Yoga and its Evolution in Educational Sciences

Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati (Micheline Flak)

Yoga in the classroom is, for all who practise yoga, a dream. Every parent who practises yoga thinks it would be wonderful for yoga to be part of formal education.

We started to introduce yoga into the classroom in the early seventies in France. This was, and still is, a gradual process implemented through carefully planned teamwork. During the seventies primary school teachers, kindergarten teachers and high-school teachers experimented together. They had frequent meetings to discuss the yoga exercises that had been introduced during the week. Some asana worked well, others did not; and so we kept all the techniques which were useful, appropriate and accepted.

This is how things started off. We realized that children were enchanted by it, that parents were asking questions and that headmasters didn't know how or what to answer. So we then organized meetings between headmasters, parents, colleges, and even school inspectors. All this happened between the seventies and the eighties. We even had a visit from Swami Satyananda. He came to the Lycee Condocet where I was teaching at the time. It was an incredible event. We shall never forget it – seeing this great Indian master sitting in padmasana on a school table!


Today teachers in all parts of the world introduce these techniques which were developed by us. I am not saying it is happening everywhere but in most industrialized countries teachers are making an attempt to introduce these RYE techniques (RYE standing for Research on Yoga and Education).

RYE is becoming a gathering place for all the people who want to be creative in this field. What was labelled as utopic when we first started is now anchored in reality. This extraordinary challenge, which was a curiosity object at first, now has become a serious matter deserving attention from the specialists in the educational sciences up to university level.

Since then, we have travelled a lot abroad and in our recent trips to Latin America, Australia, and, most recently, Israel, I have met very motivated people, who not only introduce yoga techniques in schools but also do in-depth scientific and academic research. Nowadays yoga in schools is a recognized topic in contemporary pedagogical research. Also we could say that it is proof that when humanity is facing some real problems regarding its own evolution it finds a remedy in the practice of yoga. Every day yoga is offered in institutions, in companies, in department stores, in banks; and at the very basis of society, to simple people; and at the level where decisions are made, to people who manage large numbers of people. The yogic experience is lived by a growing number of people despite the commonly spread idea that yoga is esoteric and destined only for a few.

When one reads the papers published today about the benefits of yoga, one sees that yoga is a means of centring, not only giving physical well-being, but also bringing about psychological, cognitive, interactional harmony and balance. As the individual being is affected so is the community. In some countries, for example Denmark, yoga is officially recognized as an activity that promotes good physical and mental health. Sydney University's Department of Behavioural Science in Australia has just started a research project entitled “The Effects of Yoga on Hyperactive Children”. These children move all the time and suffer from attention deficiency. They are normally treated with drugs like Ritaline. If we spread yogic techniques widely enough and develop research in this theme, possibly we can avoid giving drugs to these children and avoid the well-known side-effects of them.

From everywhere we have had a lot of encouragement, and over the years we have worked from this perspective rather than focusing on the obstacles. We have needed a lot of energy and perseverance for our project to go through. We have needed a lot of self-confidence to believe we could help, even modestly, to amend an education system which is losing its credibility.

We did not waste time in analysis: “Why is our education system loosing its credibility?” We have believed, day in and day out, in the value of our enterprise and have made every effort we are capable of. We have relied on our own daily practice of yoga, that has been the most important thing; on our own self-confidence; and on constant contact with ongoing pedagogical research.

Adapt and adopt

During the seventies I was teaching English at high-school level. I was trying to combine my teachings with some small exercises: a breathing exercise before a test, stretching when pupils were getting tired, concentration on a drawing on the board (but no candle, no classic form of trataka in the classroom), some pawanmuktasana when the children's wrists were tired. In other words, homeopathic doses of yoga! And all this was done between desks and chairs, no carpet. Once I had the chance of having a carpeted room and it was interesting for the children to take their shoes off before entering the room and to do class on the floor.

What I can tell you is that to be effective you need to be modest, introducing yoga little by little, like wisdom. Use yoga, like the art of well-being, at school: every country, every period of time has its rules and demands and yoga must be flexible and adapted to the environment. It is impossible to teach yoga in the way it was taught thousands of years ago. I don't feel I'm moving away from Patanjali when I adapt his yamas and niyamas to the French needs. On the contrary I feel I'm becoming one of his friends, one of his family. In the same way when my colleagues from Greece teach yoga in schools they do so in the Greek way. Before adopting we must adapt. So I'd like, in the coming years, to join a contemporary wisdom that is being born under our eyes and has as a motto: “think global and act local.”

In the wide range of teachings from the Bihar School of Yoga, we have some extraordinary possibilities of adaptation. In order to reach the point of universal vision we must be very aware of the present. This is the first point. The second point is simplicity and this is a very important principle that one has to bear in mind when one teaches yoga in schools. I will explain it. When a yoga teacher receives their diploma they are proud of it after four or five years of study; and they are thousands of light years away from the time when they were a beginner. So they are also that much farther away from the beginners who will come to their classes knowing almost nothing about yoga.

The extreme beginner's case is the student found in a school where yoga is introduced. Consider the instruction to close the eyes in class. For some people this closing of the eyes is a revolutionary thing to do in the classroom. Try it with young pupils – they are shocked. It is true that inner silence and inner space are very precious and rare in our society. One cannot find them in the market place and to discover them is a major event – to experience them with other people is overwhelming, but that is what happens every time a teacher says, “We are going to breathe together.”

Training teachers to teach

Therefore the teacher needs to have a very solid preparation or training program. We offer three year's training aimed at both school teachers and yoga teachers. We teach something which might seem weird to you but which simply consists of the teachers remembering the time when they were beginners. We also have different levels of training and up until now we have had two levels.

At the first level we teach techniques to develop the senses. The baby coming out of the womb has lived in the heart of silence for nine months. When it comes to the world it needs to learn to open its sensorial antennas to come and meet the world with all its senses. Yoga tells us that we don't have five senses but ten. Five senses of knowledge and five senses of action. So there is much to learn. Unfortunately in today's society only two senses are being bombarded. These are the audio and visual ones. The other senses also deserve to be developed, particularly in very young children. So we train the teachers in exercises aimed at developing the senses of sight, of hearing, of touch, of recognition of different materials, of taste and of smell too. Also we teach exercises aimed at developing the inner senses corresponding to the outer ones. For example, we can observe a scene outside, then we have to develop the ability to visualize it inside; and also to touch or taste without external stimuli. This can be learned like anything else.

So at the first level we teach all these approaches that are very useful in the learning process. For example when a child looks at what the teacher is writing on the board, if the child only copies out things from the board onto their notebook they probably haven't processed the information. In between looking and listening and learning an intermediate phase is needed during which one closes the eyes to see or to listen internally. This ability that we have to internally visualize, taste and hear is the founding stone of the learning process. It is very important to develop this ability, which is recognized today as fundamental in educational sciences and known as mental management.

At the second level teachers learn to create exercises taking yoga techniques as a basis. The Bihar School of Yoga techniques are very good because they contain a lot of raja yoga techniques. One thing is very important: it is not with hatha yoga that we'll introduce yoga in schools but with raja yoga. There is an archetype which is found in the Katha Upanishad, the archetype of the chariot. During our training we introduce that archetype as representing the soul's structure. We often talk about a car, a modernized version of the chariot. You have the body of the car corresponding to our physical body, then the horsepower. In the original chariot the horses are bound with the bridle and reins which symbolize our senses; and then there is the charioteer holding the reins. The charioteer is our mind. But that chariot or that car has a passenger. The charioteer is only the driver. He is only the servant. He goes where he is told to go, but who tells him? Who gives him direction? That is the vast object of yoga. Who is the passenger? The traveller? The traveller in the car, the chariot, is very important because we hold this traveller in us. He's at our disposal. It's through him that we can manoeuvre all the subtle senses of the imagination. This is the real work that must be done through yoga.

Next we realized that the great demand of the materialistic world we're living in, was to increase the learning capacity of children, because we are in a world where power is based on knowledge. So we began to teach about the potential developments of the intellect through yoga. All dimensions of the individual must be developed equally to increase the efficiency of knowledge. A human being who is emotionally and spiritually balanced learns more efficiently because he learns with enthusiasm, with all his love. So the notion of complete and integral education is, as one may say, relevant to our time and meets the aim of yoga.

We have decided that yoga is an essential component of our training of teachers. This year, for the first time, we are going to introduce a third level based on personal practice so that the teachers can rely on a trust in their own inner being. A trust that they are able to develop the essential qualities for balance and real self-confidence. A real trust based on the acknowledgement of one's own self so this quality can manifest in the classroom.

France, April 1997