Yoga in Schools – Process, Efforts and Implementation

I feel greatly honoured to have been invited to the plenary session of this International Conference on Education. I have another reason to rejoice when I compare the times we live in today to the epoch of my first experiments in school in 1973. Then, I would never have thought that an official agreement from the French Government would be granted to our innovation. It would take decades to happen. However, from the start I did believe that this would benefit all students and educators. My fellow speakers here present can testify that yoga, the treasure of India, has its rightful place in educational systems around the world.

First experience in a French high school

I used to be an English teacher in a Paris high-school. One morning, according to the schedule, I was waiting for my 11 to 12 year-old pupils who were coming from a gym class. They arrived sweating, running and out of breath. It dawned on me that they needed a sort of break, a pause before commencing work. I had been practising yoga nidra for a few years and it had brought me a lot of good. Wasn’t it a means to help the tired band recover their stamina? I told them to drop their bags and do nothing for a while, to just sit down quietly with their elbows on the tables and their hands over their faces or, if they preferred, with their arms on the tables and imagine they were like birds, putting their heads down under their wings when resting or like half-filled sand bags.

We must remember that children are not miniature adults. They are endowed with a special nature calling for a certain language. The words we use must appeal to their imaginative states of mind and be appropriate to their various ages. In these particular circumstances, I had to improvise and use expressions adapted to the context of tables and chairs. The children were surprised, yet they complied. It was probably the first time a teacher was telling them to relax in a classroom. Silence prevailed, a rare opportunity. They knew it was an event. They were all ears. So was I. An occasion to revise the day’s lesson, why not?

At a slow pace, I read the page leaving a space for them to repeat mentally sentence after sentence. They did it and I was sure that nobody had been sleeping. When this short break was over, I told them to sit up and I asked them questions about what they had just been listening to. Calmly, they would all raise their hands to answer. This unanimous enthusiasm made me understand that the pause had two obvious effects: first, a loosening of tensions and second, an increase of receptivity.

From this great ‘première’ I experienced the potential value of yoga in the field of learning. I needed to gather a circle of like-minded friends around this new concept. That was the nucleus of our research, and thus the idea of RYE was born. During the preceding years, I had met other primary and secondary school teachers who also practised yoga. It was easy to instill in them a desire to start the experiment. We decided to meet every week and exchange ideas about creating exercises that could be applied to pupils in different grades. Note that at the time, there existed no precedents, unlike today where we can find a host of ‘Yoga for Children’ books.

In the 1970s, there was nothing of this kind. The renowned IQ (Intellectual Quotient) still had precedence over any other mode designed to test a child’s intelligence. Through our own practice and study, we knew the koshas were affording another vision about the multidimensional structure of human beings. Men, women and children had other layers to nourish and educate besides the intellect.

In 1981, the Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry had shed light on the specificity of the two cerebral hemispheres. It was a shock for specialists of pedagogy to realize without doubt that western educational systems were mostly based on the logical linear faculties of the left brain, often to the detriment of the right brain, bent on heartfelt perceptions. It explained why the school syllabus put so much emphasis on subject matters like maths, facts and figures, grammar, science, and deemed insignificant such pursuits as music and art. In fact, the two sides of our head have got to blend their specializations in order to link rational efforts with flashes of intuition. Thus, a new trend would balance, facilitate and regenerate the ways to acquire knowledge. With these new notions in view, we did not fail to tap the imaginative side of children, by using songs, games, sketches, intriguing sounds, stories and jokes when needed, in order to revitalize attention.

By attention, I don’t only mean the pedestrian conscious capacity to imbibe knowledge, but also the ‘floating attention’ at work in small children when they start speaking their native language at home. It is still alive in older children and adults, however it has to be awakened. Our classes were improving and parents and educators both were taken aback by our innovative approach.

Supports and obstacles

In spite of our successful experiments, we met with obstacles, but the way we coped with them might have surprised many outsiders. When we were misunderstood or felt attacked, we thought that any novel initiative whatever it might be, was bound to be criticized. We could not escape rejection. This was a necessary part of the journey. We had to be patient, allow time for the collective consciousness to ripen and sustain our vision.

During the decades preceding our recognition, we did not engage in any lobbying. We would rather publish articles, give lectures and organize seminars aimed at yoga-minded school teachers. More and more people were becoming increasingly aware and informed about the benefits the immemorial discipline had to offer. In fact, our policy amounted to the creation of a new branch of yoga. New days, new ways. Our RYE techniques were based on Patanjali’s ladder. It was the spine of our method.

Meanwhile, our confidence rested on the support of great masters like Swami Satyananda. He said that yoga was to be the culture of tomorrow. That tomorrow has become today. I once heard him stating: “One day, yoga will be introduced in all schools.” I also had the chance to meet a Tibetan Master called Lama Gwendun who handed me a white scarf as an encouragement to continue, a token of approval. These wise supporters no doubt helped us to keep steadfast and determined, while fronting some lions on the path.

Adjusting to the times

When the word began to spread that yoga was starting to enter some French schools in Paris, we were invited to various European countries, even to other continents. The miracle of international yoga was starting. In the 1980s and 90s, I traveled far and wide during weekends and holidays. Our research, anchored the heart of society, was beginning to have more and more of an impact. RYE (Research on Yoga in Education) founded in 1978, was replicated in many South American countries. I traveled to the United States, to Lebanon, initiated a teacher training course at Tel Aviv University.

In the year 2000, RYE grew to become an international federation, launched at a conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in the presence of Swami Niranjan. Many intellectuals helped us make it clear that yoga was neither a religion nor a cult. We drew on the scientific literature, validating the fact that in school we were using simple techniques that induced calm and attentiveness. The children were our best ambassadors with regards to parents, school boards and policy makers. We found that adolescents in our classes responded very well to scientific explanations concerning the effects of postures, correct breathing, relaxation, brain waves and positive thinking. We felt proud when they reported how some exercises had helped them pass their exams.

What exactly do you mean by ‘yoga’?

The media were quite interested in our approach. Journalists visited our classrooms and declared in their newspapers that yoga helped students and created a nice ambiance in the relationships. Yoga in school made for a good news story. Once, the magazine Paris Match published an article illustrating caricatures of children in the lotus pose, levitating with closed eyes over their tables! The cliché had nothing to do with reality, but it certainly painted a picture that readers had never dreamt about before.

With regards to my university professors the word ‘yoga’ was questionable. There was a controversy about it. Someone once suggested I had better refer to what I was doing as ‘the Flak method’ or, ‘a toolkit of self-regulating exercises’ for children. I wrote an article that did not use the word yoga – it read terribly and I never did this again.

Then someone chimed in, “Why not use the word ‘relaxation’ instead of the word yoga?” That was a bit closer to the point but I objected to the concept. In the eyes of many, relaxation is synonymous with laziness. I would rather equate yoga with dharana or focus, a notion acceptable both to yogis and university professors, and an essential quality to succeed in all paths of life. Through ups and downs, continued reflections and actions, we evolved toward national recognition.

Yoga in school open to all

Let’s note another essential point. In RYE, we accept all yoga practitioners. We are open equally to every authentic yoga school. RYE training requires years. That way, we ensure faithfulness to our sources. Some guidelines should be respected. We developed an approach that was compatible both with committed educators and the secular principles of public education in my country. Thus RYE is flourishing now in France, paving the way to some international research. Since 2013, there are yoga workshops in schools across France. Optional yoga classes are offered to students who themselves are in training to become schoolteachers. In doing so, in our own modest way, we helped to pave the road towards the kind of research into yoga that this present Conference on Education is featuring.

Dr Micheline Flak Ph.D., (Swami Yogabhakti) 28 December 2015, at the Plenary Session of 8th International Conference on Yoga and Education at Kaivalyadham, Lonavla