females is its core-deep dosing of self-worth.
“Yoga has some evidence-based benefits such as reducing stress and improving sleep. But for women, there can be an outcome that is much more challenging to study and monitor—increased self-esteem,” says Erica Mather, a senior Forrest Yoga instructor based in New York City and author of Your Body, Your Best Friend: End the Confidence-Crushing Pursuit of Unrealistic Beauty Standards and Embrace Your True Power. “Many, many women report that yoga has helped them feel better about themselves and their bodies—regardless of visible physical changes.”
For many practitioners, yoga’s mindful movements can be a revelation. This is especially true for women, who through cultural processes often develop distorted relationships with their physical selves.
“Yoga offered me a way of relating to the body that had nothing to do with accomplishment or cosmetics,” Mather says. “As I was introduced to yoga, the most important objectives were simply to breathe, feel and be curious about my experience within my own body. For a populace trained from birth that women’s value lies within the material beauty and allure of the body, this was a radical alternative proposition. That a female body could be valuable just because it existed was mind-blowing. It opened up possibilities that were previously invisible or taboo. It gave me permission to be big, to take up space, to have an appetite, to trust my sensations and emotions as benevolent and to view the world through eyes trained to see more than just what is visible. Yoga can be a process of re-wilding.”
Gaining a stronger sense of self through yoga requires more introspection than doing asana (postures) to, say, strengthen your pelvic floor.
Here are 3 tips from Mather so you can get the most from—and for—yourself through yoga:
Practice with instructors skilled in breath-work.
“Breath is the connection between the body and everything else about us,” Mather says. “Without the breath, yoga isn’t yoga; it’s simply movement. Look for a teacher who instructs breath throughout the asana practice, with more to say than ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ or, ‘remember to breathe!’ Breath education will indelibly alter your experience of your body.”
Be kind to yourself.
“Yoga is a practice of growing compassion. Our society trains us in violence against women, and normalizes it to a degree that we willingly are our own perpetrators,” Mather says. “Mind your practice for all the ways you are cruel to yourself.” And being unkind to little ol’ you can take unexpected forms: pushing yourself too hard, moving roughly, holding your breath unnecessarily.
“Commit to eradicating these violent tendencies from within,” Mather says. “Breathe long, slow and smooth. Move steadily and gently. Be mindful of when you’ve gone too far or given up too soon. Use props to support your body. Don’t concern yourself with others’ practices, except for education. If you catch yourself thinking badly about yourself, gently steer your mind in a helpful direction. Refuse to continue a legacy of violence against women, starting with yourself, from within. Generational trauma can stop with us, as we generate self-compassion.”
Be curious about your physical being.
“Use yoga as a tool of self-inquiry, first and foremost about the body,” Mather suggests. “How does it work? What is its experience? We think we know so much about the body, but really, we don’t know much at all. When we start to be genuinely interested in our female bodies, it changes everything. So much about the world is a mystery, and you are living within one of the greatest mysteries of all. Be amazed.”
Mitra Malek is a former Yoga Journal editor. During her tenure, she worked with Erica Mather and other cause-committed yoga instructors to help women (and men) benefit from yoga practice.