Rooted in Indian philosophy, yoga is an ancient method of relaxation, exercise, and healing that has gained a wide following in the United States. It has been shown to ease anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, improve joint pain and function, and relieve pain and many other mental and physical complaints. It may come as no surprise, then, that yoga may also serve to enhance sexual function. According to a study published online in The Journal of Sexual Medicine (Nov. 12, 2009), regular yoga practice improves several aspects of sexual function in women, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and overall satisfaction.
The study involved 40 healthy women, ages 22 to 55, who were enrolled in a yoga program in India. Most of the women were married, and all were sexually active. Subjects were instructed in a protocol of 22 yoga poses, or asanas, that are believed to have positive effects on abdominal and pelvic muscle tone, digestion, joint function, and mood. (For a complete list of the 22 asanas practiced in the Indian study, visit www.health.harvard.edu/womenextra.) Various poses were modified for women who weren't able to perform the full versions. Each participant filled out a standard sexual-function questionnaire at the beginning and end of the 12-week program, which featured an hour of yoga practice each day, followed by breathing and relaxation.
Three of the 22 yoga poses performed in the sexual function study were, from left to right, trikonasana (triangle pose), bhujangasana (the snake), and ardha matsyendra mudra (half spinal twist).
At the end of the program, the researchers found improvements in the women's sexual-function scores in the six domains that were assessed (desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pain, and overall satisfaction), particularly among women over age 45, who showed the greatest improvements in arousal, lubrication, and pain. Nearly 75% of the women said they were more satisfied with their sexual life following the yoga training. Major limitations of this study were its small size and the lack of a control group. The researchers, who are based at universities in New Delhi and Mumbai, say they are recruiting women for a larger study, which will include a control group.
Evidence is still sparse, but some research suggests that other Eastern techniques, including mindfulness and acupuncture, could also help improve female sexual function. In one study, for example, acupuncture reduced pain and improved quality of life in women with vulvodynia, a painful condition of the vulva. In another, mindfulness practice reduced distress in women with sexual desire and arousal problems. Although yoga has been studied for treating sexual dysfunction in men (premature ejaculation), The Journal of Sexual Medicine study may be the first to investigate its impact on sexual function in women.
If you'd like to try yoga, classes and video instruction are widely available. There are many different styles of yoga, and while many are safe, some can be strenuous and may not be appropriate for everyone. If you're older, out of shape, or have physical limitations, you may want to check in with a clinician before trying yoga. You may also want to look into Iyengar (pronounced eye-en-gar) yoga, which uses props such as blankets, blocks, benches, and belts to assist in performing asanas. The idea behind Iyengar yoga is to help people experience asanas to the fullest extent possible despite physical limitations or lack of experience.