Boys Have Feelings Too: Supporting the Emotional Life of 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.

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. And you won’t find a movie at the movie theater about “Mean Boys” but you will find quite a few about “Bad Boys”. Don’t boys deserve to have their self- esteem built as much as girls?

Even yoga is not immune.

One man took my children’s yoga training many years ago. He was so concerned about how he would automatically be under suspicion as a predator. Wonder if he would have the same fear if he was a coach, teaching competitive sports? 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.

Another children’s yoga teacher made the terrible mistake of claiming that boys are less flexible than girls. 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.

Teaching boys how to connect to and confidently express the feelings in their hearts leads to emotional intelligence. 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 , through much research , 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. Incoherent heart is that heart which is literally out of rhythm with the mind and body. The incoherent heart experiences disagreeable emotions. The coherent heart, one that is in rhythm with the body and mind, experiences agreeable emotions. Yoga to the rescue. 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.

Following are some general guidelines, as well as specific yoga techniques I use in my classes, to champion the emotionally intelligent Hero inside every boy.

  • Playful, active yoga classes intermingled with deep relaxation and visualization techniques reduce emotional and physical stress in boys.
  • Deep breathing builds confidence, focus, allowing boys to feel good within their bodies, and about themselves.
  • Verbalizing cues that lead to emotional awareness, such as dropping in some ” I’ statements when doing poses, or check ins to see how boys are feeling before, during and at the end of class, make the connection between movement and feeling.
  • Partner yoga helps boys learn about cooperation , stating their needs, listening with respect to someone else’s needs. Mirroring emotions ,such as an asana practiced while embodying a feeling, or teaching boys to look into each other’s eyes in their Namaste greeting, helps boys get comfortable with self- expression.
  • Improvisation games allow boys to feel free in communicating their emotions
  • Nurturing poses such as childs and seated forward bend teach self -soothing techniques.
  • Lunges, lunging jumps, running then stopping, help boys develop self control/mastery through lateral movement
  • Practice calmness. If the yoga teacher gets nervous about the activity level of boys, or gets upset, the more the boys will feel ashamed and the more they will act out with teasing and physical aggression.
  • Don’t expect boys to give long drawn out answers.
  • Challenge them to be problem solvers.
  • Set the structure and don’t budge at all. Boundaries are vital to emotional safety.
  • Teach boys to feel good about themselves and their abilities.
  • Team Yoga! Group yoga activities build energy, excitement, enthusiasm, focus and encourage feeling places in the body.
  • Lunge with back foot against the wall alleviates hamstrings which helps stimulate the cerebral cortex and corpus colossum which is the part of the brain that helps boys understand their senses, express themselves, and communicate.
  • Down dog relaxes tight shoulders , which releases emotional tension. This pose also opens up the sciatic nerve and hamstrings which reduces hip tension and stress in lower back, freeing the second chakra, home of emotional awareness and creative self expression.

Below are some specific Color Me Yoga® techniques which I use in my classes with boys.

  • What would you call this pose? Are there things you would add to the pose? How does it make you feel?
  • Let’s get to know each other. If you could be any character in a book, who would you be and why? If you could travel anywhere, where would it be and why? What makes you most happy? If you could change anything in the world, what would it be? What’s really important to you?
  • Oh I’m so bored! Yawn as you say this. Have the boys say it and yawn. Then ask them “When you are bored, how can you make things different? “.
  • Oh, Ahh. Tighten saying “Oh” with your whole body. Notice symptoms of stress in your body. Relax with Aaah. Notice symptoms of relaxation in your body
  • Challenge pose for the day
  • SuperHero Yoga. Done in partners . In a bucket , put pieces of paper listing ” problems” , such as a broken ankle, feeling sad, or worrying about a test. One child picks the piece of paper, does a pose feeling the “problem”. The super hero, the other child, must come up with a solution. This activity develops empathy.
  • I read stories about Courageous people -stories about kindness, overcoming, and making tough choices.
  • Auspicious Yogis™ This program teaches weekly themes in being the highest Self possible.

Yoga for boys provides an inner space where they can really be themselves, learn to develop their innate intuition and awareness of others, and celebrate what brings them joy and happiness.

An emotionally intelligent boy does not have to act “nice” all the time. An emotionally intelligent boy has a real understanding of his feelings. When he does, it naturally builds his self-confidence. He relates to people with a sense of connection. Yoga helps bring these emotional awareness techniques to life.

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.