The mind and body method

“A strong sense of self”: Dave and Henry bow at a recent tournament.

There’s hardly a school these days that doesn’t have some kind of bullying-awareness program. Anti-bullying efforts teach students how to deal with bullies, offer counsel to kids who find themselves in the bystander role and even provide resources for bullies themselves. Could a child's practice of an ancient physical discipline like taekwondo or yoga equip her to stand up to a modern-day bully, or help a bully deal with what causes them to act out?

Competitive sports are often touted as confidence-builders for kids. But developing a mind-body connection in kids may offer even more ways to help deal with social stresses. (And cultivate important traits for character development: integrity, respect for self and others and persistence, among others).

The impact of peer opinion intensifies as children get older. Bullies often look for a perceived weakness or a reserved nature in the kids they target, and having a strong sense of self may go a long way toward not being singled out. Martial arts and yoga can help kids develop inner strength and self-confidence, and fortunately, Asheville has myriad programs in both practices.

Asheville’s Sun Soo TaeKwon-do is a local studio with a wide range of classes for kids and families. The walls are posted with character traits that the practice demands of students: courtesy, indomitable spirit, integrity, perseverance and self-control.

The school’s primary teacher, Tony Morris, has been practicing taekwondo for more than three decades. Being bullied as a child is what led him to the discipline. Still, he says, “Taekwondo is not about dominance over another person, which only exacerbates a bullying situation; it is about fostering inner strength, respect for others and creating ‘win-win’ situations.

“Kids who have a history of bullying [others] can also gain much from martial arts, as they usually have some sort of unhappiness in their lives and low self-esteem,” Morris says.

“Confident kids who have more self-respect are better-prepared to deal with verbal and physical bullying, as well as the more insidious, covert types of bullying, like exclusion and quiet verbal cruelty.” He stresses that most kids who practice martial arts will never need to use combat skills in real life — it rarely comes to that.

“Even though I’m an adult and have been practicing taekwondo for only five years, it has dramatically changed my life in terms of helping me choose how I’m going to react to pretty much everything,” says Sun Soo owner Michael Dickinson. “Will I react by shutting my eyes or opening them wider?

“Martial arts help kids define boundaries and learn about social-interaction skills … enabling them to identify bullies and look out for their friends,” Dickinson says. “They become empowered [to step] outside their comfort zones.”

As Sun Soo students participated in a recent taekwondo class, they displayed an admirable self-discipline and mutual respect. Asked about bullying, 12-year-old Linden says: “I did have a classmate who was teased because of his size.” Knowing taekwondo, Linden believes that “if I was bullied, I’d have confidence to know how to talk to the person so it wouldn’t escalate.”

Michael, 11, echoes this belief, declaring, “I could defend myself if it was necessary, but in taekwondo, we are taught to use other tactics first, before resorting to physical stuff.” Aida, who is 8, adds: “Doing martial arts has helped me believe in myself more.”

Twist and smile

Yoga is another ancient practice that’s proving popular with local kids. The Asheville YMCA, among other places, offers yoga for children and their parents.

Jane Anne Tager, a certified Pretzel Kids yoga teacher, notes that her class is "not only a great bonding experience for families, which ups a kid's confidence, but it’s a safe place for my students — a place where we accept each other and learn to negotiate if there's a problem or disagreement." Aydan, 8, who takes Tager’s class regularly with her sister and dad, proves that the experience is about more than the popular pose downward dog. She enthuses: “Even though my body sometimes feels sore and tired after class, when I think back on it, I feel like I did something incredible, like I'm a hero."

Since bullying is so often about picking on someone who’s different, both Sun Soo and Pretzel Kids emphasize that uniqueness is special and to be accepted. Tager says her class is frequently sought out by parents of special-needs children.

"These classes bring together all kinds of kids, from those who are skilled socially to those on the autism spectrum, as well as kids with Down syndrome and children who have balance and coordination issues.” As an example, she adds: “One student I had couldn’t touch his toes for the longest time. One day after about a year, he did it. He cried, and we all clapped in celebration of his hard-won mastery.”

— Carolyn Comeau lives in Asheville.

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