Integrating yoga in a classroom

Swami Krishnapriya Saraswati

I would like to share with you some of my experiences of working with yoga and children. This has been particularly in schools so the emphasis of my talk will be on education and yoga, however I feel that these ideas can be applied to all situations – in yoga classes, in the classroom and in the home. The yoga I wish to describe is not just the yoga of asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha and meditation; but an integral approach to yoga, a wholistic approach which can be used in every moment of the day – in every experience, every activity and in every interaction. This is the yoga that incorporates alongside hatha yoga, karma yoga, gyana yoga, and bhakti yoga – the yoga that balances head, hands and heart. Even in a formal yoga class these aspects can be integrated.

The whole child

The teaching I did was in a school in Australia where yoga is not as familiar as it is in India. I was, however, fortunate that the school was open and interested in new ways of educating children. In addition to some experience in yoga, I had also come into contact with the teachings of an educator from Europe called Rudolf Steiner whose methods of teaching children had many similarities to the yogic approach. Rudolf Steiner regarded the child as a whole person, not just as a body with a brain, but as a whole being, a spiritual being. He looked at how a child grows and matures and at what practices would be appropriate at particular times of their development.

In the same way, by introducing yoga to children we are developing a whole human being, a whole personality, a whole child and not just a body. Integral yoga assists the child in developing an understanding of themselves and of their place in the world. It provides the child with powerful tools which helps them to accept themselves, to interact with and accept others, and to cope with all situations in life. So yoga can be used not just for releasing stress and improving the body's functions, but also for developing the whole personality.

Be as a child is

In order to use yoga in this way, firstly the teacher requires creativity because you are not strictly following the practices of asana as we know them, especially with younger children; not all the practices are appropriate for their developing bodies. Secondly, one must be able to become like a child in order to understand the mind of children. Swami Satyananda has said, “as adults we have forgotten how to think and feel like a child but it is necessary to experience the world of a child once again before we start to teach yoga to children. This does not mean to behave as a child, but to think and feel and imagine as a child does”. To start with, this means dropping one's inhibitions and preconceptions and thus being open as a child is open. A child is innocent and the world is fresh to them. Adults have become stale and conditioned; we have done things over and over again and lost our natural curiosity and flow with life. So to develop new, fresh eyes for the world is one way that we can begin to enter into the minds of children.

Planting the seed

I will describe one of the practices I did together with the children in the classroom. The children I was working with were five and six years old so I aimed at developing experiences appropriate to those children. Now, I would like all of you to try this practice. You are going to start by imagining that you are a tiny seed. To do this you must come into a position that is as small as your body can become – completely closed in and very, very small. One way you can do this is to begin in the yogic posture of shashankasana, sometimes called the pose of the child, or if that is not comfortable for you, you can take another position that is similar, where your body is tightly curled up. So please come into this position and don't worry what anyone else is thinking. No one else is watching you! Now imagine that you are a tiny seed deep beneath the earth, and all around you it is dark and quiet and the earth is cool and protective. Just for a moment see how you are feeling. Feel your position, feel and smell the earth around, observe your breath and the stillness of your body.

Then you begin to feel an energy moving through your body and this force is making you move upward. You feel warmth from above and moisture filtering down through the earth energizing you. You continue to move upwards, leaving behind the protective covering of the seed. Slowly you begin to grow and gradually you break through the earth. Feel yourself breaking through the earth and developing into a small, fragile seedling. Keep your eyes closed and as you come above the ground experience the light and warmth of the sun. All around you there is movement and life. Experience this new sensation – listen to the sounds that you can hear around you, smell the fragrance in the air.

Now, you begin to grow more, rising upward as you are drawn towards the heat of the sun. Feel yourself opening and moving upward, gradually becoming taller and stronger. Then clasp your hands together and stretch up towards the sky as high as you can. Feel yourself as a strong tall tree and relax yourself in this position. Keep the arms up and feel the wind as it begins to blow. Firstly, you are blown to the right side – bend to the right and then stretch up again before bending to the left side. Feel the wind blowing you from side to side, rustling your leaves and bending your branches. Then slowly release the hands, relax the arms by the sides of the body and for a moment just be still. Keep the eyes closed and feel your body – strong, tall and healthy. Feel the environment around you, the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze and for a moment just observe while relaxing your whole body. Now you can sit back down in a comfortable position. Okay?

This is quite a simple practice and children enjoy it very much. The practice, as you can see, is based on some of the yoga asana: shashankasana, tadasana and tiryaka tadasana, and it is also helping the child psychologically by going through the process of growth, starting from the foetal position of the womb and then growing into a strong independent body. At the same time, yogically speaking, it follows the ascent up through the elements associated with the chakras: earth, water, sun or fire, air and space; and some of the associated emotions and experiences: security and insecurity, fear and fearlessness, dynamism and stillness.

Nourish the seed

Just as a seed grows into a plant, so too a child grows, and at each stage of growth there are different needs. Swami Sivananda has also compared the child to a plant. He said, “the soul is the root, the mind is the trunk, and the body constitutes the leaves. The leaves are important because they gather the sun's rays for the entire tree. The trunk is equally important, however, if the roots are not watered then the whole tree will not survive for long”. If we don't water and feed the soul of a child as well as the body and the mind, then he or she won't survive or will have a lot of difficulty in surviving. So in order to water and feed the soul, provide the soul with nourishment.

The teacher – whether it be in an asana class or a school situation – must know the needs, the aspirations, the strengths and the limitations of every child. This is what Swami Niranjanananda calls the 'SWAN theory': Strengths, Weaknesses, Ambitions or Aspirations and Needs. It is very important for the teacher to have an understanding of every child. The teacher is not just there to teach subjects, or asana, or other practices. The teacher is like a caretaker and guide for the children's social, practical and spiritual values. The teacher is also a role model. Children are very sensitive and observant of how the teacher interacts with others, how the teacher acts and reacts to situations, even of how the teacher talks, listens and moves. A child observes all this, so it is very important that the teacher has an awareness of his or her own actions and behaviour. A teacher must know not only what practices but also what experiences to give a child.

The teacher-child relationship is very important. It forms a very powerful link. It should be based on love, respect and trust, and this relationship needs to be gradually built up. The teacher plays a major role in forming the personality of a child and also the destiny of a child. For a period of time the teacher is leading the child, hopefully in dharma. So the teacher must provide the environment, the example and the situations that create positive samskaras; an environment that is creative, spontaneous, vibrant and joyous.