Developing Harmony of Head, Heart and Hands with Yoga

Rishi Arundhati Saraswati (Satyanandashram, Ontario, Canada)

Human beings combine within themselves the faculties of head, heart and hands and in order to live their lives fully it is necessary to integrate these three faculties.

- Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

For the head

In western countries people have identified more with the physical aspect of yoga. We are so caught up with how we feel that we have lost sight of the real aim of yoga. Yoga is the science of the mind; and there are postures, breathing techniques and relaxation techniques that have elements for developing the faculties of the mind, such as attention, concentration and memory. When all these faculties are present in the student, it is an asset for both the student and the teacher. Learning becomes a pleasure and teaching becomes a joy.

It is time for those who are already doing yoga with children or young people to realize that there is more to yoga than just physical exercises. There are many yoga techniques for developing concentration that children, youth and adults enjoy doing. But first you have to get their attention so that whether it is postures, steady gazing or the Listening/Silence Game, the practice is done in a way that they enjoy and want to do. Once the attention is there, then it is time to start developing the faculties of concentration and memory. Practices for developing the head include the following.

Postures

There are many yoga postures that help to develop the faculty of concentration. Many can be done even in classrooms where there are fixed desks. They all involve some form of balancing and children and young people love to do them.

Natavarasana (balancing flute player’s pose) is a very good way to help the student become more focused. It can be inserted into the class at any time when the students are restless or when their attention is uneven. Natarajasana (balancing dancer’s pose) is a challenging activity useful for waking the student out of his slack attention. It stimulates physically yet needs concentration to achieve correctly. Eka pada pranamasana (balancing on one leg pose) is an excellent exercise for calming excitement generated during recreation time, especially if the focus of attention is done in silence upon a mandala or some other object. Balance is a conquest which begins from the first steps. To stand up, to walk without falling are simple but passionate goals for the small child. The attraction of overcoming or conquering difficulties is present in the memory of very young children and they love to practise these exercises at all levels of difficulty. Balancing places, within the framework of play, the use of the senses of sight, hearing and touch. The least modification of sensory guides can cause changes in the posture. These exercises develop the aptitude for self-regulation and the success of the postures stabilizes the powers of attention.

Nada and hatha yoga (correlating asanas and sound): Children must learn hatha yoga (yoga of physical wellbeing) and they must learn attention, so they must learn yoga to unfold their own creativity, like nada yoga (yoga of sound). We have devised an exercise which combines hatha and nada yoga for the development of attention and memory. Tadasana, the spine stretching pose, is associated with the sound ‘a’. Eka pada pranamasana, the tree pose, is associated with the ‘e’ as in bee. Vayu nishkasana is associated with the sound ‘i’, as in pie. Dolasana is associated with the sound ‘o’, as in bow. The eagle, garudasana, is associated with the sound ‘oo’, as in good. The children move around and when one of the sounds is called out, do the pose associated with that sound.

This is an excellent technique for use within a language class environment. The sounds chosen can of course be sounded in English, French, German, Spanish to name a few. It is also useful for children with poor reading abilities because the game environment catches their attention which is usually lacking and causing the problem. As well as the physical benefits associated with each posture this practice helps the development of concentration and memory by developing listening.

Breathing

Bhramari pranayama, which is done to bring about alpha rhythm dominance in the brain wave patterns, can be used at the same time as a concentration exercise. In bhramari one hums the breath out for as long as possible and listens to the hum, trying to make it last longer with each breath. This also helps younger children to breathe deeply. This breathing exercise is very useful before and after exams. It is a good way to relax and feel confident about oneself.

Swara yoga is the science of the flow of energies within the body associated with the flow of the breath in the nostrils. Swara yoga is the ancient science of pranic body rhythms, which explains how the movement of prana, vital energy, can be controlled by manipulation of the breath. There are three swaras in the human body, the mind, the life force and soul or spirit. In swara yoga the mind is known as chitta, which controls the sensory nerves, prana controls the organs of action and the spirit or atma is the overall witness or controller. When the left nostril flows, it indicates that the mental energy, chitta, is predominant. When the right nostril flows, it indicates that the pranic forces are stronger and the mental aspect is weak. When both nostrils are operating together, it indicates that the spiritual energy, the force of the atma, is active.

Studies using the Electro Encephalogram (EEG) have shown that when the left nostril is blocked and the breath is flowing only through the right nostril, the brain wave patterns in the left brain hemisphere increase and the right brain hemisphere wave patterns become quiescent. The practice of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is very important for the student since it brings about a balance in the flow of breath in the nostrils, i.e., a balance in the flow of mental and bio-energies.

Relaxation

Practices such as nada yoga, where you plug the ears, take a deep breath in and hum out for about 4 or 5 minutes, then keep listening with the ears plugged, helps to bring alpha rhythm dominance to the brain wave patterns associated with relaxation and again the humming sound can be a focus for the mind to develop concentration.

Trataka

Steady gazing is a very powerful tool for developing concentration because you can very quickly learn to watch the mind as it starts to change thoughts. Steady gazing at an object and then watching the counter image on the retina is an easy way to help students learn how to watch the mind. When the counter image moves, up, down, right or left, if you let it go, you will realize that you are beginning to think about something. At that time you bring the image back to the centre and hold it there. This practice is recommended for those who have trouble sleeping.

For the heart

The emotional states of many of today’s students are causing great concern within the school systems. The level of violence seen in schools is frightening to many parents, who feel that school is no longer a safe haven for their children. As technology develops and the world itself becomes a more global village, greater demands will be made on the young learner to attend and take in more and more information in order to be more competitive in the economic system.

Stress resulting from this development is already obvious among young adult students and increasingly these students are suffering from psychological disorders such as depression and obsessive behaviours, which once started often continue for years in the life of the sufferer. More and more often we are finding that even younger students are developing depressive illnesses or demonstrating violent behaviour. When we look at events such as Columbine High School in Colorado, USA, etc., we see that feelings of insecurity tend to cause students to become involved with groups such as the Neo-Nazi Party or the White Aryan Group, who need to feel superior to others in order to feel any sort of self-worth within themselves.

Yoga can help students to develop self-confidence, self-esteem and a feeling of self-worth that is based on their own accomplishments, and then they will not need to see others as less worthy than themselves. The emotional well-being of the student is something teachers should be concerned with before the fact and not just after the tragedy has happened. Of course this is something that the practice of yoga at school is well designed to fulfil.

Postures

There are some postures recommended for calming the mind and emotions. Depending on the age of the students, there are postures that can be done dynamically or statically which will help to calm the emotions and release destructive energy in a positive way, e.g. shashankasana (hare pose), akarna dhanurasana (bow and arrow pose) and many others. Akarna dhanurasana can be used with aggressive or high energy children to help release their tensions and aggressive feelings. It is a good practice to do when the children have been sitting at their desk for some time. Naukasana (boat pose) and nauka sanchalana (rowing the boat) can easily be adapted for practice in a fixed desk classroom. Padadhirasana (breath balancing pose) can be done sitting at the desk to get the effects of the balanced breath. It helps produce a feeling of calmness and wellbeing. It is a good practice for use after sitting for a while at the desk. It helps straighten the back and improves posture.

Breathing

One of the easiest ways to deal with runaway emotions is the complete yogic breath. The deep breathing involved in the practice of bhramari pranayama slows down the body’s reaction to fear and anger by reducing and stopping the excessive production of epinephrine (adrenaline), and the humming sound produces alpha rhythm dominance in the brain wave patterns. The practice of nadi shodhana is also very useful for developing the heart because it helps to maintain a balanced flow of bio-energy. Too much energy and not enough thinking is like a runaway train without brakes. Too much thinking with not enough energy is a state of depression. These energies have to be balanced.

Relaxation

Once again practices such as nada yoga, trataka or yoga nidra are very useful in helping students to develop ways to control their emotional states. There is total relaxation and calming of the mind and emotions with these practices.

Yoga nidra with children should be structured according to age. Very young children can also do yoga nidra, but it must be very short and contain lots of visualization. Their consciousness is still very close to the state of turiya, intuitive awareness, so it doesn’t take much to bring them back to this state, which can be frightening when they go so deeply. When yoga nidra is done with children between the ages of 2–5, often they don’t know the difference between right and left, so it is not necessary to try to take them through all the individual parts of the body. These children are asked to move their toes and then make them still again, move their feet and then let them be still again. In this way one continues throughout the body. Visualization should begin with familiar objects for these children, e.g., their pet, daddy’s car, their house, etc. With this age child yoga nidra as the child starts to sleep is a very important way of planting information deep into their minds. Any material or sankalpa spoken to the child goes in deeply and becomes a part of their samskaras, deep unconscious impressions.

Between the ages of 6–12, again the rotation of awareness through the body should be short, but they can distinguish the right foot and left foot, right leg and left leg, etc. Visualization can take on less familiar objects, like imagining themselves in a low-flying aeroplane and they can see out the window and see the objects on the ground. These children can also be aided in learning and developing positive sankalpas, resolutions and samskaras if yoga nidra is used when the child goes to bed.

After 13, rotation of awareness and visualization can become more like the practice given for adults. But one can use the practices for making learning much easier. Yoga nidra is not only an excellent relaxation exercise for the teenager, but is an efficient way of learning without stress.

This practice is a great way to let the students relax and make use of their imagination. It can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as 10 when used with young people. It can be done lying down or seated at the desk with the hands covering the eyes.

For the hands

We have to understand that every human being works at three levels and expresses three different qualities. The head represents knowledge, wisdom and experience. The heart represents feelings, sentiments and emotions. The hands represent the ability to act, to perform, to interact. The different techniques discussed above are very important ways to bring about peace of mind, balanced emotions and creativity. Creativity can be expressed in many forms, through art, music, drama, dance and vocalization. Developing the hands can be a natural outcome of developing the head and heart. However, development of the head gives us understanding, development of the heart gives us compassion and development of the hands puts into action the qualities we have perfected through yoga. Service to humanity is a major application of the hands.

Special needs children

It seems ridiculous to state the obvious that special needs children have a deficiency in either the functioning of the head, heart or hands. Yoga offers techniques that are very effective when used with these special children, regardless of their needs. Also it is often possible to include them in a yoga class with children without obvious special needs. This is very good for their self-confidence and self-esteem and works wonders with the average child as well.

So in order to try to produce well-balanced individuals, it is important that they have the opportunity to practise yoga and it is important that their practice be balanced. It should include something for the mind – the head, the emotions – the heart, and creativity – the hands. Balance and harmony are the main aims of yoga and should be the aim of all those who have children in their care.