Research on Yoga in Education

Under the inspiration of Swami Satyananda Saraswati and her own experience as a yoga teacher and English teacher in a French secondary high school in Paris, Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati (Micheline Flak), has created an association called RYE (Research on Yoga in Education) in February 1978. Since then, this movement has attracted a growing number of educators, and high officials from the Ministry of Education are displaying a growing interest in favour of its development. The principles of the RYE certainly represent a confluence of age old truth and modern techniques, as regards the balanced upbringing of children in our modern age.

Personal experience and the ancient wisdom

As a child, I have gone through the horrors of a war and while a child, I realised that fanaticism, wherever it comes from, is one of the most dangerous diseases of the human mind. It is difficult, if not impossible, to cure a thus contaminated adult. By chance, quite a few of us are fortunate enough to know that this could be more easily prevented, rather than remedied. The only means of prevention seems to be in education. If it were made possible to create a well balanced mental structure at an early age, then a more objective vision of reality would most probably be promoted. It has been proved that a diminishing of psycho-physical tensions will lead to a corresponding decrease in aggressiveness. This can be brought about through the time tested techniques of age old tradition, and it is here that yoga intervenes.

When I first began to practise yoga, I experienced the effects stated above, and I felt great benefits from them. This, in turn, reacted on my daily life and on the quality of my work at school. It was my good fortune to be instructed by masters of yoga from the east as well as from the west. They encouraged me to transfer onto a practical level the techniques which I was learning for my own use. As early as 1973, therefore, I began to introduce relaxation exercises into every one of my classes, with the consent of the Principal.

At first I had no pattern or reference to refer to, because those practices which I introduced into the classroom were adjusted to the learning of the school subjects. They were not just intended to ease the stresses of the children, but to help them imbibe the knowledge of written and spoken English.

Principles of adaptation

In the beginning, my adaptation of yogic practices in the classroom was rudimentary. I quickly realised that most of the techniques which undoubtedly were very effective on me, could appear boring or too difficult for the children of our times. So, through observation and sharing of experiments with similar minded teachers, we evolved a few principles of adaptation:

  1. To respect the need for movement and novelty which is so characteristic of children. This is especially true today when even young children can enjoy a variety of entertainment. We must understand their minds from the start and slowly get them to like more sedate ways. Silence and motionless-ness will first be learned through games. Thus an educator should be trained to know a great variety of such games.
  2. To preserve a certain amount of attractiveness, which should never be imposed through constraint. The child should be made to love the varied exercises of relaxation, breathing, and attention. A teacher should be able to explain the purpose and value of the games and exercises to the children in a way suited to their understanding. A child's capacity to grasp the deeper truths should not be undervalued.
  3. To fill a need, and counteract the deleterious effects of the present system. A little story will make this clear:
    • Nasrudin, a famous character from the Sufi folklore, was pouring water into a vase at the fountain in the middle of the town. His neighbours were surprised, for his jug had no bottom. 'Don't you see, Nasrudin,' they exclaimed, 'that your jug is bottomless?' Here-plied: 'Bottom or no bottom, it makes no difference to me. My job is to pour the water.'
  4. Similarly, our job is to pour knowledge into brains which are leaking all through. We all know the saying of Montaigne: "It is better to have well made heads than full brimming heads." The eastern and western wisdoms are today meeting and this is perchance the time when their joint message will be heard.
  5. And, finally, these methods should prove efficient on the pedagogical plane.

Tranquillising the children's minds

Yoga aims at quietening the mind so that the deeper layers of creative energy may emerge. Quietening the children in this sense will automatically promote better motivation. A young human is by nature very curious and ready to learn. This appetite for learning needs only to be awakened. As soon as it has emerged freely, the child will want to learn spontaneously. Without this natural flow, no real progress can be seen in the child's studies. School should be a place where a taste for study is kept alive. The teacher's personality plays a most important part in this respect.

Tranquillising the child's mind will also foster the passage between intellectual grasping to that of practical use. Any notion remaining on the abstract plane without an outlet into the world of action is only loading the brain and opening the way to indolence and dullness. Real knowledge is vibrant and makes a person alive. This is particularly true in the field of language learning, where it has been found that muscular and emotional tensions are competing against the desire to communicate. Whether young or old, a person may know a lot of grammatical rules and idioms, and yet remain quite unable to talk because of inner blocks. On the reverse side, I have observed the remarkable progress made by average pupils when such tensions were eliminated. Then the expression of knowledge is able to blossom forth, which can easily happen when a liking for the subject has been created, and the atmosphere of a classroom has opened up a channel for communication.

The above points, and others, have become clearer to me through a process of maturation. In order to be faithful in my present account, I should add that the obstacles I met on my way have helped me to evolve a method of my own. I am now not alone in this. During the years I have been fortunate enough to meet scholars and specialists, such as the author of 'Yoga a l'Ecole' (Signal, Lausanne, Switzerland), who tried to develop children's learning abilities and well-being through exercises very similar to mine. In our view, the effects of this kind of teaching are not one-sided. They are not simply beneficial to children, but through a process of feedback they react subtly on the teacher's well-being too.

The growing impact of the RYE Movement I have been constantly helped by three factors:

  1. The unfailing support of my inner convictions;
  2. The co-operation of the Principal of my school;
  3. The growing interest manifested in the educational world through the RYE activities.

Thus it has expanded considerably. Although we have tried to keep it open to any new development, its flexibility itself has grown into a complex organisation. Thus the whole of my free time has been taken up by the problems of planning and administration. For example: In 1978, one seminar was enough to get the people interested, in 1979, there were two seminars and in 1980 there were no less than ten gatherings organised to meet the growing demands of educators. Here I must stress an important point. In accordance with the statement made at the beginning of this text, I wished to open the doors of Condorcet to such methods which would, with yoga as a nucleus, foster the well-being of children. Mime, dance, singing, and other activities had their place in our announcements.

Teacher training

It soon became obvious that the most important need was to train teachers in these methods. The reason for this became apparent through experience. A teacher does not teach only what he knows, but what he is. If he is able to calm his own mind, he will be able to calm the children's. If his own work is pleasant to him, he will make the work of his pupils pleasant also.

The yogic techniques are not just recipes to be efficiently applied by anyone, without any preamble. Therefore, we consider it as our next important aim to create the conditions of teacher training in the techniques of well-being applied to learning. With this solid base of self-development and with a graded schedule of classes, teachers from the primary as well as from the secondary schools can become experts in these new methods.

When the future of the new generation is at stake, let us not rely on mere chance and improvisation. Since the means of progress are given to us, we may well put together our efforts to educate the children who will become the men and women of importance tomorrow.