The Role of Yoga in Education

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, New Era School, Bombay, January 17, 1997

My involvement in education started in 1980 when I was living in San Francisco. I was one of the founders of SALT (System of Accelerated Learning and Training). This project was not based on ideas, beliefs or concepts which could be considered as being essentially Eastern or Western, but it was the outcome of a discussion between myself, Dr Lozanov, a Bulgarian doctor, and Charles Smith, an educator from California.

We looked at the role of yoga in education from various angles, including the type of education that was being provided to children throughout the world as well as the different levels of stress that children face in the classroom environment. The difficulties, problems, conflicts, distractions and dissipation of their energies were also considered. We started using certain principles and practices of yoga, firstly, as an experiment to increase the children's learning ability and, secondly, to inspire teachers to teach their subjects in a slightly different way.

Our belief was, and still is, that we are educating our children without considering or caring for the growth of their entire personality. We are cramming their brains and minds with information without creating any support group outside the classroom environment where they can continue to imbibe education.

We have to look at what science says about the growth of a child, what psychoanalysis says about child psychology and how the hormones and glands alter and influence the rationality, emotional structure and creative output of the child.

Balancing both hemispheres of the brain

Science tells us that there are two hemispheres in our brain, the right and the left. These two hemispheres perform different functions. The functions of the left hemisphere are linear, logical and intellectual. Those of the right hemisphere are artistic, creative and intuitive. If we consider these facts, the education system does not allow the child to develop the full potential of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The trend of education has been through books. You read, memorize, sit for an exam and receive a grade. Either you pass or fail. Again you have to read, memorize, sit for an exam and get your grade.

The subjects which are taught follow a linear, logical system, whether it is maths, history, geography, physics, chemistry or medicine, whether it is advanced education or secondary education. In this process only one side of the brain is stimulated - the linear, logical side.

In order to balance the other aspects, we teach children the arts. We encourage them to practise music, to paint, to perform plays. We encourage them to use their creativity. But if you compare the influence of the different lobes of the brain, you will find that the linear and logical are more pronounced than the artistic and creative. This is one point.

Developing the whole mind

The second point is that the brain is only the medium through which we educate our mind. The mind is a composition of four different faculties, which in yogic terminology are defined as manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara. The word manas means to rationalize, to think about something. Buddhi means intellect. Chitta is an area of consciousness where impressions are stored. Ahamkara is the concept of ego.

In the modern education system we are feeding only one aspect of the mind - buddhi. We are not dealing with the manas aspect, which deals with the faculty to know what is right and what is wrong. We are not dealing with chitta, where impressions of knowledge are stored in the form of memory and experience. Nor are we dealing with ahamkara, the ego. Rather we are cramming buddhi with information without boosting up the other aspects of our mind. Therefore, despite all our education, we are not able to apply it constructively and creatively in our lives.

Despite all our understanding of right and wrong, we become confused if we have to decide what we need to do. At the same time, as teachers and as parents, most of the time we ignore the psychological samskaras and the psychological nature of the child.

There is an Urdu couplet which says, "Let me tell you the grand things I have done in my life. I have studied and after receiving an education, I did my service and after completing my service, I received my pension and after receiving my pension, I died. This is life." But is this everything in life? No. It is important for each one of us to provide opportunities for our children to recognize themselves, to use their potential, to develop and awaken their personality, without parents imposing their own personal ideologies on them.

The problem is not only with education. The problem is also with the parents. Parents have not been educated. You might have studied at Oxford or Harvard; you might have received the highest degree available, but you are not educated. A degree is not education. It is only a certificate which allows you to lead a life with, possibly, self-esteem, if that. A degree is only a passport to attain satisfaction, job status and recognition from other people. But a degree is not an indication of your education.

Proper education can only be received when you allow children to use their intuitive abilities along with their intellectual abilities, when you allow them to overcome their fears and inhibitions, to overcome the psychological pressures which are created without you imposing your own conditions on them.

This is what we found when we set up SALT in San Francisco. We interviewed many elementary, high school and college students. We found that each one had a psychological block in learning, remembering and memorizing. By nature children are different to their grown-up counterparts. In order to study, grown-ups may need to sit down at a desk with books, but children don't need to.

Yoga in the classroom

The system of educating children has to be different. It has to be combined with certain practices which can remove their psychological blocks, which can make them aware of the psychological changes that happen in their body and brain, which can make them aware of their own distractions and which can give them the ability to focus on the theme of the subject they are studying.

So what did we do? We started with very simple yoga practices in the classroom environment, taking some hints from the work of RYE (Research on Yoga in Education) with children in Europe. In RYE schools the classes begin and end with the practice of two asanas and one pranayama. So if a child has to sit through six or eight classes during the day, he or she is practising two asanas and one pranayama sixteen times each day at the beginning and at the end of each class.

In Europe, the schools have a psychologist who monitors the performance, behaviour and aptitude of the child and who tries to create a support group for the child in the home environment. When the children who were practising yoga in the classroom were monitored, a marked improvement in their responses, creativity, receptivity, memory, willpower and behaviour was found. The children were more relaxed, focused, one-pointed and tranquil than their counterparts in other classes who were not practising yoga and who were more destructive, restless, violent and distracted.

In America we took pointers and hints from RYE, but we incorporated extra things along with yoga. We incorporated soft background music in the classroom so that children are not under constant psychological pressure to study. Having music around is a subconscious distraction and subconscious relaxation. For our experiment we chose the classical music of Bach.

The teachers started teaching pranayama to the students. The students were told to breathe in and out in unison with the help of a big grandfather clock. When the pendulum swung to one side, everybody was supposed to breathe in and when the pendulum swung to the other side, everybody was supposed to breathe out. After a few moments the breathing pattern had become regular and was coordinated with the swing of the pendulum. The teachers then gave instructions when the students were breathing out and became silent when the students were breathing in.

Now you may wonder what this has to do with education. But it is very important and relevant because psychologists have said that when we breathe in, we create psychological, emotional and rational blocks in our mind. The energy of the body, brain and mind is withdrawn. When we breathe out, relaxation takes place in the body, in the nervous system, in the mind and in the brain. If you provide information when the physical systems are relaxed, it is retained by the brain and not easily forgotten.

Developing awareness and rapport

This also helps to bring in the concept of awareness. When I visit schools I often find teachers teaching the subject to the students without awareness. While the training is going on in the class, there is an absence of awareness. Students are taking down notes mechanically, whether they understand the subject or not. That is not the worry of the teachers. The students also know that the teacher is not concerned, so why should they bother? So, there is a gap in the relationship between student and teacher. That gap is a very crucial component which can build up the personality of the student, which is non-existent. However, if you incorporate some methods of concentration, then rapport develops as well as awareness.

Please remember that yoga in the classroom is not confined to the physical practices and breathing techniques that are taught. Rather, the teacher has to be aware when to speak and when to be silent. Speech is the medium of instruction, but at the same time silence is also the medium of instruction because silence allows you to assimilate what you have just heard. So don't only speak. After ten minutes give the children a three minute break or after five minutes have a one minute break. Become silent and ask everybody to be silent.

In the period of silence get the children to play a game of observing their own breath. Ask them to count their breath backwards from fifteen to one. Inhalation and exhalation is taken as one count and as one breath. Fifteen breaths equal about one minute. Then again begin your instructions. This is another important point. Speech and silence have to be combined.

Alertness and dynamic instructions have to be combined with passive visualization. You instruct, you stimulate their intellect, but at the same time you have to give them a chance to visualize passively what they have just heard which has stimulated their intellect.

You have to develop a rapport with every student - not that of a teacher but that of a considerate friend to whom they can come and say, "Look, I am having such and such a difficulty with my studies, what can I do?" You should be able to guide them.

There is a well-known story about the Sufi saint Mulla Nasruddin. One day he was sitting near a well trying to fill an earthen pot with water. But the earthen pot had a crack in it. So everything he poured into it would flow out through the crack. People scoffed at him and said, "You must be crazy. How can you expect to fill this pot with water when it is cracked and all the water is leaking out?" He replied, "Who cares? I am only concerned with filling the pot. I do not care whether the pot is cracked or not."

As teachers we are repeating the same things. We are concerned with giving children information. We are not concerned whether they retain it or not. So what is the result? You study history and geography at night and in the morning you have already forgotten it.