Bastar, M.P. is one of the least inhabited areas of India. Teak and sal jungle create an atmosphere of untouched stillness, holding lion, panther, deer and tiger. Heavy rains pound this area in monsoon. Criss-crossed by rivers throughout the year, it is a part of India which even few Indians permit themselves to visit.
The villages are neatly fitted into small jungle clearings, two or three mud packed huts, each surrounded by thickly shaded area and some jungle fencing. This is surrounded by a few uneven plots of cultivated land, bamboo growing intermittently in the seemingly deserted villages. Newcomers are wonderingly greeted at the edge of the village by muscular loin clothed men armed with bows and a handful of arrows.
If India is a century separated, not behind or in advance, from the rest of the world, then the forest area of Bastar must be a further century separated from the rest of India. However, the life is now being disturbed there by a new animal-hydro-electricity projects, mining projects, mineral exploratory projects.
The Bastar area contains many rivers, iron ore is abundant, the forest itself is being cut at a rate which will ensure its extinction within a generation. This forest at present contains species which are admired due to their rarity and vast acreage covered. The jewels of the area are being ruined by projects which now dot this rich and wide region.
The people themselves are of a simplistic nature, totally different from the city and village dwelling Indians. Their religion is not Hindu or Muslim. Their clothing is only a recent introduction previously unnecessary. Known as Adiyasi (aborigines) they consist of many tribal groups differentiated by their language. Gond and Darba are two of the main groups some of which spread from Orissa through M.P. into Maharashtra.
They have few sicknesses, their medicines are also few. Strong healthy bodies are their sign of a life which is encompassed on all sides by the jungles and hills. It is not uncommon to see the old women walking 20-40 kilometres daily for supplies of subjee. The others walk long distances for hunting or water.
The more interior tribes are still hesitant and dislike any wanderer, some of these groups are only a short distance from a recently commenced bus route which dives deep into the untouched interior. It was here at the end of this bus route that an unusual teaching program was conducted by Bihar School of Yoga in the Mata Rukmani Adivasi Ashram set up by a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave.
One ashram was more recently established in 1978 In Barsur in the jungle area and another established in l976 near Jagdalpur in the village area. Barsur was the 13th century capital of the region which once extended south into Andhra Pradesh. Remains of the temples depicting Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh and others, are still to be seen.
The ashrams contain a total of 160 adivasi girls in age from 6 to 16 progressively advancing in the M.P. curriculum studies. Their life is based upon a sound spiritual structure similar to the ancient gurukul system. Training in agriculture, ashram maintenance, comprise their karma yoga while study and recitation of Vedas, Upanishads and Gita are part of the daily routine. The ashrams are based upon a wide field of education and high aims, but still retain a sense of freedom.
These girls were once accustomed to a life which is now to be inevitably changed. As the bigger projects have a deeper and more unalterable effect on this region, a great changeover is occurring. The ashrams are providing a setting whereby the girls may continue on in their village life, or just as easily be suited to the town life if they wish to continue with further studies. They may even be called upon to help in the adjustment and leadership of their villages within a short period.
It is in such a setting that the yoga practices were introduced as a daily part of the ashram routine in 1979. The students now often give demonstrations in their own ashram and are also called upon to give demonstrations for other local programs. They normally spend some time showing their rhythmical local dances and then generally surprise the audience with a display of 10-20 perfectly executed asanas.
The practices were introduced into the second ashram in February 1982 after the acharya of the ashrams, who himself has a deep interest in yoga, noticed definite changes over the short and long term periods. Some girls had chosen not to continue practices and these girls exhibited the normal growth patterns, behaviour, etc. They remained the control group for a study which showed many remarkable changes.
Even within a six month period of commencing the practices the parents who periodically came from the jungle villages were astonished to see the girls change so rapidly. Physically the height of three or four increased dramatically; weight increased in some as their bodies became stronger. Flexibility increased and has remained even though some girls have been through puberty, a time when the body becomes stiffer. Very few sicknesses are present in the ashram so this factor was not of significance in these observations.
Mentally the effects were more observable- the yoga practices were originally introduced for this aspect. The younger children, especially those coming directly from their family, would naturally find difficulty to bring their attention to their books and studies. Their five minute attention span was increased up to one hour by the yogic practices.
An ability which was most outstanding to observe and which is lacking in most city children is that after two and a half years of consistent practice, all the girls without exception have developed sufficient control to switch from an excited extrovert state of mind to an introverted state within a matter of seconds. Their faces brighten as their concentration becomes deeper each second. Once the adivasi children learn the practices, they become most receptive. Their attention span and concentration ability seem to be far greater than the children of similar ages who live in the city and are easily distracted by any sound or sensation.
These adivasi children have grown up in an environment where the jungle and therefore their whole world is an interwoven part of their total being. Given the formula they can readily create that peace in their mind which exists in their surroundings. They are generally highly intuitive and are conscious of the wider sense of home i.e. the whole jungle in which they live.
So, in a most unusual setting the ancient yoga practices are allowing a transition to take place in a group of young people whose responsibility soon will be to help their families and villages adjust correctly to a foreign society which will unavoidably extend into their mud packed doorsteps within a few years.