Teaching Yoga to Children

The following is an introduction to a series of articles based on an experiment made in the field of education by Mme. M. Flak (Yogabhakti), founder of Satyanandashram and a teacher in G.E.S. Condorcet High School, Paris

Children mirror the minor and major problems that confront adults. Thus many difficulties arise in the schools. Actually the trouble lies not so much with the school system itself (which worked all right for quite a number of years) but with the world all around. Pupils suffer because of the environment which grownups have set up for themselves.

The school where I am teaching is situated amidst a noisy, busy and polluted area in the heart of Paris. Traffic constantly rumbles past the windows of our classrooms and there are no trees to be seen except those which the pupils themselves have been allowed to paint on the walls! I am lucky enough to contemplate such a mural in my classroom. It leaves me free scope to imagine that nature is not totally lost sight of, and it is still possible to recover some primeval ease and joy of living. I found long ago that yoga was a means to such an end. Those who, like me, have experienced this too, will no doubt be tempted to apply it to children, if they happen to have contact with them. As an educator, I am sure that yogic techniques are a remedy to the growing restlessness and tensions of school children.

Beginning the movement

I started using yoga practices in class timidly at first during the years 1972-3, but real experiments started after a stay with my guru, Swami Satyananda, at the Bihar School of Yoga in the summer of 1973.

Through Swamiji's guidance and encouragement I evolved a gradual methodology which gave good results within the present teaching system. After much experimentation I found that the effects of yoga on children, generally speaking, were as follows: a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, improvement in memorisation and understanding of the lessons, better relationships between the teacher and pupils, and between the children themselves.

However, this is not all we have in view. We must keep in mind the fact that we are building a generation of adults who have to be capable of adjusting to the advanced scientific age that lies ahead. Therefore, we must look beyond the confines of the classroom and think about developing character and intelligence. Yoga offers teachers a means to remodel and adjust the computer we all have in our brain, to make it not only efficient but comprehensive.

The beneficial influence of yoga must have been somewhat appreciated or sensed by a few officials, for soon I was granted a research fellowship in this field with the approval of the French Board of Education. Three years of experiments have led me to think that the effort is worthwhile.

During the past two years, I have been conducting regular yoga lessons twice a week for a few colleagues of mine on the school premises. This has been the starting point for those teachers who were ready to apply yoga in their own classes. In this way a small movement started in my school. Then in January 1976 I started organising meetings with teachers from other schools. Although my own pupils range from ten to sixteen years of age, I extended the offer to masters in elementary schools and kindergartens as well as university professors. Luckily, my contacts were made easy by the fact that a number of educators on all levels already practiced yoga themselves. It was not difficult to get them interested in the experiment I had been making on yoga in the classroom. They had thought of doing the same thing and were inwardly convinced it would be rewarding, but had not yet dared to start for fear of being dangerously original.

Curiously enough, we have noticed during the past three years, that the teachers who were most ready for these new experiments were the language specialists, particularly those dealing with up-to-date audio-visual methods. It seems as if the necessity to foster lively intercommunication in the group through speech, gives such teachers an urge for physical expression and mental relaxation. So, while a large span of subjects other than languages is represented, we have noticed a good proportion of Spanish, German and English teachers. There is an overwhelming majority of women, but this is a reflection of the female ratio in the field of education.

It so happened that the new principal of my school was a very open-minded person. She was interested in the yoga lessons I gave and she started practicing yoga too. She has been a great help all along. We are doing our best to get in touch with high officials and prominent doctors dealing with education.

My faith in the guru was like a pillar on which I had learned to take support from the beginning. Therefore I was sure of doing the right thing. Self-assurance was the starter. My colleagues could see that they did not risk anything by trying, and the benefit resulting from their attempts was obvious enough to encourage them to go on. We found fresh stimulation in our regular meetings at Satyanandashram, and in this way a wave of enthusiasm could reach others too. Now I am wondering how to accommodate all the teachers who are interested in coming to learn about the methods! But this lack of space is a good sign that the movement is growing.

The meetings

In December 1975 we organised the first meeting on the 'Techniques of Well-Being at School'. Its aim was to inform parents and children about the methods of relaxation through yoga that were being applied in some of the classes at school. I was no longer the only one; a colleague of mine helped me give the demonstrations.

The welfare of children requires open-minded acceptance as well as caution. So during the second meeting, held one year later, we were quite willing to open the arena to demonstrations of some disciplines that we felt were close to yoga, even without explicit references to it. Our aim was to promote all the possibilities at hand in order to remove the clouds of boredom hanging over the educational system.

This meeting attracted a larger audience than the previous one. A general inspector appointed by the French Board of Education presided over it. His speech and thoughtful intervention can rightly be considered as a proof that the movement we have been starting has already been recognised by the French official circles. Yet, we have to be cautious not to interfere too loudly with the preconceived ideas they may entertain about what yoga processes are all about.

We also asked a doctor to give a talk on the subject. He spoke quite convincingly on the effects of correct breathing, and children were asked to illustrate his medical advice by showing good lungs in action! In fact, the performance of varied exercises from surya namaskara to shavasana impressed the audience a lot. A quality of silence and relaxed concentration struck everyone, and there was a good laugh too when the children 'played' the combined vigilance and relaxation of the cat. They all had to lie on the floor as if asleep in matsyakridasana, their bodies quite limp. We had made it clear that they should lie still on the floor until the word 'mouse' was pronounced by the instructor. I kept on talking in an even voice and as soon as I happened to say 'mouse' they all jumped immediately - like one cat - into majariasana, the cat's stretch pose. That was rather spectacular and amusing. We must never forget that children love playing and romping about. Yogic exercises must not be repeated monotonously. They will only be really enjoyed if they are shown as games. It is also important that such games should not lose their fascinating impact through dull routine. Because of continuous growth a child is forever craving novel scenes, and his body requires movement. Grownups will have to be aware of the child's restlessness and at times channel it through dynamic exercises.

Necessity of discrimination and self-mastery

Yoga is now spreading rapidly in every sphere of society. Its influence can be felt in a number of fields from natural childbirth to medical relaxation, bio-energy treatments, sophiology (a new method applied in the field of psychiatry), etc. A wealth of techniques is at our disposal, but we must use our discrimination and powers of intuition to sift among this profuse heap of methods and choose those which can be harnessed for our purposes. We must be aware that the minds of western people are often in a mess, so they take up anything that strikes them as novel. People who feel they are in danger of being drowned may reach out for anything, a straw or a shark's tail! We must be wary of getting mixed up with the medley of techniques which the west has been picking up from everywhere as well as inventing on its own, right or wrong. We must choose and utilise practical techniques that will benefit children.

It is a good thing to offer other methods such as Vittoz body expression, dynamic relaxation, and so on as long as they are pregnant with the truth and vitality of yoga. May the path we have been treading through the long-tested tradition of masters help us to discriminate. Let us meditate daily so as to remember that we are responsible for the sound health of children's minds and bodies.

The exercises we have been testing come from different sources. Those who are interested in utilising them will have to adjust them to their own requirements. Let's hope that their enthusiasm will not lead them astray. Those who have not learned, should not try to teach what they don't know. In the field of yoga, experience is what matters most. Test the effect of these exercises on yourselves before you try them on the children. This is our advice. Self-mastery is the key to authority and we certainly need that whether we are teachers or parents.