Yoga with the Little Flower

Sannyasi Atmakalyani, Austria

“The only thing you can do is learn from children. Try to smile like them, to be tender like them, to speak like them and to be worry-free like them.”
Swami Satyananda Saraswati

I have been teaching in an elementary school for two years now with one other teacher in the same classroom. We have an 'integrated class', which means that children with special needs are taught together with 'ordinary' children. (This is a project of the Ministry of Education in Austria.) There are nineteen children in the group, four of whom have special needs – Bernhard, Marcel, Miriam and Siu Mei, which means “little flower”. Sui Mei is an eight-year-old Chinese girl with Downes Syndrome.

It is an integrated class also as far as our method of teaching is concerned. Angelika, my colleague, likes traditional teaching and is very good at organizing. I like to try new methods of teaching like free work, projects, Montessori education and yoga, but I'm a poor organizer. So we complement one another. In our school we are accepted, but not appreciated very much, because most teachers are not keen on the idea of integration.

We have two class rooms. One is big and, as well as tables and chairs, has different corners such as a Montessori sensorial corner, a reading corner and a games corner. The other classroom is very small and is a special room for movement/dance and yoga practices.

Besides the normal frontal teaching and guided yoga practices like asana and pranayama exercises which we do all together, we always arrange fixed hours for free work where the children can choose their own material according to their wishes and needs.

We use the Montessori bead material for mathematics as well as the sensorial material, which can be combined wonderfully with all sorts of yoga practices. The children have to sort things by size, colour, touch, sound, temperature and shape, which enables them to classify sensorial impressions. The concept has been based on individual work and the possibility of repetition. Therefore every child has the chance to explore the environment and to experiment at his or her own speed.

There is, for example, the box of colour tablets for the development of the chromatic sense; the mystery bags – cloth sacks, each one containing a matching set of ten small geometric solids – for the development of the stereognostic sense; circles, squares and triangles for design work; the sound boxes for the development of auditory discrimination; the knobless cylinders where the child learns to experiment with colour and size – and many more. Maria Montessori used these materials as a foundation for later study of mathematics, geometry, geography, art, music etc.

If the children want to move, they may go into to the small classroom and practise yoga there so that they do not to disturb the other children. This is possible only in free-work time, otherwise it would be too chaotic. There is a card index with all the yoga asana they know, some of which they have designed themselves. They have also invented new animal asana. They use these index cards for different postures, encouraging each other, for games, dances and plays. I have found that this form of free learning inspires them much more than the asana or breathing practices done with the whole group. For us teachers it is not so much a free time as hard work!

During normal frontal teaching we like to combine, for example, language teaching with yoga exercises, movements or games. When we learn or read poems, we add movements such as in the following poem by Josef Guggenmoos.

Encounter
Far away in India hot
A tiger moved at a silent trot.
There came a man from Dumpyhill,
The tiger moved much quieter still.
Tap with your finger on a book, soft, soft:
Tap, tap, it can't be soft enough!
You can hardly hear: tap, tap – so still
A tiger can be , so quiet, at will.
Now hard with your fist on the table to thump:
Like that did he march through forest and swamp.
Thump, thump: the man from Dumpyhill!
What will happen? You'll hear, you will.
They looked at each other, a smile, a nod.
We do greet each other! Do we not?
Then off they went, happy and at their best,
One to the East and one to the West.

The next poem is useful for breathing exercises.

Because I Am
I breathe in, I breathe out,
Air goes in, air goes out.
And step by step I do move on,
One foot takes the other along.
I think to myself, all quietly:
Because me I am, I am me.

Siu Mei is the one who responds most of all to yoga. She loves it. She practises surya namaskara very irregularly, but when she does she is so fascinated by it that she can't stop. She stays in bhujangasana for half a minute, then moves into poorna bhujangasana and shouts, “Konigskobra!”, so that everybody can hear what she is doing.

In our classroom there is a poster of animal yoga postures. Sui Mei likes to command and she points at them, wanting us to practise with her. Usually we are busy so she has to practise by herself. She likes to dramatize and never forgets to shout out very loudly the name of the posture she is doing now.

Singing kirtan is a great pleasure for Siu Mei. She knows exactly what her favourite kirtans are. I can't trick her. She opens the kirtan book, points at the page and listens to see if the right kirtan is being played or not. She either claps her hands or, more often, she lies down on my knee while I play the harmonium. It really calms her.

I encourage the children to listen to their desires. Siu Mei benefits enormously from my lack of discipline and my preference for spontaneity. She always sits in the lotus pose and when she has sat on the chair long enough, she jumps up and either runs around the classroom, taking a pencil or a rubber from a class mate and in doing so provoking them to run after her, or she goes to one corner of the classroom and begins her favourite yoga asana. When she wants to be noticed a little more, she moves to the front of the classroom where everybody can see her and demonstrates a dance or karate exercises (she seems to watch TV quite often!) or yoga postures.

Siu Mei likes mandalas. When she came last year she could not hold the crayons. She could not sit for five minutes, but would run around, disturb others, tease others, command or shout. When I tried to paint with her, she would only scribble, cross everything out and then run away. Today she can sit for nearly one hour, quietly, totally concentrated in mandala painting. She does it with so much love and care, starting in the centre (although I never told her to), choosing the colours, matching. Nothing disturbs her concentration. She will even forget to eat her snack!

Siu Mei brings balance into our intellect-oriented classroom. She is intuitive and spontaneous. She does not care about numbers or letters, but she is warm-hearted and friendly. In this sense she is my teacher – and my “little flower”.