Yoga and Education

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, World Yoga Convention, Australia, October 1996

What is education?

A lot of thought has gone into what yoga can offer to education as a whole because generally when we speak of yoga aiding the process of education we talk of one component: in terms of either memory or retention power, or increasing the intelligence of different human beings, or learning to cope with stress in classroom situations. However the yogic concept of education is slightly different and covers a lot of ground.

We have two ideas of education. One idea is this: books, tables, chairs; and the other idea is this: the individual. We have limited education to books, tables and chairs and we have forgotten the human being that has to study. In fact if you look at the education systems prevailing in the world today and the subjects that are taught in the different colleges and universities we can see that they are job-oriented educations. Learning, which aids the process of you attaining a job in society, whether it is physics, whether it is chemistry, whether it is biology, whether it is medical science, whether it is anatomy and physiology, whether it is history. Right from our childhood, until the time we eventually pass university and try to become established in life, the whole thrust of our training, in college and in school is to obtain a job, a career, status in life.

Sometimes I wonder if that is the real education a human being should imbibe and the conclusion I have come to is “No!” The conclusion I came to is that this form of education is necessary, but it is not conducive to educating the human person and we have to rethink how we wish to educate ourselves – point number one. And we have to think what is to be the aim of education in life – point number two.

It is in this context that education becomes important because it is my belief that we do not have a proper education available to us. We need to move from the system of job-oriented education into self-education, and self-education is where yoga comes in: learning to channel the faculties of human personality, of human nature; learning to focus the mind, to have clarity of mind, concentration of mind; and learning to recognize the principles that govern a human personality in the form of strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and ambitions, and needs.

There is a sentence which I hear often from parents to their children, “Be a man, be brave”. When children fall down and hurt themselves we tell them, “Don't cry, be brave, be a man.” When children are in need of support, affection, love and encouragement we tell them, “You look after yourself!” and this is where the education actually begins. This is where, and this is how the education actually begins in society today. In one of our cranial flashes – I'm not using the word 'mental flashes', I'm using the word 'cranial flashes' – we begin to think that children or individuals need to be independent and free, and that freedom, in our mind, means that they do not need to have any support or encouragement or guidance. If that is the freedom humanity is aspiring for I prefer bondage and love and compassion.

Where real education begins

The growth of an individual begins with positive interaction between the parent and the child. It is this period which is crucial and important for education. Today's society inspires violence. The toys which we give to our children are guns and water pistols. We are telling them psychologically, “Express your violence!” We are giving them the message that the only emotion to express is your anger, is your violence. If that is the state of our interaction with our children then in the future you are going to see a lot of social disturbances and psychological imbalances, and society does not have any infrastructure to deal with such situations. It is happening even now with the rise in crime and decline in values.

So our concept of education has to change from classroom education to personal education. This shift has to be made. How do we do that? According to the yogic theories, education, the real education, stops around the age of seven. The intuitive education stops around the age of seven. The humanitarian education stops around the age of seven and after that you begin the academic education. There are people like Micheline Flak and other thinkers who are concerned with the academic education at the age of seven, but there are people like us who are concerned with the intuitive education which a child can imbibe only up to the age of seven. This education is imbibed through the family environment, the culture, the society, and this education is known as samskara, the programming of the human computer. The mother is responsible for such education. We cannot provide our offspring with the right samskara. Therefore it is my request to all the mothers and would be mothers to make a conscious effort to gain positive samskaras in their nature and personality and life, and to express these samskaras in the family environment, and to then educate their children with those samskaras.

The SWAN principle

It is in this context that I would like to speak about samskaras, intellect and intelligence. What are samskaras? We have said they are impressions. And if you can just think about what intellect you have, because intellect and intelligence are two different things. Intelligence is a natural expression of what you know, of what you live for, and intellect is our imbibed concept. Intelligence is a harmonious expression of your beliefs, your nature. I can be an intellectual giant but not have intelligence. I can have intelligence and yet be an absolute ignorant fool. So we have to learn to differentiate between intellect and intelligence. Intellect is something that deals with buddhi, the process of knowing, and intelligence deals with bodha, the process of expression.

These things have to be understood in relation to human nature. There is a theory which I have called the SWAN principle, S-W-A-N, and these are acronyms for strength, weakness, ambition and need. These are four things which are inherent in a human personality. We all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses, we all have our ambitions and we all have our needs. We have to realize what our particular SWAN principle is. What is my strength, what is my weakness, what is my ambition and what is my need? And we have to be very careful, and I am talking to mothers and parents now. We have to be very careful so that we don't confuse our need with ambition, our ambition with our strength, and weakness with our need. There must be a clear division in the recognition of personal strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs. Once you are able to do that you should also be able to observe the personality of the being with whom you live whether that person is your husband, your wife, your children or anyone.

In this way, when you actually begin to realize the principles that govern your personality you will find that the attitude and the perception change. The change in attitude and the change in perception are the beginning of education in yoga. If teachers can recognize the strength and weakness of the child they can be better teachers, they can encourage and support growth and development; and if parents can recognize the strength of the child they can encourage this strength. If they can recognize the weakness of the child they can help that weakness. If they can recognize the ambition of the child they can guide the child so that the ambition is fulfilled in a positive, constructive way; and if they can recognize the need of the child they can help the child fulfill that need. In this way the process of providing the right samskara, the right impression, the right programming begins. So in the first stage is the recognition of the SWAN principle in each and every individual.

Patanjali's system of raja yoga

At the second stage of education we extend the awareness outside to enhance the mental abilities and one of the practices before dharana, before concentration of the mind, is extension of the mind. In order to focus yourself, in order to focus the faculties of mind to a point, you need to be able to extend the faculties of mind to know what they are and the raja yoga system of Patanjali is appropriate for this. We talk of pratyahara as withdrawal of the senses, that is the last stage of pratyahara. The first stage of pratyahara is extension of the senses into the outside world. We talk of dharana as concentration of mind and mental awareness, that is the last stage of dharana. The first stage of dharana is extension of mental awareness outside into the environment. We talk of dhyana meditation as experiencing the harmony within, that is the last stage of dhyana. The first stage is to experience the harmony outside. If you can't experience the harmony outside, how can you feel it inside? We talk of samadhi as being the process of enlightenment inside, that is the last stage. The first stage of samadhi is optimum harmony on the outside, only then can you experience the optimum harmony on the inside. So here we are not to look at the last final stages of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. We have to look at the first stages: extension of mind, of awareness, involvement in the outer world, becoming creative, becoming open, understanding our interactions, how we are, where we are in the family, in society and in the world. This becomes the second stage of yogic education.

Be what you are

The third stage of yogic education is meditation in its broad sense. I am not speaking of meditation in relation to dhyana of Patanjali, I'm speaking of meditation as a process of being what you are, accepting yourself as what you are. I will tell you the story of Mulla Nasruddin. He was a great Sufi master in 18th century and he went to a fair. You know when you go to a fair there are different contests like shooting small balloons, shooting men who pop up. The shooting has never stopped in the history of humanity. Now we use guns, in those days they used to use bows and arrows. So there was this shooting contest, and Mulla Nasruddin, being the greatest master of his age, suddenly decided to participate in the contest. The contest was that each person was to have three arrows to hit the bull's-eye which was about 100 meters away. As the word spread that this great Sufi master was going to participate thousands from around the fair came and they packed the area where the archery contest was being held. Mulla Nasruddin picked up the bow, the first arrow, took his stance, checked the direction of the wind, checked the string and the strength of the string, pulled down his cap, took very careful aim as to where the bull's-eye was and let the arrow fly. Unfortunately for him the arrow went wide of its mark and there was a twitter and giggle from the crowd, “The great master misses the mark!” Mulla Nasruddin had a very intelligent disciple. The disciple thought, “There must be a reason why my master missed his mark.” So he went to the PA system and said, “Master, can you explain why your arrow went wide of its mark?” and Mulla Nasruddin thanked his disciple for saving him, and he went up to the PA system and said, “Yes, I can explain it to you. The person who shot the arrow was an over-confident person, and over-confident person misses the mark many times.”

It was the time for the second arrow to fly, Mulla Nasruddin again took aim but this time he was nervous. He let the arrow fly, the arrow flew halfway and then dropped down. The intelligent disciple again went to the PA system and said, “Master, can you explain who was the person shot the second arrow?” Mulla Nasruddin, approached him and said, “Yes, I can explain. This was the under-confident one who thought that I can't achieve my goal at any time.” The crowd started to clap for these beautiful words of wisdom coming through him.

It was time for the third arrow to fly, Mulla simply picked it up, “Bang!”, and it hit the bull's-eye. Very proudly Mulla went and collected his prize and marched off, and the disciple again went to the PA system and said, “Master, before you march off with the prize, please tell us who shot the third arrow?” And Mulla said, ”That was me.”

So, if you can be you, if you can learn to accept your idiosyncracies, if you can learn to accept your short-comings and your nature and if you can avoid putting on different masks which we all do at different times in our life, you will be in the path of meditation. Be yourself and once you begin this process of meditation education starts.

The yogic concept of education

So education is a system through which we learn proper expression in life. We can even call it a science of behaviour, a science of performing creatively and constructively in our life, a process of learning how to live. This is the yogic concept of education.

Our modern concept of education is enhancing the ability of our intellect. Compare these two different concepts: enhancing the abilities of the intellect which recall the job-oriented education; and enhancing the process of learning and living creatively and constructively which is the yogic education, or self-oriented education. When I use the word 'self-oriented' I don't mean it in a sense that we confine ourselves within ourselves, rather it is becoming aware of the self as a whole. As I mentioned above the learning process which relates to life, which relates to our behaviour, attitude and thinking happens before the age of eight. Therefore we have to think, “What should be the process of education which enhances our learning in life during our formative years?”, because it is my firm belief that we do not learn about the quality of life through books of history, chemistry, medicine and biology. We learn about the quality of life through our interaction with the environment, with the family, and also through our interaction with our culture. Therefore I repeat again that the real education happens in the first seven or eight years of life. Education which deals with life happens in these years, and it is in this context that we have to see the role of parents and of yoga, and afterwards we receive an academic education.

The practice of yoga

Let us look at the role of yoga. Take, for example, the process of visualization. The process of visualization in yoga is an aspect of the pratyahara techniques. What is pratyahara? Literally it means withdrawing the senses and also feeding the senses; pratyaha, the seed, the impression. Pratya, two words, ahara, to feed, to feed the impressions of the mind, that is the literal meaning of the word pratyahara, although we have taken it to mean withdrawal and isolation of mind. Pratyahara is a very interesting subject because in this practice you learn to extend your perception outside into the outer world. The vision, the taste, the smell, the sounds, the tactile impressions, the faculties of the senses have to be developed, they have to be evolved to their maximum capacity and after you have known the limits of your senses you gradually withdraw them in – not only the physical senses but also the mental senses. You have to go back in memory, you have to bring out the images that are deeply embedded in your memory and then experience the state of well-being, tranquility and peace. In order to achieve this many different techniques have been prescribed in yoga for grown-ups as well as children, and these practices are yoga nidra, antar mouna and ajapa japa. They are important for adults so that they have the ability to relax and let go, and they are also important for children so that they become tuned to their personality and nature.

Antar mouna, means inner silence, witnessing, observing the thoughts, but before you can witness and observe and stop the chattering of the mind you have to create thoughts. Ajapa japa, awareness of breath and mantra, is possibly the most important practice for grown-ups and children. In the ancient vedic tradition, at the age of eight, whether male or female, children were taught three things: the practice of surya namaskara to develop and maintain the activity of the thymus gland; the practice of nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, to stimulate the pineal gland; and the practice of mantra in the form of Gayatri mantra, a mantra which has 24 syllables to increase concentration, to develop retention power, to develop mental tranquility.

Stress and what it indicates

Once I was staying at a house in Delhi and there were a few children in the house. A boy, not more than six years, came from school in the evening and told his parents, “Mother, I'm in tension!” I was surprised that a six-year-old kid had the word tension in his vocabulary! I did not know what tension was until I was about eighteen. I did not know what a headache was until I was twenty-three. I remember my first headache. Prior to that I used to wonder what a headache was. People complain about it and believe me, the day I experienced my first headache, I was the happiest person in the world because I had realized what the headache was, and I was not concerned about the pain. I was joyous, happy to know what a headache was. In my life I did not know the meaning of the word tension until I was eighteen and this six-year-old kid had the word 'stress' in his vocabulary. What did this indicate? Something was not right. He did not have the training to focus his attention, his mind, his thoughts and his learning process.

Therefore I believe that the combination of surya namaskara, salute to the sun; nadi shodhana pranayama, alternate nostril breathing; and mantra, ajapa japa, combined with breath awareness can play a very vital role to stimulate the psyche, and reduce the external, material, physical, sensual and sensorial stimulations. Once we are able to reduce our external sensual and sensorial stimulations the psyche begins to develop and the power of the psyche is experienced. Along with this concentration, dharana – please remember, I am not talking of education as a process of enhancing one's intellect, I'm talking of education as a process of living and interacting – the ability to focus the dissipated nature of mind is a training which everyone must have so they can come in contact with the various aspects of the body, of the emotions, of feeling and of the intellect.


Earlier I gave you the example of how we tell our children, “Be brave, be a man.” When our children fall down and hurt themselves, we tell them, “Don't cry.” When something happens we give them an input but is that input the right one for the child to receive from the parents, from us? I was telling you that we tell our children the only emotion you can express in life is anger and violence. We don't tell them, “Look, you are free, you wish to cry, so cry.” We stop them from expressing their emotions, so there is already an emotional block which is created in the child because of our attitude towards the child. There is already a block existing in the child, an emotional block, because of our perception of life which is incomplete. This is where dharana has to come in because dharana, although it means focusing of the mind, it also means balancing and harmonizing the emotional aspects. The dharanas are of three kinds: chidakasha dharana, the dharana of the mind, concentration of the mind; hridayakasha dharana, dharana of the heart, focusing of the energies that govern emotion and feeling, channelling those energies; and daharakasha dharana, dharana of the deep instincts and psyche, focusing and channelling the instincts and harmonizing the psyche. And dharana is a very important practice for children. Along with the games, along with the visualizations, along with creative living, they learn to appreciate the process of interaction that happens at every stage of their life.

Human consciousness

Meditation is necessary because it opens up the way to realize the potentials of human consciousness and this is where I come to the subject of consciousness, because what is consciousness? And what is mind? We talk of the body and we talk of the brain, but yoga speaks of mind and yoga speaks of consciousness too. Consciousness is the all encompassing awareness without any boundaries and distinctions, and mind is the manifest aspect of the consciousness which relates to the world, the environment, at the present time. Although modern psychology has divided the mind up into different categories: the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious; the yogis have described the mind as an attribute of consciousness and the consciousness as having four different levels of expression and experience: the jagriti which is translated into English as the awakened state, the wakeful state; the swapna which is translated into English as the dreaming state, a stage where you are neither awake nor asleep; nidra, which translates into English as sleep, the unconscious: and turiya, the state of inner effulgence in which you realize your being. These are the four attributes of consciousness. The jagriti has been compared to the conscious, swapna to the subconscious, nidra to the unconscious, but I believe English does not have the proper words to define the actual states, the actual states of consciousness, and these four states are only broad categories.

The great author Abhinav Gupta, who wrote a beautiful treatise on Tantra, Tantra Loka and Tantra Sara, has described twenty-one states of consciousness, and each stage is different to the previous one. What does this indicate? It indicates that our knowledge, perception and understanding of human consciousness, human personality and the human mind is limited. It is a feat of analysis, of logic and understanding if somebody, who through years of study and research, can define twenty-one states of consciousness. And this is only one example of how deep you can go into the study of human nature.

We are talking of consciousness, and you can give a shape to the consciousness in the formative years, you can give a shape to the awakened state of consciousness which relates to the outer world through the senses, through the mind, the indriyas. You can give a form to the state of consciousness which is in between the awakened and the dormant state – the dreaming state for the use of the word, but this dreaming state of consciousness is actually the subtle one, the subtle consciousness. Nidra is the causal consciousness, you can give it a shape, a form, an identity and this happens through the process of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. A beginning has to be made.

Begin with the tools that you have, and practise what you know with sincerity and dedication and commitment. Practise what you know with faith, sincerity and commitment to transform your attitude and your outlook. Practise with sincerity to develop understanding of your nature and your child's nature.

In ancient civilizations there used to be a method of knowing the nature of the child. At the age of eight, before teaching them the practices of asana, pranayama and mudra, the child used to be put in one room with different objects placed in the room. People would watch from outside the room to see which object the child was attracted to. When a child picked up an object, the first object, the parents would get an idea of how the child was going to develop in the course of life.

There is a story about it. One rich person placed four items in the room: money, a gun, a rosary and a bottle of wine. He thought, “I will know if the child goes to pick up the money he will become a big businessman; if the child goes and picks up the gun I will know he will become a criminal; if the child goes and picks up the rosary I know he will become a saint; and if the child goes and picks up the bottle of wine I know he will become a sensual drunkard.” He put these four objects in the room and this eight-year-old child went in, looked around, picked up the money and put it into his pocket; picked up the gun and put it into another pocket; picked up the bottle, drank it; picked up the rosary and walked out the door. The father said, “My god, he's going to be a politician!”

Don't allow your child to be a politician but give your child the opportunity to grow in life with proper support and encouragement. The parents have to become the support group for the child. The parents have to provide the opportunity to the child to express his or her creativity. If we can do that we will see a new sunshine over this world.