Supporting Emotional Life in Boys Through Yoga
When I started teaching Color Me Yoga® for Children in 1999, most of my children’s yoga classes were predominantly populated by girls. Every once in a while, we’d have a boy or two join the group, but it was rare. Over the years, both in my teaching and in the trainings I conduct, I have noticed that when boys do attend classes, they start to drop off around age 9, in part because the yoga classes draw more girls, leaving boys at that age uncomfortable with a class with no other male peers, the yoga teacher is a woman, or because many boys around 9 begin to get involved more actively in competitive sports, or other extracurricular activities. Yoga was nice but there are other ways to be active.
Then along come the specialists. Most of the diagnoses of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) are for boys. In general, because boys need to move and voice their presence physically, they are the ones who get singled out as not paying attention during school, or having “issues” with listening, cooperating, and aggression. While I can’t spend an entire article deciphering the neuro-endocrine system or the condition of public schools in America, I can say that the true path of yoga( of which poses and breathing are a very small part) has everything to do with supporting and celebrating the physical, spiritual, mental and EMOTIONAL life of boys.
It’s a bit of a set-up for boys. Their natural inclinations can appear disruptive, at least in the system we’ve created for them. They are asked to sit still a lot, and are often reprimanded when natural tendencies emerge. There is still a lot of pressure to behave a certain way among their peers, which includes the code of silence (not ratting) , being stoic, and being tough. Boys have their own unique culture which includes not being a phony, teasing- the “offense is defense approach”, standing up for friends, even if it means losing another friend, size equals respect, the constant incentive to win at all costs, and competition, which breeds it own kind of friendship which can at times be extremely isolating.
When boys behave tenderly, kindly, compassionately, are they acknowledged enough ? Or is their overriding physicality the focus ( as in- a problem) As far as I can tell, emotional life in boys is an afterthought. Just go to the children’s section of any book store. There are countless books for girls about self- esteem, how to be a good friend, girl power, etc. In a far corner you may find a few books about boys. Don’t boys deserve to have their self- esteem built as much as girls?
Even Yoga Is Not Immune
Boys need emotionally aware and kind male role models, not just sports heroes with questionable personal lives and Uber- characters from video games. We need more male yoga teachers who have developed those skills of emotional intelligence to model and teach yoga to boys.
Yet, our cultural conditioning often works against us, even when it comes to teaching yoga to children. One man, who took my children’s yoga training many years ago was very concerned about how he might automatically be under suspicion as a predator. Would he have had the same fear if he was a coach, teaching competitive sports? Another children’s yoga teacher made the categorically claimed that boys are less flexible than girls, notwithstanding the fact that flexibility varies hugely within each gender.
If we condition our mind to decide how a boy will behave in yoga class or any arena, or what his capabilities are(or not), then how are we really practicing, let alone teaching, inherent potential or compassionate equanimity?
The true foundation of Yoga is the auspiciousness of Ahimsa (or non-violence). The results of practicing Ahimsa towards self and others leads to being :communicative, cooperative, part of a team(Team Yoga!) with a common purpose, courageous, responsible, honest with kindness, charitable, thoughtful, creative, confident, understanding, seeing and mirroring the best in everybody, self-care, non-attached, moderate, compassionate. Why not uphold boys in this light? Any deviation is simply a forgetting of who they really already are.
Yoga to the Rescue
Teaching boys how to connect to and confidently express the feelings in their hearts leads to emotional intelligence. Research sponsored by HeartMath , an international leader in the study of the heart as a physiological, emotional and spiritual storehouse for the body’s sense of Self, has shown that the heart is really the director of the Self. The heart talks to the brain far more than the other way around. HeartMath talks about two types of signals that influence the brain and consequently the body. An incoherent heart is a heart, which is literally out of rhythm with the mind and body. The incoherent heart experiences disagreeable emotions. The coherent heart, on the other hand, is one that is in rhythm with the body and mind, and experiences agreeable emotions.
Yoga is a practice that directly affects the ability of the child to know, listen and understand the feeling of the inner heart. Since yoga directly affects and enlivens the parasympathetic nervous system, the child is more receptive and calmly responsive to his own emotional state. Without the right tools to know himself , how can a young boy distinguish between the incoherent and coherent emotions?
A research report by Catherine Weinberger , scholar at the University of California, found that boys had a much harder time self soothing in the first few months of life than girls did. They were, it appeared, much more vulnerable, needing more loving nurturing touch. They were, actually, less self-sufficient.
A wise and competent yoga teacher will be sensitive to this basic fact.
Essential yoga for boys includes upholding the true nature of yoga as a body, mind AND spirit practice. Yoga not only helps steady the mind. It leads to understanding the self which includes listening to the body and emotions, and developing the intuitive/spiritual self. Yoga helps boys transition well, learning how to manage impulses with grace and compassion. Yoga expands and encourages a boy’s capacity of the heart by focusing on the Yogic universal principle of Oneness.
Marsha Therese Danzig is the founder of Color Me Yoga© for Children, which has been training people in the fine art of yoga for children since 2002. She is a frequent contributor to yoga publications. Her website is www.colormeyoga.com. She considers every day a gift.