Western science offers three approaches to treating sex problems: (1) psychological counseling to improve the relationship, (2) sex therapy to correct erotic misconceptions and encourage whole-body sensuality, and (3) for men, medications to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature ejaculation.
Meanwhile, another less publicized approach also shows tantalizing benefits, yoga. Classic yoga has eight components, but American practitioners typically focus on two: meditative breathing (pranayama) and movement (asanas). A growing body of research shows that yoga is good for sex and may even prevent and treat sex problems.
Great sex begins with deep relaxation, which concentrates blood in the central body where it's available to the genitals, instead of being directed to the limbs, which happens when people feel stressed (the fight-or-flight reflex). As deep relaxation becomes sexual arousal, the arteries that carry blood into the genitals open (dilate), and extra blood flows into the penis and vaginal wall. In men, this extra blood produces erection, in women, vaginal lubrication and increased clitoral sensitivity.
Anything that reduces anxiety/stress or elevates mood improves sexual function by aiding the deep relaxation fundamental to lovemaking. Yoga is deeply relaxing. Indian researchers assessed anxiety in 50 medical students, who then began practicing yoga. Their anxiety levels plummeted. Other studies show that yoga reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and elevates mood. Palo Alto, California, sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D, recommends yoga. "Stress contributes to sex problems and sex problems cause stress. This can become a vicious cycle. Yoga reduces anxiety, so it enhances sex and helps prevent and treat sex problems."
Beyond deep relaxation, sex requires robust arterial blood flow. Anything that improves arterial blood flow improves sexual function, for example, regular, moderate exercise. Exercise has also been shown to help prevent and treat ED. University of California researchers enrolled 78 sedentary older men in a walking program or a vigorous exercise class. After nine months, the strollers reported a slight decline in sexual vigor, but those in the exercise class reported less ED and greater sexual satisfaction.
Key risk factors for heart disease (smoking, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure) all damage the arteries and reduce blood flow to the genitals. Several studies show that yoga reduces risk of heart disease by improving arterial blood flow. Indian researchers urged 42 men with heart disease to eat a heart-healthy diet. Some also began practicing yoga. A year later, the yoga group lost significantly more weight and had lower cholesterol and fewer angina attacks. Similar studies show that yoga helps treat diabetes and high blood pressure. Because yoga improves the health of the cardiovascular system, it's no great leap to suppose that it improves sexual function and helps prevent and treat sex problems.
Yoga also improves orgasm. Orgasm involves rapid contractions of the pelvic floor muscles that run between the legs. In Western medicine, Kegel exercises strengthen these muscles and intensify orgasm. (To do Kegels, contract and relax the muscles that squeeze out the last drops of urine.) In yoga, the pelvic floor muscles are known as moola bandha. Yoga strengthens them, providing benefits similar to Kegel exercises.
Finally, one Indian study suggests that yoga helps cure premature ejaculation (PE). The researchers offered men with PE either a daily one-hour yoga routine or drug treatment. The yoga group reported significantly improved ejaculatory control.
I take three yoga classes a week, and my wife teaches yoga. Even if yoga had no impact on sexuality, we'd still value its many contributions to physical and mental health. But the studies touting yoga's contributions to sexual vitality are icing on the cake.