Teaching Yoga Philosophy to Children and Teens

As part of my dissertation research on yoga curricula for young people, I interviewed Dr. Geeta S. Iyengar. This article presents responses related to teaching yoga to youth (children and teens). — Robin Lowry

Robin Lowry: To what extent can and should yoga philosophy be taught to youth?

Geeta Iyengar: Teachers should take to yoga out of curiosity and introduce yogic philosophy at various levels according to students’ age and development. They need to know what Patanjali explains, but they should use modern language. Philosophy teachers can explain the Seer, or Atman (individual spirit), but you cannot answer children like this. You can say in a deductive way that your hand is not Atman because if you lose it you wouldn’t die, but such a negative approach does not work for children and imparting such knowledge is challenging since students can keep questioning. Basic Guidelines for Teachers can be used as a guide. Simple answers should be given so students know the basics. As a starting point though, students must be introduced to their bodies as well as their minds. They have to understand anatomy objectively although we teach subjectively to make students aware of anatomy and actions on this level. That is the base. 

RL: So begin with the anamaya kosha (anatomical sheath). 

GI: Yes.

RL: What basic philosophy would one introduce?

GI: From the yogasutras we have prakriti (nature), the evolutes of prakriti. Teach what sattva (luminosity, pure), rajas (vibrancy), tamas (inertia), and purusha (the seer, the soul) mean. Teach so that at every level students learn different terminology and progress gradually. At the Arambhika level (ages 7-9) for example, introduce the organs of action, senses of perception, and the mind. Teach how good work is done through karmendriya (organs of actions) and jñãnendriya (senses of perception). Demonstrate how to use the body for wrong or right purposes. This understanding, where philosophy blends with the annamaya kosha, has to be taught. 

We can also teach Yama and Niyama. For instance, sauca (cleanliness) has such importance now, especially when children want to live in a fanciful way. They eat rubbish; simplicity is forgotten. Parents and teachers need to talk to children about how this connects to sauca and the diseases associated with it. You can make teens aware that they cannot just have easy contact with everyone. You can talk to them on a moral level, also.

RL: Is pratipaksha bhavanam, as B.K.S. Iyengar describes it in his commentary on sutra II:33, similar to a dialoguing method a teacher would use with a student?

GI: Yes. For example, theoretically if you explain why and how one gets infected with HIV, students might not connect it to their lives, but you can describe how diseases are contagious. Connect this to a healthy or hygienic point of view, teach them to care for their bodies, and that this care connects to philosophy. Another example is santosha. Considering satisfaction and dissatisfaction also comes under pratipaksha bhavanam. Today children get whatever they ask for, yet they are still dissatisfied; philosophy comes in here. Ask them to look at the newspaper and question why so many murders happen? There may be many reasons behind it: flirting, money, theft, anger. Why should a child have a gun and kill a friend? What kind of distress is this? You can help them understand why and when they lose their temper; how to avoid wrongdoing when something negative happens to them. That is paksha-pratipaksha bhavanam. They can learn from such problems. You need not teach them theoretically. You may teach ahimsa theoretically, but make them understand it practically. Emphasize why they need to have peace of mind, quietness; why they have to think before they act. They have to learn to quiet themselves when angry and reflect on the situation that angered them. Teach them how Asanas help. When a teacher or parent guides the child, “You ought to behave like this, you should be like this, think in this manner, this is not the way to be,” it does not help much; one has to make them feel it practically. Today children have high blood pressure, nervousness, insomnia, diabetes. You have to reach them where they lose mental peace, where they are restless. In this manner, if Yama and Niyama are taught, and Asanas introduced, they may connect to yoga. Ask them, “Why do you do Asana?” The pressure on the nerves is lessened; the organic body works in balance; physiological functions like circulation and digestion improve. Why are children constipated today? What food should be eaten? What Asanas? With these connections you can explain Yama, Niyama, Asana, even up to Samadhi; how they have to maintain a balanced state. Samadhi is absolutely absorption which children don’t understand, but you can use words like straightforwardness, equanimity, equipoise; then they understand it at least to a certain level. If there is no peace of mind, no equipoise, how can you think of something still further called absorption? We have to eradicate restlessness in children.

RL: Yogashastra volume 2 (the textbook for the RIMYI children’s programs) describes yoga as one of the six arts (plus economics, dance and drama, athletics, archery and martial arts, and music) that can train the body and mind. The text says yoga is the root: in what way is yoga the root?

GI: How will you keep the body, mind, and intelligence healthy? Intelligence requires a healthy state of thinking. Yoga is the root in that way. A scientist has to keep healthy and sharp for work. The same applies for a dancer, actor, or musician. If you are a singer you need to keep your larynx healthy through Sarvangasana and Halasana; increase the elasticity of the lungs for singing. Yoga keeps you healthy and betters you in your profession or art.

RL: So Asana and Pranayama are the root?

GI: They are the roots, undoubtedly; otherwise how will you keep the mind in a state of equilibrium during competition? What is maitri, karuna, mudita, upekshanam (friendliness, joy, compassion, indifference) teaching?

RL: But yoga has eight limbs. Guruji says you shouldn’t teach Pranayama, meditation, or concentration, to people under 17?

GI: No, he doesn’t say you don’t teach it, he says it cannot be taught. If you say you are going to teach meditation, that is the wrong expression. Through the practice of Asana and Pranayama, introduce students to disciplining their minds; teach them to sit quietly. There is a depth to that state of sitting. I would not say sit and do meditation because that is technical teaching. I question them: “What happened there? What happened here? Where are you in your brain? Are you breathing with your brain or your chest?” Children need to develop inquisitiveness, observation, and stability. 

RL: So again pratipaksha bhavanam

GI: Yes. In Pranayama class I direct adults to sit in a particular way, eyes closed, ears drawn in, tongue restful, etc. But after a time I guide them to ask if they are quieted; do they have fluctuations? It is not a physical practice at that point. He is not saying don’t teach meditation. It has to happen in that process, so teach Asana and Pranayama. For children, you do not teach Pranayama like inhale and pause, observe the breath. They may not be able to observe the breath since some cannot even sit quietly. Understand that if asked to sit with closed eyes they are not going to listen, they’ll become mischievous; they’ll move their hands and legs; touch someone, make fun of someone. These are common traits of children; they want to move. This mischievous, active attitude has to be converted to disciplined action through Asana and Pranayama. Guruji has said even in Savasana they should keep their eyes open, feet together, arms straight, or look at the ceiling and so on, then their mind is in their body. You have to teach them mobility in stability and stability in mobility; this state is required but people instead say close your eyes and meditate. That is not correct, nor should you give them imaginary ideas. 

RL: That seems to take them away from their body. 

GI: Yes! This is not correct for me; it is not the right way, do not make children dreamy. Whether you teach dance, music, archery, or martial arts, demand dynamic attention. They have to be attentive to what they are doing. You cannot say “close your eyes and imagine you are at the ocean.” They can use their imagination on paper to produce a story. 

RL: But not when we are asking them to be in their body. 

GI: Certainly not. That doesn’t help at all. Guruji is against that because it is a misguidance. Suppose I put a lotus in front of them and say “close your eyes and imagine the lotus,” then this is intelligence work, mental visualization because they have seen the lotus and when they close their eyes their intelligence is working. Better to ask them to draw it, the imagination is more tactical depending on their memory and visible to us as teachers, but if they begin to imagine something else, how will we know? When Patanjali says, vishayavati va pravrittih utpanna manasah sthiti nibandhani (I:35—by contemplating an object, that helps maintain steadiness of mind), he is not asking you to pick something out of the blue. For an object to have citta prasadanam (favorable disposition), you need to have a definite connection all the time to it, then your mind becomes quiet. You cannot say, “You are not quiet so sit and think of a rose and be quiet.” That is not going to happen because whatever is in the back of your mind will surface. That’s why the citta prasadanam sutras are connected with yogic practice. Even in svadhyaya you read about yogis, rishis, or munis (enlightened beings). You reflect on them only because you know their stories; this comes under Yama and Niyama. Children can be made aware of Yama and Niyama. Svadhyaya comes under Niyama, but what is the self-studying process? 

Studying the scriptures of whichever faith you belong to gives you moral support, courage, and so on; then you can imagine them in citta prasadam. Children can reflect on these and are then not misguided. Appreciate someone’s qualities, vitaraga vishayam va cittam (1:37—contemplating enlightened sages). Consider someone untouched by worldly matters. You understand the person to be saintly; that person can be an object of thought in order to cleanse your thinking process. But if you begin to think of someone with vices, then it is a distraction. If we say yoga is the root of other arts it has several dimensions. Yoga can give you health and keep you free from disease. It cultivates strength, vigor, and stamina. One learns to maintain active attention, and a balanced state of mind. As one practices with decisiveness and contentment, patience and tolerance also develop. These all come through Asana practice. So when you ask about the inclusion of eight aspects, do not go according to sutra, but if you think over these required behaviors, natures and characters, they are found in Ashtanga yoga. Therefore yoga is the Mother of Arts. 

RL: Ishvara pranidhana is problematic in school settings which may want no discussion of religion. Can one talk instead of devotion to love, family, or nature? 

GI: That is OK. Let us say we don’t know about god, we don’t know about Ishvara, but we can help a person experience it in different ways. First convince children that they should respect their elders, especially parents and teachers. We say, “matru devo bhava, pitru devo bhava, acharya devo bhava” and “atithi devo bhava.” Mother, father, teacher and guest are like god, so respect them. Before making them aware of an unknown, unseen god, make them aware of living gods. Make them aware of mountains, planets, rivers, oceans, things not man made and teach them to respect whosoever created it. Even children can experience this. They always ask with enthusiasm: who made the world? Who put the sun there? Where did the first tree come from? The world is generated by G, organized by O, and destructed by D, so G-O-D stands for GOD. The tree grows, gives fruit, gives birth to another tree, then disappears; it does its duty. We are born and later we die. We are not permanent, yet we should not avoid our duty.

 

When talking to teenagers, whether to introduce them to God or to Nature, we have to introduce them to yoga philosophy. Prakriti is nature; purusha is the human being, vishesha purusha is god; how these things are organized or managed, who is managing it, what is this unknown entity, what power makes it. In front of the vastness of the universe we are tiny creatures, for us the known world is limited, but the unknown world is vast. Who is the organizer of such a vast universe? I already said the definition of God – G.O.D. Ishvara means the one who has everything in plenty, affluent, fortune, or grandeur. The wealth of the universe belongs to god. This wealth is called aishvarya. The Ishvara is to whom the aishvarya belongs. The world belongs to ishvara and we too belong to ishvara.

 

 

RL: So have them consider the unknown, the vastness of the universe, then they can answer the “Who or What” in whatever way is culturally relevant to them.

 

GI: Yes. Now how do you do pranidhana? As a teacher, say yourstudents are preparing for exams and they come to you andsay, “I’m not getting this; this is unclear;” they surrender to theperson who has better knowledge. This kind of thing has to beunderstood: the origin of everything—the vastness, call it godor Ishvara or anything else—but there is an origin to everything. Your parents have parents, who came from their parents. If thelineage is unknown it does not mean that the ancestors did notexist, the origin is just unknown to us. Pranidhana means 

RL: Or perhaps people who represent good qualities thoughthey may not be considered saints.

GI: Yes, an exemplary human being, someone that all couldsupport morally. In this way you can make children see god ineverything, everywhere, and in everyone. That spark of Divinityhas to be taught for them to recognize it.

RL: Thank you for your time, Geetaji.

GI: You are most welcome.

Robin Lowry has been studying Iyengar Yoga since 1987 and is certified at the Intermediate Junior I level. She teaches at her home yoga studio in the historic Germantown section of Philadelphia. She has been a public school Health and Physical Education teacher for 18 years and currently teaches at the K-6 level. Her dissertation, “A Survey of Youth Yoga Curriculums,” was completed in August 2011 at Temple University in the Kinesiology Department.