It has recently been realised in Western educational circles that the personal development of pupils on the cultural, social, moral, physical and spiritual planes plays an important role in their ability to learn and achieve. This discovery might seem obvious to people who practise yoga on a regular basis: yogis have always been able to notice some remarkable progress in their own life due to discipline. Did you say discipline! It is not the lot of our contemporaries as a whole to take to discipline, still less to like it. They would rather yield to the easy comforts and entertainment that society offers them so lavishly.
Children are even more tempted than grown-ups by trinkets, gadgets, the Internet, etc. Anyway, thats what we imagine. It might be a surprise to find that young people are not so opposed to the restraints of yoga, that they even sometimes ask for them.
It is true that in the course of our research on yoga in education, we have devised some fanciful adaptations of regular yogic postures and exercises which children find very lively and so practise with zest and gusto. But could we say that they like yoga just for the fun it affords? In other words, are the techniques we propose based on the principle of enjoyment only? Certainly not. I remember once presenting to 12 year-old pupils a strenuous exercise called Salute to work. Here it is described as it was presented.
Sit comfortably on your chair about a pencils length from your desk. Dont lean on the back of your chair. Straighten your spine. No tension in your shoulders. Drop them. Bend your arms while closing your fists and bring them to the back of your head, elbows backwards, hands pressing against your heard. Remain still. (pause)
Observe your breath and your nostrils. (pause)
Breathe out slowly and inhale naturally. At the next exhalation, bend forward with your trunk straight at an angle of about 45 degrees till your chest touches the edge of the desk. In this slanting position, with your elbows back, make sure your shoulder blades are touching each other. (Pause)
Look forward, not down. (Pause) Observe your breath. (Pause) Come up slowly while inhaling. (Pause)
Repeat twice at your own pace, observing your breath. (Pause)
The children did this exercise with full awareness. I was aware of the effort they made to follow the instructions and complete the exercise.
Now, while you are sitting straight again, dont lean on the back of your chair, slowly exhale while taking your arms and hands down on your desk.
Now feel your back. Observe that it is keeping its erect position without any effort on your part. This is the result of the exercise you have just been doing.
I would inquire, How are you feeling now? The answers were unanimous: Oh, it was very hard. It gave me a pain in my shoulders. Oh, it was so difficult!
Maybe we wont do it again since you found it so hard, I proposed. They protested they wanted to do it again.
If it hurts, it is bad, isnt it? No, it does us good was the general answer. An apparent paradox.
The children feel that yoga does them good. And indeed, this is one of the reasons why they like it. They understand its value as a means of recovering their true nature at many levels. Here on the physical level, their nature as human beings is to have a strong spine enabling them to look ahead. Their true nature requires a corrective for the effortless ways our modern world proposes under the cover of wellness.
Let me add that Salute to work continued throughout the year before or after a heavy task requiring mental concentration. The children realised it brought them a better approach to work, a special strength which, starting from the body, reached the mind, made them more attentive and fed them with a nutrient that was lacking in their life: an appeal to self-discipline.
We use many tricks to make them appreciate another subtle element essential for progress in life: the boon of silence. It has a lot to do with the intellect and the spirit. By generating it, we allow some particular areas in the brain to be stimulated. Through its emergence a real blessing and a luxury in a world full of noise and fury the awareness is renewed and the mind recovers its capacity to reflect properly; a higher perception of the laws of existence is retrieved and creativity can open its multicoloured wings while dealing with daily affairs.
Here is a simple exercise which children enjoy very much. It can be implemented in the classroom or in a yoga hall. It is valuable for first graders as well as for college students.
Technique: The children are sitting at their desks, elbows on the table, hands covering their eyes. Their books are on their desks, open at the page of the days lesson. The teacher gives instructions adapted to their age and their level of understanding.
Relax completely. Listen to the sounds coming from the street outside. (Pause) Sounds coming from the school yard. (Pause) Now experience all the sounds around you. You are completely still and attentive.
I am going to make three small noises, one after the other. First noise (crumpling of paper). Second noise (clicking of a ball-point pen). Third noise (slight tapping on the desktop). Try to mentally remember the noises in order. The first, (pause) the second, (pause) the third. (Pause)
Very good. Be all ears now. I am going to put on some music. Listen carefully if you want to hear it. (I increase the volume, then softly decrease it. The volume of the music becomes very low.)
When you cannot hear it any more, you can listen to the softest sound of all: the sound of the breath in your nostrils, (pause) in your throat. (Pause)
Listen to the sound of your breath, it is the sound of life. You are breathing. (Pause) It sounds like the waves in the sea. Begin counting the waves. (Pause) Count seven waves. When you have finished you may listen to the sounds in the classroom.
Now listen to the music again and feel your body on the chair, your elbows on the desk. When the music stops, you may open your eyes, bring your attention to the book open at the page of the lesson. Read it in silence and afterwards, I will ask you questions about it.
This is a variation of antar mouna adapted for children in a classroom context. It is a way to improve their mindfulness with regard to a lesson and also a means to make them enjoy the value of silence. It is a universal exercise to be used by anyone eager to develop their capacity for listening. Thus, yoga can inspire news ways in the field of education.