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Benefits of Yoga for Men

While women are still the majority in yoga classes, there's a strong movement of men not only trying yoga, but striving both on and off the mat. Men benefit just as much from a regular yoga routine as women.

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Enter Dan Abramson and his army of Yoga Joes, green plastic soldiers molded into yoga poses. Abramson is on a mission to make yoga more appealing and accessible to men everywhere.

According to the Kickstarter campaign Abramson started to fund this project, Yoga Joes are "peaceful action figures designed to inspire children, men, and military veterans to try yoga."

Read More About Yoga Joes

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For a decade, troops returning from war with mental and physical trauma have been dosed with cocktails of numbing drugs and corralled into talk-therapy sessions, often with civilian clinicians who have no experience in combat and its aftereffects.

But alarmingly high suicide rates among veterans, as well as domestic violence, substance abuse and unemployment, suggested to some military doctors, combat commanders and researchers that conventional treatments aren't always enough.

Now, one proven, effective treatment is gaining wide acceptance within hard-core military circles: yoga.

Once dismissed as mere acrobatics with incense, yoga has been found to help ease the pain, stiffness, anger, night terrors, memory lapses, anxiety and depression that often afflict wounded warriors.

"It's cleansing -- I really feel refreshed," Marine Sgt. Senio Martz said after finishing a recent yoga session.

A stocky 27-year-old, Martz was leading his nine-man squad on a foot patrol through the lush poppy fields and rock outcroppings of the Kajaki district of southern Afghanistan 20 months ago when a roadside bomb knocked him unconscious and killed or wounded the Marines under his command. The blast put an end to his plans for a career in the Marine Corps. It also left him hyper-vigilant, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and carrying the joint burdens of guilt and shame: As a squad leader, it had been his responsibility to bring his nine Marines home safe.

"It's a feeling of regret -- failure -- that really affects me now," he said. "I didn't see the signs that could have alerted me to warn them to get away." He stared at the floor and then looked up with a tight smile. "I go on living where their lives have ended. I can't help them now."

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At a retreat for retiring Marines with combat wounds and PTSD, yoga teacher Annie Okerlin helps them work through pain, stiffness and anxiety and begin to relax. Pentagon-funded studies have shown yoga to be an effective therapy for combat trauma.

Yoga gives him relief from the acute anxiety that forces him to listen to and sight-sweep everything around him, constantly checking the doors and windows, always on alert, poised for danger, with no break. It is hard for him to let go.

Not all yoga helps. Some forms of yoga are used by special forces, for instance, to build muscle power and flexibility. But yoga teachers working with wounded troops have developed trauma-sensitive forms of yoga, including a technique called iRest. This adaptation uses meditation techniques in a soft and secure setting to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system by drawing the patient's attention and consciousness inward, rather than focusing on stress and the terrors that dwell outside, said yoga teacher Robin Carnes.

For instance, Carnes has learned that when she is giving a class to troops with hyper-vigilance, like Martz, she should first open all the closet doors and drawers, so that her patients don't spend all their time fretting about what might be inside.

Drawing from traditional yoga, trauma-sensitive yoga teaches patients to firmly plant their feet and activate their leg muscles in poses that drain energy and tension from the neck and shoulders, where they naturally gather, causing headaches and neck pain.

"The goal here is to move tension away from where it builds up when you are stressed, and focus it on the ground so you feel more balanced and connected," Carnes said.

A study published earlier this year of 70 active-duty U.S. troops, then-based at Forward Operating Base Warrior, in Kirkuk, Iraq, found that daily yoga helped relieve anxiety, reduced irritability and improved sleep -- even amid daily "gunfire and helicopter sounds."

Progressive relaxation, calming breathing and relaxation techniques "reduce physical, emotional, mental and even subconscious tension that characterizes PTSD," according to retired Air Force Maj. Nisha N. Money, a physician who recently served as chief of fitness policy for the Air Force.

Read More About Yoga & PTSD

Yoga alleviates pain and injury. Most men come to yoga with injuries and pain, particularly in the back, knees and joints. Yoga uses controlled movements, expert alignment, biomechanics and breath to open your body efficiently while minimizing the risk of injury. Safety and alignment are the absolute first priorities in yoga. Yoga demands that you do not push beyond what you are capable of doing safely. Clear physical landmarks and attention to the breath prevent you from pushing past your limits. There's always a variation or modification to keep you safe while still progressing and challenging yourself. Within the first month of a regular yoga routine, you will alleviate your pain and injuries - beyond that, yoga will help take your health to a whole new level. Yoga keeps your body fit, flexible and strong. Many men say, "I'm not flexible enough to do yoga." That is like saying, "I'm not strong enough to lift weights." The poses are powerful and specifically designed to open and strengthen your body efficiently. Yoga will make you more flexible, light and in many ways stronger than any other exercise - without wrecking your body! With patience and steady practice, you will become more open than you've ever imagined. The right combination of strength and mobility is key, whether you're a professional athlete or just trying to age gracefully. You will tone and strengthen muscles that you didn't know you had. The small muscles in your back that have been deteriorating from that desk job will be getting a long-awaited wake-up call. With a commitment to yoga, you will be a lean, mobile, strong and physically fit yoga machine. Yoga will provide the fun challenge you crave. Yoga is more than just sitting around, humming and talking about your feelings. As a former collegiate wrestler, I can honestly say that some yoga classes are more challenging than any workout I've ever done. It will be humbling at times, but worth it. You will learn how to challenge yourself without being competitive. Competition will result in injury. Most men come from a strong athletic or business-minded background, where competition is fierce. Yoga teaches you to challenge yourself intelligently and completely without being overly aggressive. Learning new poses and noticing real progress is addicting! The light-hearted, compassionate attitude in yoga will help you to not take yourself too seriously, even while you're sweating it out.

Yoga will help improve diet, sleep and overall health. Once you're feeling the physical benefits of your yoga regimen, you naturally begin to shift your diet and sleeping patterns. You will no longer want to eat a pint of ice cream or stay out late on a weeknight knowing you're doing these healthy things for yourself. During yoga, you will notice your mind is so focused on what you're doing that it is impossible to think about your job, bills or anything else. You find yourself fully in the moment, and that complete focus puts your mind at ease. Afterward, you will feel grounded and relaxed. The combination of your body and mind feeling fantastic is a recipe for practical, healthy lifestyle changes.

Yoga allows you to do the things you love more efficiently and for longer. The whole point of yoga is to live your life to the fullest. Whether you love to run, fish, golf, play basketball, travel or play with your kids without hurting yourself - yoga will help you do the things you love better and longer. While the yoga poses are fun and a strong tool, they're not the point. What matters is that when you feel great, you are able to truly savor life.

Yoga improves your performance and relieves stress. In the trenches of the workplace, sports arena, family reunions and even the grocery store, you will face many challenges. Yoga trains your mind to be grounded and calm, especially while in the fire of stress. Why would anyone want to put themselves in a challenging yoga pose, hold it and be asked to stay calm and breathe deeply? Because on the battlefield of life, you will be challenged far more than you will on your yoga mat. However, by practicing to stay grounded in very uncomfortable situations, physically and otherwise, you train yourself to be at your best when it matters most.

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