Yoga in Education

Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati (Micheline Flak)

RYE (Research on Yoga in Education) was founded in 1978 by Swami Yogabhakti in France, under the inspiration of Swami Satyananda and using her own experience as a yoga teacher and English teacher in a French secondary high school in Paris. Since the 1970's RYE has pioneered yoga within the school system and, in its own way, has influenced the progress of education. In this tale Swami Yogabhakti discusses the establishment of RYE, and reports on the international RYE convention held in Paris in November 1994.

I am a worker of the RYE movement which was officially founded in 1978. This movement needed life, not just as we understand it with a body and senses, but life in the collective consciousness. We all know that the future of the world lies in the breath of small children and this is why RYE was so necessary.

The difficulties that teachers, educators and parents meet with nowadays are well known, so RYE has not spent much time criticising the system, but rather, has tried with the help of yoga to devise means to alleviate and, if possible, correct the environment that the new generation is subjected to.

I am a teacher of English, that is I began selling English to the Minister of Education. I have never regretted it because through the imbibing of the English language I have learnt and assimilated many important things. One of the best things I encountered while studying English at the university was the American author, Henry David Thoreau. He was an ordinary man who lived in Massachusetts and became one of the great lights of American literature and philosophy. We even consider him to be an enlightened one in the western world.

Thoreau spent two years in the woods trying to over the truth of life. He said, "I went to the woods because I wished to find out what life was and not when die discover that I have not lived." He wrote one of the most beautiful books ever written called Walden, 'recording his experiences in the woods, and one hundred years later that book is still an inspiration for millions of people. When Thoreau was asked what was taught in the newly-born Harvard University where he had studied, he answered, "Well, at Harvard University you are taught all the branches of knowledge but not the roots." That statement has been a great inspiration to me when considering the difficult situation that Children face at school.

The child in the classroom

What is expected of a child at school? The good student is the one who holds up his hand to give the correct answer. The correct answer is the one that the teacher expects, not necessarily the one that the child knows. So the child sits for hours on a chair and holds up his hand. His whole personality amounts to a segment of his body being raised a little above his head, which is the most important thing to the teacher. What the poor child's buttocks suffer sitting on the chair is of no importance. The fact that he is using his brain most of the time does not mean that the teacher understands that the brain is connected to the body. The word 'brain' in English or French is a synonym for Intellect, intelligence. The fact that the brain needs oxygen to work well, and that sometimes the head needs to be lowered in a posture like shashankasana, does not seem to be important to the educational authorities, and every year they devise ways to cram in more and more knowledge. That super computer in our beach has physical, psychological and other needs which are outside the range of most people 's awareness.

So the reaction of RYE to this situation was just a logical way of looking at things; for instance, the way children are made to sit at school for hours on end without moving is quite barbarian. I'm sure that in fifty years time if the situation has not changed, then the children will have exploded. An explosion is what we see in the world today. There are children who have stopped learning because of the school situation.

Introducing yoga into the classroom

When I first began to introduce yoga exercises into the classroom, it seemed infinitely stupid for an English teacher to ask the children to relax and do nothing. The teacher has always required the students to make haste and start working, not to take time before work to relax the mind and provide a transition from one class to the next, from the outside to the inside. That was a very simple idea which seemed quite strange to the children, but they liked it.

Of course we had to convince both the parents and the authorities that yoga exercises in the classroom were compatible with real learning. How we managed to convince the authorities in France, and not all of them are convinced as yet, was just a matter of tactics and strategies. I could share these strategies with you but I am not really sure that it would be possible to renew that phenomenon in every country.

We realised that if the children liked the exercises then they would be the best ambassadors to the parents. We took five minutes at the beginning or in the middle or even at the end of each class. If the children said, "Oh, we have a mathematics test next and we are feeling afraid and tense, help us," then we prepared an exercise to make them feel happier before the test. But normally we started with five minutes, no more, at the beginning of the class. As it is homoeopathic yoga which is being injected into the system, the exercises are devised according to the understanding, age and needs of the children, and of the moment. For instance, if it Is very cold outside we have special warming up exercises. If the children have just come from a physical training class then we will not make them move their bodies or stretch too much, but rather relax fully, because that is the real need. In RYE we emphasise adaptation ion to the level of understanding, to the age, to the moment, to the possibilities. The teacher has to feel, to be aware of the atmosphere of the class, of the requirements of the moment.

The teacher and stress

The teacher is maybe the most important element in the business of RYE because he/she is the one who has to be trained. My own experience is similar to that of' many teachers who have tried the experiment. I had been teaching English for one year when I realised that tire job required a lot of energy. When you deal with children you have to start the day in a certain way, and It is absolutely essential that a teacher has the means to recover his or her calm because all day long you are tested by the children. Whether they are three, four, five or twenty years old, they test you because their minds have not yet stabilised. They don't know what they are up to and they are full of life and energy, which as all educators know has to be channelled, otherwise it will become disruptive.

If the teacher is not able to maintain the calmness and steadiness of his/her own mind, then problems start. After one year in my first teaching job, I realised that I had to do something. I liked the job very much, but I needed to rest after the classes so much so that I did not know how to relax my whole body/mind complex. So I started taking yoga lessons and I felt that yoga gave me what I was looking for. I found out later that this has been the experience of many teachers who have taken up yoga.

RYE goes public

In 1978 RYE became an official movement. There seems to be a law that as soon as there is a group of people with a common objective, then that group gains impetus. It is something which works on the esoteric plane, I am sure. The fact that RYE was now official enabled us to attract more people who could feel its importance and help to spread its ideas. For instance, we were helped by the principal of my school. That was lucky because the next principal was quite the opposite. Anyway she was at the convention where Swami Satyananda spoke, sitting beside him, and she invited him twice through the college. That was in 1977. At that meeting with Swami Satyananda there was a public relations lady who invited the journalists. Like all journalists they wanted to see and they were not shocked at a swami sitting on a table with a shaven head and wearing a dhoti. They wanted to see how we included yoga in the classroom. So they came to an English class and watched the process. One journalist said, "If I had been taught English that way when I was young then I would speak better English now." He realised that the children were relaxed by the exercises and the atmosphere, and spoke English more fluently than he had at their age. He wrote a nice article, the first to be published on the subject, in a very influential newspaper called Remonde. His article was titled "English through yoga" because people did not realise at the time that yoga could be applied to other subjects such as mathematics and not just English. At the time many people in France, and in every part of the world, wanted to learn the universal language. So they said "English through yoga", and that became a craze. All the newspapers began to enquire about the new method, but we realised that we had to do more than just satisfy the journalists' curiosity.

French newspaper articles gave RYE publicity and many teachers and parents started making enquiries. In every article we gave the address of RYE which was at that tune in the state college where I was working, which gave people confidence, and over the years more and more teachers came to learn the techniques.

RYE training techniques

Paramahamsaji originally gave me a mission which was to bring yoga into the school system. To do that a curriculum, a system, a set of techniques was necessary. You have to be very strict about how you train people because we realised that people who come to learn the techniques for a weekend, then return to their schools stating that they know how to introduce yoga into the school system. They might make mistakes, and we didn't want to be responsible for the mistakes of untrained people. So we decided to create a school to train teachers in the RYE techniques.

The training was devised according to the eight steps given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The first two steps are yama and niyama. We translate yama as awareness, attunement to the environment, relating to others. Niyama concerns the physical mind environment, purifying the body and mind. For instance, you have to eat in a certain way, pay attention to the air you breathe and also to the thoughts that come to your mind. To the public we present yama as "learning how to live together," and niyama as "cleaning the house". The third set of techniques which we call "operation straight back" concern the body, the asanas. The fourth set of techniques is pranayama, learning how to breathe, which we call "breath is life."

The fifth step is pratyahara which we call "learning how to relax", dissolving tensions. Dharana is the sixth step, making the mind like a laser in order to learn better. Dharana is about quality of mind, clarity of mind, which is an area that the educational authorities are responsive to. Children are less and less attentive and the purpose of the RYE techniques is to train the mind to increase the level of attention. Patanjali's seventh and eighth steps are dhyana and samadhi which we decided were dependent on the teacher's own personal training and belonged to his own spiritual practice. So, for safety reasons we decided to leave them out and teach only the first six steps of Patanjali.

To train the mind we begin with steps two to six; the first step, attention to the environment, comes later because you cannot oblige children to be attentive if they have physical or emotional tensions. So we begin with exercises such as Pawanmuktasana, which can be done while sitting, then stretching postures, and then when the tensions are reduced, correct breathing and rotation of consciousness through the body are practised. Rotation of consciousness through the body is very important. Then the children are ready to learn.

Overcoming obstacles

We came across obstacles even though we were following yogic principles. For example, when we first introduced relaxation, we told the children as they came into the class not to open their satchels, just to relax. However, we were dismayed when, instead of bring quiet after the yoga nidra, the children became excited when told to take out their books, and started to talk. How was that possible? At first this obstacle seemed like a kind of defeat, but we realised after speaking to other educationalists who were also yogis, and among ourselves, that we should proceed in another way.

Transitions are very important moments in life. For example, when you are moving from sleep into activity there is a short period of time before the eyes are fully open. We had not taken this into consideration. When the children open their eyes, the conditions should be conducive to silence. We made sure that everything the children needed after the relaxation was prepared in advance - pens, papers, books and the work to be done ready on the table; that is, we had the children project themselves into the future before starting their relaxation, after all, children are at school to work, not to relax. Maybe in the school of the future, relaxation will be the main subject, but for the moment we have to make children work well. Besides, it would have been very bad for yoga to render the work less efficient. We want people to understand that through yoga, children air better able to learn mathematics or vocabulary. So before the relaxation ended, we said that in a few minuses, when they opened their eyes, they would find their books open at such and such a page, and remaining silent they would begin to do such and such a task. While they were still in a state of relaxation, sitting with their eyes closed, we described to them mentally what they would be doing in a few minutes when they opened their eyes. We told them to feel their feet on the floor, their buttocks on the chair, their hands on the table. We asked them to pick up their pens before opening their eyes and then to immediately start drawing or writing or reading, They were quiet, there was no noise, no problem anymore.

Another obstacle concerned parents complaints that we were wasting a lot of time with the yoga exercises. They felt that the children were there to learn English, not to do gymnastics. So I said, "Yes, you are right, we'll do the exercises in English instead of French." The children ended up knowing the vocabulary of the body best. In first year they even knew 'shoulder blade' in English, which is quite a feat. So the parents thought that we had listened to them and complied with their request.

RYE Convention 'Invent Tomorrow's Education'

After twenty-one years of study, practice and training, I finally retired from teaching English. Meanwhile I had been given the opportunity to teach RYE techniques to students at the university. I decided to celebrate my retirement from English teaching by organising an international seminar because RYE had become an international movement with organisations in other countries as well as France. I also wanted to make it known that although I had retired I had not forgotten about education and would not let the authorities live quietly back in the old system.

RYE had always been in contact with other movements; we had not worked in a void maintaining that yoga was the only possibility but were always ready to hear from other educators about their methods to train children's unruly minds. So we invited the foremost educators of our time, and Swami Niranjanananda, to the RYE Convention. For instance, Antoine la Garanderie had been a philosophy teacher. He noticed that knowledge copied from a blackboard is not necessarily imbibed by the brain. In his method something is written on the blackboard, the children look at it, then with closed eyes see it written in their mind, on their inner screen. The children then open their eyes and without looking at the blackboard write it down. If their answer is correct they have learnt it. If it is incorrect, then it is not enough to just correct the mistake in their copybook; the eyes have to be closed again, the mistake checked out in the brain, and then corrected in the copybook. It takes time. It takes more time than to just copy from the blackboard into the copybook because that is just paper knowledge, it is not real knowledge. Real knowledge is that which has been imbibed by the brain. Although he is not a yogi, Antoine has trained teachers like a yogi. Even though his method has never been called yoga, we realised that it was like dharana, RYE's sixth step. He decided to incorporate RYE's other steps into his method, and so we have worked together.

Andre de Peretti is another famous person in the field of education and an advisor to the Minister of Education. He has said that it is not possible to teach everybody in the same way, that teachers do not teach in the same way. The different ways have to be accepted and used to suit the different personalities of the children and their different levels of understanding. Another speaker, Jacques de Coulon, has been a collaborator of RYE for many years and has written many books on the subject, and Basarab Nicolescu, a Romanian physicist, is of one the greatest scientists of our times.

The convention had three themes; (i) harmonious growth in education, balancing the various levels of the child's personality; (ii) mental clarity and learning capacities, developing the attentive awareness which is conducive to better learning; and on awakening the dormant potential and creativity. Thirty-four people from various fields of education participated in the seminar either as speakers or as workshop leaders. All had in common an innovative vision of the objectives and methods of the teaching processes adapted to the world ahead.

Declaration of rights

On the final afternoon a draft letter was presented which will be sent to every educational authority and establishment in France and abroad. The title is Appeal for the Right to Education of the Whole Being.

These proposals, destined for all French and foreign institutions were proposed by the three hundred participants, and lecturers from seventeen countries at the RYE International Convention, 'Invent Tomorrow's Education' held in Paris in November, 1994. Educating the whole being means taking into account all the components of a person, because the development of attentive awareness is a basic necessity for a complete education. This concern is becoming less and less apparent in the school system. The quality of attentive awareness is based on the essential underlying harmony between body, emotions, intellect and cognitive interaction. Educators can develop this link by introducing processes derived from yoga and related disciplines which have been tested by time and science.

The process of acquiring knowledge depends as much on the cognitive functions of the intellect as on the emotional interactions between teachers and students. Integration of the different levels of personality will enhance the learning capacities. The systematic introduction of alternative activities like speech, silence, stillness, movement, writing, reading and listening will not only reduce the monotony of school procedures, but also increase the awareness of environment, body, breath, levels of tension and states of mind. Such observation will bring about relaxation, better assimilation of knowledge and feeling for fellow human beings. This type of pedagogical action reduces the common split between intellectual, technical and artistic subjects as usually taught in schools, and being by nature trans-disciplinary will foster self-confidence and creativity.

So we propose that these methods should be transmitted in all teacher training institutions, public or private, to provide educators with training throughout their career. Training in yoga techniques for children should be entrusted to qualified, degree - holding teachers, having at least a three-year validated experience in the classroom.

The architecture of school buildings from kindergarten to university should include a silent place devoid of heavy furniture, sheltered from outside intervention and devoted to practices of self-development favourable to true physical and mental calmness. At present it is almost impossible to find a quiet place in schools.

Recognising inner potential

After twenty years of assiduous experimentation with children and adolescents of various age groups, we are conscious that our research is efficient. We propose that such training methods should be pursued and encouraged by the relevant authorities with the aim of producing scientific evaluations, offering a serious 'guarantee to both the scientific and educational communities. So we want scientists to come into the classroom and measure the brainwaves and heartbeats of children before and after the exercises, as well as the degree of vigilance and attention that is possible nowadays. Finally we recommend that a department of university research be established to study the effects of these methods on learners and educators.

In conclusion we think that these elements could give rise to important reforms. They would teach the younger generation to live a correct life in a world endangered by the uncontrolled growth of technology. By recognising the importance of the inner potential, an all-encompassing education would give birth to true citizens of the world.