Teaching Yoga through Story Telling

Swami Vimalratna Saraswati

The ideas in this article are based on the experience of teaching a group of six-year-olds in a poor area of Bogotá, Colombia. The children came as part of a trial program working in conjunction with Madres Comunitaria (Community Mothers), each employed by the state to give daily care for a group of fifteen children, typically with working mothers. Each mother would bring two children to the class each week. They could be the same or different children each week. The Community Mothers would also be in the class. The aim was to have the mothers learn the practices and be able to use them with their groups. There was some success with this. With support and fine-tuning this could develop into an effective method for passing the experience of the yoga practices to large numbers of children. Diagrams of the practices were given out to these women to help them remember (illustrated versions of the stories could also be given) and they were also encouraged to practice for themselves. The program began with a preliminary series of classes for the women on their own, without the children.

An attitude of play

The program was based around story telling focused on yoga practices and an attitude of play. Most of the main Satyananda yoga practices were introduced in a systematic way through this method. The stories were put together as a series of mini sequences, as in Swami Niranjanananda’s ‘yoga capsules’, so everything could be mixed and matched for each new story, but key practices could also be repeated. For example, a pawanmuktasana 1 story would be adapted to go with a series of other mini sequences, such as surya namaskara or tadasana, tiriyaka tadasana and kati chakrasana, within each week’s story.

Another feature of the program was that the story each week typically included pranayama and components of yoga nidra, not just asana. So the story lasted the whole class, which went for an hour. In this way of teaching, the whole class takes place within the reality of that class’ story. This is helpful as children more easily accept the idea of playing by the rules of a game rather than being told what to do. To be frank, there were not many rules, but there were also no discipline problems in this situation. The story simply doesn’t progress until everybody manages the seven magic movements, more or less, and everyone wants to keep the story moving.

Engaging the children

As a general guideline for these classes, the teacher doing the practices with the children is effective, as they will respond quickly to the visual signals that go with the story. Sound effects are also useful. One of the main things is to keep the story going. If there is a pause such as a need for shavasana, it happens as part of the story because the characters need a rest. Counting out loud together is effective, as well as other interactive techniques such as asking the children questions like, “What colour is the monster?” Modifying practices as necessary for the logic of the story is necessary at times, remembering to keep in mind the effect of the original practice and what the changes do to alter this. In the context of each class’ story, one week a practice may be an elephant, the next week it may be a monster, etc.

A location or setting is important to establish as it helps create the imaginary world in which events take place. Examples of good locations include a forest with lots of animals, a big house with different rooms where discoveries can be made, an island, a magic land, the circus, a strange distant country, the ocean, a farm, the desert, another planet (there can be many different types of planets with potentially a different one each week), or a journey into space. Stories that are a little bit scary are popular; however, it is good if the story emphasizes the positive capacity of the children to overcome monsters and danger. The zoo, nursery rhymes, traditional children’s stories, a walk in the mountains, and a trip to the beach, are all commonly used. Once there is a location, children this age typically have no trouble immersing themselves in the experience, and then everything is possible. With their imaginations engaged, the children become whatever it is that the yoga practice is said to represent, and capture the essence of the practice through this clarity.

Yogic base, but no preaching

Consideration was given to the practices on a yogic level, not just as random events to facilitate the next step in the story. For this reason the sequence of practices was generally thought of in terms of logical yogic progression to lead the story rather than the other way round. Preparation was essential and increased the quality of the class considerably. This is even more the case if the classes are regular, and are to be developed over time.

The choice was made to avoid stories that were too moral or preachy, or a reflection of the teacher’s undigested moral baggage whether it be what good children should do, or even just the benefits of yoga. Children are already overwhelmed and confused by many messages, from family, school, etc. and will react sooner or later to being brainwashed. If the stories and the practices are fun and well done, the hope is that the children will mature naturally in their understanding of yoga and appropriate behaviour.

How stories can be used

A versatile way to introduce pawanmuktasana 1, for example, is to describe it as a suit of some kind that is necessary for this class’ particular story. It could be armour, space suit, diving suit, or it could be beautiful clothes and jewellery. It could be an invisibility suit. It could be any sort of uniform. It may be a form of protection, a form of strength, and reinforce self-esteem in some way. The body rotation at the end of the class may be used to remove the suit. The story below is an example. It could be a story in itself or it could be used as part of a larger story.

A story for teaching Pawanmuktasana 1

A boy (or girl, or group of children) was walking by a river. He heard cries for help. It was an old woman and she was drowning in the river. He dived in and rescued her. After he had pulled her to the bank, and she had coughed up some water, she was very grateful.

She said, “Even though I don’t know much about swimming I am actually a great magician. Because you have saved my life I will give you a gift. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be a warrior.” (Or alternatively, dancer, astronaut, explorer, etc.)

“Very well, as a warrior you will need armour to protect you. I will give you an invisible armour that nothing can penetrate. You will be safe in any battle. You will need to put this armour on every day after you get up in the morning.”

“I will show you how to put on the armour. It requires a series of secret movements. This armour covers every part of the body beginning with the toes. You begin by moving the toes backward and forward seven times. (Count out loud together. Sound effects when the magic armour comes into place.) Now the ankles are rotated seven times in each direction. Now the knees are moved back and forward seven times. Now the leg is moved to the side and up and down seven times. Now the other leg… With these movements the lower half of the body is protected.”

“Next the fingers are stretched and then made into fists, seven times. Now the wrists are rotated seven times in both directions. Now raise and lower the arms, bending the elbows, seven times. With these movements the hands and arms are protected.”

“Now rotate the arms seven times in both directions with the fingertips on the shoulders. This will protect the shoulders, chest, abdomen and back.”

“Now the neck and head will also be protected with a series of secret movements. The first movement for the neck and head is to lower the head to the chest and then raise it. Move it back and forward. This protects the body from attack from the front and behind. The second movement is to bend the head sideways and lower the ear towards the shoulders, first on one side and then the other. This protects from attack from the sides and you will always hear the enemy approach. The third movement is to turn the head to the right and the left. This gives protection from attack from a distance and you will always see your enemy as far as the horizon. The fourth movement involves moving the head in a circle, very slowly, in both directions. This gives protection from above and below. You will be wary of traps and know in advance of trouble from above.”

“Now your whole body is protected. As long as you remember to put this armour on every day in the morning before you go to battle you won’t ever be defeated.”

(Once the armour is on everyone is ready to go on an adventure. The armour may be removed before the end of the class with another magic sequence – the body rotation.)