At a time when the focus of education in the UK seems to be all about exams, outcomes and results, it might be healthy and almost revolutionary to quote Aristotle, who famously introduced the idea of educating the heart.
What do we mean by this?
The Dalai Lama has been outspoken about education in the last few years using exactly the same quote to bring in the idea of teaching conflict resolution in schools through teaching methods for internal and therefore external peace.
Even Ofsted, the school inspectorate, are on the same band wagon, demanding more focus on moral, ethical and spiritual values in schools in the report of 2014.
So what does this mean – educating the heart – is it the same as teaching spirituality?
The great yogi and sage, Swami Sivananda writes
“spirituality means growing into the form of the Divine Ideal. It is transformation from the human to the divine. … To grow in sattwa, you must entirely destroy the animal nature of your nature…. Get established in the pure, sattwic, ethical character”
In order to fully embrace this definition, we need to have a handle on sattwa and understand yoga at its very root, something that Patabhi Jois’ son, Manju, underlined in his recent visit to the UK last month. Manju mentioned several times during his visit that we need to embrace yoga more fully, including its ethical framework and the understanding of sattwa and surrender.
With the inevitable cultural appropriation of yoga in the West, much of the core of yoga teaching has been lost and it is our duty as teachers to reach back into the roots of yoga in order to be true to its teachings and deliver the rich and deep technology of wellbeing that is yoga.
In the last few years there has been a frightening rise in anxiety, to epidemic proportions among both teachers and young people (around 1 in 4 young people suffer some kind of anxiety related problem in the UK), teachers are leaving the profession in droves due to low morale and low pay. Surely, an education of the heart, whatever we take that to mean, would address exactly issues like this, looking deeply into the needs of burgeoning adults and guiding them towards a brighter future.
The simple practise of taking time to find peace, whether in the pranayama practise, in asana, meditation, bhakti or karma yoga – is in itself an act of responsibility and expansion. When we take the duty seriously to raise ourselves up to become better than we would have been, we are entering into the world of spirituality, the world of educating the heart and in short, into sattwa.
This is at the heart of teachings by Swami Sivananda, Manju Jois and the Dalai Lama and many other saints and sages through the times. “Make me an instrument of thy peace” by St Francis of Assissi feels as yogic as Patanjalis “Yoga chitta vritti nirodha”.
With an increasingly capitalist society, gauged towards success measured in pounds and dollars and growth in material things, many young people are forming a backlash – looking for a way to cope with these imposed pressures.
Teen Yoga Foundation ambassador Robin, now 17, who is currently taking her TTC together with her AS levels, facebooked yesterday “I keep reading that as school children we are put under more and more pressure, whilst I see this to be true in some respects, life has always had its challenges weather that be in the classroom or life, but If we can give people tools to flourish above all the pressure and notice the stillness that exists within them, then surely it won’t matter whats going on in the outside…”
In order for any kind of learning to take place in a school, a few things need to be in place:
1/ students need to be focused and relaxed
2/ teachers need to practice what they preach
3/ the space needs to be conducive to learning
4/ students need to have the desire or need to learn
At a recent conference at University of London about Teaching and Learning, I was asked to speak about the role of yoga in education in general. It struck me that if you take a general overview of the benefits of yoga through research reviews over the last 20 years or so there are a few very clear indicators that pertain to learning:
- Increased memory retention
- Mental control
- Greater focus
- Greater ability to concentrate
- Reduction in stress
- Increased present moment awareness (mindfulness)
- Boosts immunity (less sick days)
- Enhances quality of relationships both with self and others
These 8 factors form the basis for an ideal learning environment.
So, it is an inspired leader and headmaster who brings yoga not only to his students but also to his staff, in order to lead by example and create a harmonious and supportive environment in a whole school approach.
Simon Morris, head of Kingswood School one of the UK’s top independent schools in Bath says:
“We have had an excellent take up of the yoga classes that we have been offering all staff at Kingswood School this year. The feedback has been extremely positive with both teaching and non-teaching members of the community reporting an increase in core strength and balance and a release of physical and mental tension. Thinking about their breathing and using techniques taught in the class has helped them deal with potentially stressful situations in a calm and controlled manner. The benefits of the yoga sessions certainly seem to stretch well beyond the classes and I am delighted that we have been able to offer this opportunity.”
Only a few miles away in the maintained school, Ralph Allen, vice principal John Chantry has been supporting yoga for his students for over 3 years says:
“Young people experience a great deal of pressure, and consequently stress, to perform well in school due to the high expectations on them both academically and socially. Yoga is a great way to deal with this & the teen yoga programme has been extremely well received by students at Ralph Allen. The approach taken is just right and has inspired our students not just to try yoga, but to stick with it. I recommend the programme wholeheartedly.” John Chantry, Vice Principal, Ralph Allen School
Here is what the 16 year old GCSE students felt:
Jemima: “Afterwards I feel like I’ve got more energy” “you feel more stretchy”
Emily: “Afterwards, I feel like a ballerina”
Some students seem to access a deeper aspect of the yoga:
Georgie: “You feel more in touch with yourself, more aware of yourself – of sensations within. After meditating I often feel kinder, makes me feel more humble in myself. It completely changes my mindset and grounds me.”
Emily: “…gives you time to just focus on yourself. While I’m meditating I get this fizzy sensation within, then I feel like my body dissolves away. After I meditate I feel like I’m connected, like I’m part of everything.”
Apart from the obvious physical benefits of the yoga, the more esoteric benefits seem to have a deeper and more long lasting impact on school life, such as Georgie’s experience:
“At the peak of your Yoga experience, you feel just yourself – your body, your mindset – reconnecting” (Georgie)
In short, yoga is a technology of wellbeing and a technology of teaching and learning, which would boost the emotional, physical, spiritual and social health of all their staff and students. It is in fact, an education of the heart. This education of the heart not only allows our children and teachers to grow but also prepares both for the act of teaching and learning.
It will be interesting to follow the success of Anil Sarna’s Hebden Bridge Yoga school in Yorkshire, which opens its doors in September run completely on the principles of yoga.
(Anil and Charlotta will both be speaking about the impact of yoga in schools at this year’s Instill conference at SOAS, 8th and 9th of July