Many of our ashrams all over the world now hold children’s courses during the school holidays, and all of them accept children of all ages and backgrounds throughout the year on a long or short-term residential basis. The purpose of this is not only to teach them yogic techniques, but to reintroduce ashram life as the most effective way of training young minds. It is not easy for children to develop their potential and retain their high ideals in this modern world. Without a positive direction in life, boys and girls float around like rudderless boats, going from one distraction to the next. They are unable to stick to anything or carry anything through. Of course this leaves them dissipated, negative and defeated. Parents and teachers try to give them guidance and encouragement but it is of no use. Their advice is limited by past social and moral conditioning and young people reject it immediately. What these boys and girls desperately need is a broader based, more supportive environment where they can develop self-discipline and a positive outlook on life. The ashram is ideal, and if these children can spend a few weeks or months in this charged and stimulating atmosphere, a complete transformation generally takes place within them.
At the ashram they find many channels for their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, they learn to become useful, not only to society, but to themselves. Here children are taught to live simply and to think high, to work hard without any selfish motivation, and to relax and play without inhibitions. Even those of a tender age quickly learn to help themselves and after that to help others.
All children have an intense need to express themselves, to prove themselves, to experience their independence, but too often this vital urge is stifled right from the very start by dominating parents who won’t let them do anything for themselves. In the ashram children are given independence. Of course supervision is there, but the child is always responsible for himself and his own work. Children are never encouraged to waste time and energy in senseless games and useless pursuits. Instead they are given work to do which will not only help their own development but will also be of some practical help to others.
Children are spontaneously creative. Their natural energy level is so high that unless it is properly harnessed at an early age, and used positively, it either dissipates in erratic ways or else turns back on the child causing him endless mental and emotional torment. This is why children in the ashram are very busy people. They have many duties from sun up to sun down which require them to think for themselves and act with awareness. Here every day has a purpose and every action a meaning. The satisfaction, self-confidence and one-pointedness of mind gained from this constant creative activity removes many frustrations and psychological problems in a very short time.
We have many children living in our ashrams on a permanent basis, and without exception they are all superior sadhakas. They work with a will and a dedication that is impossible to surpass. They are excellent managers and wonderful teachers. They are wise and thoughtful, not just in a superficial way, but in a deep and spiritual sense.
In the ashram a child is never forced to learn or do anything. He just naturally takes to positive ways such as good diet, regular activity, creative thinking, simply because self-discipline grows within him. The child is not free to run wild, but no rules and restrictions are imposed on him. The whole community lives within the ashram discipline and the child naturally adapts. He learns by living with others who are doing much the same thing as he is. His self-discipline evolves spontaneously through the intensity of ashram vibration and the example of others, especially guru. How the ashram education takes place is largely dependent on the child. Thus over a period of years of visiting the ashram on and off, maybe even living here for long periods of time, the child will develop a very sure knowledge about his place in the world. His purpose in life will be known to him, and he will definitely be able to express it.
We have found that ashram life is excellent therapy and training for all types of disturbed and difficult children. However, they must be prepared to remain in the ashram for at least six months if the benefits are to be lasting. Normal children with simple health disorders will benefit very well from shorter periods – one to three months is generally sufficient. The child needs to change negative patterns and incorporate positive ones if he is to recover health and emotional stability.
Actually the ashram is tailor-made for training children as it has been serving society in this way for thousands of years. In the past children were always educated in the ashram environment. There they lived as members of the guru’s family often for a number of years until they had mastered all the arts and sciences and were ready to embark on their chosen or destined path of life. This was called the gurukul system and it still exists in many ashrams. It is this system which we are reintroducing in our ashrams today.
If parents were to ask me what is the greatest gift they can give their children, I would say to all of them, “Give them the ashram life for a number of weeks, months or years. This is the best way to train your child, to create great men and women, to increase the strength of the nation and to make the world a better place in which to live.” If you are not able to live the ashram life yourself, at least give your child this opportunity.
Printed in YOGA, Vol. 17, No. 4 (April 1979)