Dear Yoga Teachers, don’t make Yoga more difficult than it is – 1 Oct 15

In the past two days I described a little bit in which ways we like to make yoga easy for our students and participants. The day before yesterday I told you that we don’t usually correct the yogis and yoginis in front of us and yesterday I explained why we don’t even use the Sanskrit terms for the yoga poses. I actually believe in making things easy and I think that helps others as well.

I know, people have the tendency to make things difficult. I have seen yoga teachers present yoga as an overly difficult science that nobody can understand unless they are in some way initiated by a yoga guru. There are yoga teachers who like to show the most difficult postures even to a beginners’ class. Others will use as many Sanskrit words in their class as possible.

I don’t think this is the way and while it may give you the feeling that you are an extraordinary person, better, more flexible, more exact than others, it is not really necessary to act like this.

You don’t actually need to take a small and simple thing just to stretch it, to explain it over an extended time! You could just say it simply as well! You can of course show others how flexible you are in the most advanced yoga postures but give others the feeling as though they will also reach there with regular practice, no problem!

I have actually seen this in other fields as well. It is by far not only a habit of yoga teachers! It is a general behavior I often see especially in people who have a bit low self-esteem. They need to present the things they have mastered as very difficult so that they can feel better about it. It is people who cannot satisfy their ego in simplicity and by making things easy.

While this is completely logical and in this way understandable as well, I would suggest you, if you have caught yourself doing the same thing, to find other ways to feel good about yourself. Realize that you have a lot of achievements, that you have your own qualities, that you are valuable enough also by achieving what others can as well achieve. You don’t need to have done something which ‘nobody else can do’ or ‘only the best can do’.

Don’t base your self-esteem on these things – that would be a very fragile base! You are worth your self-love just for who you are!

Why I think you don’t need the Sanskrit Terms for Yoga Poses – 30 Sep 15

Yesterday I wrote about the question whether yoga teachers should correct their students or not. I explained why I and along with me Yashendu and Ramona, too, act according to the principle ‘as little as possible, as much as necessary’. Apart from corrections, there is another thing which many yoga teachers do a lot but which we usually simply don’t: using the Sanskrit terms of the postures and basically making it all more difficult than it is.

Dear yoga teachers, I know you have learned all of these Sanskrit terms for the asanas, the kriyas, the mudras and more in your yoga teacher training. You have probably spent evenings of trying to get these strange-sounding terms into your mind, trying to pronounce them correctly although your tongue sometimes just doesn’t seem able to form those sounds. You want to use them as well, pass this knowledge on to your students and that’s how you generously say these words in your classes as well.

Have you ever thought that this may actually not be necessary? More than that, that it could actually irritate a few of your students?

I have met a big number of yoga students in my life and I have had this conversation with many of them, including the students of our yoga teacher trainings. Don’t make yoga complicated and difficult by adding a number of hardly-pronounceable words in there!

Why don’t you just use the English term for them or the name in whatever language you are teaching in? If you have learned the Sanskrit names, you have probably also learned those, right?

If you haven’t got to know that yet, I am telling you now: mostly, the Sanskrit names are simply describing the shape or action of the posture, that’s it! ‘Matsyasana’ sounds great, exotic and one has to hear it a few times to repeat it properly but it simply means ‘fish pose’. Why? Because you look like a fish when you are in it! There is no bigger secret or mystery to this name! Most poses have such names because they remind of animals or objects – or they literally describe the body parts in use, like ‘Sirsasana’, the headstand. ‘Shirsha’ is the Sanskrit words for head. No big science!

So please, dear yoga teachers, just keep it light, understandable and easy for your students to follow.

Is it really necessary to correct your Yoga Students? – 29 Sep 15

Today I would like to write a few lines that got inspired by a recent visitor at the Ashram who had come for an advanced yoga retreat. In her daily two-hour sessions with Yashendu, a topic came up that is always interesting for yoga teachers and students alike: should a yoga teacher correct the student’s posture?

Quite obviously, different teachers have different answers to this question. I will let you know my point of view and that can be pretty well summarized with the answer: as little as possible – as much as is necessary.

When I was teaching yoga, I always stuck to this principle and Yashendu as well as Ramona follow the same. In a regular workshop, you will rarely hear us correcting an individual person, telling him or her that the pose they are in is wrong.

Why? Of course, any yoga teacher who is used to correcting and any yoga student who is used to being corrected will ask this question. How will you know whether you are doing it right or wrong?

First of all, yoga is not about being the best, it is no competition and while you may strive for improving your posture, it is mostly about your well-being and a good feeling. This being said, there are naturally certain movements that you should better not do when in posture. Usually, however, these will not appear if you demonstrate the way how to get into the posture and out of it. Accompany that with a spoken description and your students will follow your example. From the very beginning you mention that everybody goes as far as his own body allows and we should never cross our limits.

Once this framework is set, I believe it mostly has a negative effect on a yoga practitioner if there are constant corrections in class. People have told me that they were discouraged by their teachers who told them what they were doing wrong. There are chances that you make your students focus on their outside and on negativity instead of the good feeling they get from their movement, their stretch and their exercise.

Additionally, you don’t know the limits of the other person’s body. Especially in yoga workshops of just a few hours or when you only get the chance to work with a student for a few days, you cannot understand, even with their medical history in mind, why he doesn’t lift his foot as far as you do or bend his back as far as his neighbour does! Now you go and tell him to push the knee down – but he physically cannot! How frustrating of an experience!

If you really feel that the other one did not fully understand where to place his limbs or what they should put emphasis on, you can do it differently as well! Instead of saying: ‘Sandra you are crooked in the pose, straighten up’ or ‘Tim, push your hips further down’, you could say in general ‘The focus of this pose is to straight the spine’ or ‘With every exhalation we lower our hips a bit further down.’ They will look at themselves and improve their posture, if they can.

Of course, if you teach someone over a long period of time, if the other one requests you to correct or if you teach a yoga teacher to go further in practice, it can make sense to actually correct the other one directly – but that is not the case in your normal lesson!

Furthermore, one thing you will never see in any of our classes: pushing a person physically into the right position or further into the stretch! If you do that, you believe you know another person’s body better than he himself does. The problem is: you can create physical harm to the other one, cause serious injury! Even if you have studied anatomy, even if you keep in mind the other person’s medical history, you can hurt the other person by pushing too fast, too far, too hard!

Finally, you don’t know how comfortable your students are with your physical closeness! They may not like having you stand so close, looking down on them and then touching them as well! You may ask but when there are ten others in the class, your student may be too shy to say no – and just not come to class next time.

I just believe you don’t need to touch anybody in class and would recommend reducing verbal corrections as well. Let me know how you do it in the comments!

Making School interesting – Workshop for our Teachers – 27 Sep 15

This morning we said goodbye to a group of very nice people from Delhi who had spent the past two days with us. Our friend Sharmila, who is very active in Delhi in the field of education, had been planning on this for a while together with Ramona. Two days ago, they were finally here and sat together with our teachers, who were excited to hear and learn something new.

The three workshop leaders belong to a group called ‘Katha Manch’ and they are specialized on stories. Obviously, it became two days full of beautiful story-telling! Every participant was encouraged to tell his favourite story, one with whom he could deeply connect and that already from his childhood. Of course our visitors from Delhi also told some stories.

More important than the stories themselves however was the way they were being told and the effect these stories have on every person in the room. On the practical example of telling and listening to stories themselves, our teachers were shown clearly how everyone can relate to a good story in some way or the other. They learned how to draw the attention of the children to the story’s characters and their actions, making sure they all will be with the mind at the plot, in the scenery.

By brainstorming in groups, the teachers themselves thought of different activities which they could bring into the class and thus connect the story with their actual curriculum. Theater, painting and drawing, little games, scientific experiments and of course giving the children room to use their fantasy can make all kinds of subjects more interesting, be that mathematics, languages or science!

A point that Ramona found especially important was that these stories can be used to change stereotypes in the minds of children, when for example a woman is able to move heavy stones out of the way or the family father is the one making tea at home. One can show that even the ‘bad’ characters in stories are just human and make mistakes and one can emphasize that a story doesn’t even need to have a certain moral – it can be just an event that can be discussed. We can have different opinions – and children will learn to express them and accept that there is not always just one ‘right way’.

That’s how we had two very full days and our teachers got a whole lot of new ideas on how to create a more interesting, colourful school day by implementing stories into their lessons.

Apart from the official program, it was nice and refreshing to meet new friends, talk about experiences in school and of course have great food together.

Planning a Yoga Teacher Training together with a University – but who is the Yoga Teacher? – 18 Nov 12

The year 2005 started as the year 2004 ended – with visitors coming and going at the Ashram. I also had visitors from Cologne, where I had been in 2004 for the first time, and after some talk and ideas, there was a plan on its way for a great future.

When I had been in Cologne, my host had organized a lecture in the University of Cologne and 70 or 80 students and other people had come to listen. This host, a yoga teacher, was now at the Ashram with the wish to learn a bit more about yoga and especially the scriptures related to it. One day she started talking about a project that we could do together: giving a yoga teacher training. The university had approached her for doing this training and she was interested but said she could not do it on her own. After my lecture there she was convinced that the university administration and also the students would be happy to have me as their teacher. What did I think about this offer?

There were several aspects to think about. The first emotion was of course happiness and enthusiasm. That is simply my nature. Whenever I get a new idea or am presented with one, I like to see it in a positive light and consider what good could come out of it. Obviously, if more people would get to know about yoga, both the physical exercise and the philosophy, it would be good for them and good for the world. I would also have regularly something to do in Germany, a country that I really liked and where I had already made many friends.

I did not however consider myself a yoga teacher. Yoga was not the problem! I had given enough lectures about all kinds of scriptures and had studied the yogic scriptures with the same intensity that I had studied the religious ones. I also had enough physical exercise and had given workshops for yoga exercises, Hatha Yoga, as well. Of course I had just undergone surgery and it might take some time for me to get back to doing as much yoga practice but I was not concerned about that – my knee was recovering quite well and I knew I would not have too many problems with it. No, it was not yoga, it was the thought of being a teacher that I was concerned about. I was not a yoga teacher, I was a yogi.

I have never seen myself as a teacher and I don’t do it until now. I always thought of myself as someone who is still learning himself – and not someone who could teach others. I did not see myself in this light and I did not want others to see me like this. I voiced this concern and thought about it for a while. My friend told me that it would not be an issue, especially with my knowledge about scriptures, I would rather be a guest lecturer. When talking about the asanas, the yoga poses, though, I finally thought I knew the solution: Yashendu, my younger brother, knew the asanas well and had good practice, too. He could be the yoga teacher and while I would take care of the philosophy, he would be responsible for the physical teaching.

We all loved the idea and went right into planning. We decided to spread the training over the course of two years and do about one weekend per month, sometimes adding an intensive week of yoga in Germany and even including a two-week practice time at the Ashram in India. Yes, this is how we would give those teachers-to-be a solid base for spreading the benefits of yoga.

Violent Teachers teaching about non-violent Gandhi – Corporal Punishment in Indian Schools – 3 Oct 12

Yesterday, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, I shortly mentioned his non-violent approach to make a change. He believed that a change can be made without any violent acts. Unfortunately Gandhi’s idea of change without violence has not reached Indian schools.

In fact, the opposite is the case. A recent report shows that in 99% of India’s schools physical punishment is still exercised. A very common opinion among teachers and also parents is that this is necessary for children to improve in school and most of all to get better manners and discipline. The consequence, in the theory, is that children once they are adult, thank their teachers for beating them because this is how they finally learned in school.

The real result looks different: if you just take one of last week’s newspapers, you will read that a teacher in Jammu, in North India, beat a student of 9th grade into the belly. The boy is in hospital with an injured kidney. Pick up another newspaper and you read about a 10th grade student in Haryana who did not know the answer to a question. The teacher struck him with a stick 40 times. Again, the child is now in hospital and the teacher is absconding.

In India such things happen all the time. Teachers beat children, a teacher cuts the ears of children with blades, children come home with bruises and injuries, have to go to hospital and sometimes even die. There is a law against corporal punishment – but it has obviously not been implemented.

As I have told before in my blog, I have personally experienced physical punishment in school and I remember several teachers who just enjoyed beating children and searched for an excuse to punish them. I am still today angry and I can very clearly say that I never felt thankfulness. Not then and not now.

It does not stop with beating children, though. I have seen with my own eyes how teachers use the excuse of hitting for touching girls. Today I would call it sexual harassment and maybe it gives some kind of sexual satisfaction to sick minds. Let me describe one such scene. We were sitting on the floor learning, the teacher next to a girl. When the girl made a mistake, the teacher pinched the girl so hard in her thigh that she screamed. This did not only happen once. Whenever I think of this scene now, I hate the memory, wishing I would have done something against it. But I was just a child, too.

No, corporal punishment has to stop, there is no question. It is never right to be violent towards children. They are small and weaker than you, so you hit them because they cannot hit you back. You want to make them afraid of you, the bigger one. I believe hitting children will make them less fearful. They will accept it and just think ‘What else can happen? I will just get beaten once or twice more.’ This was exactly the attitude of those children in my school who were beaten frequently!

Such old and barbaric ways are not acceptable in today’s society. That is why in many countries of the world corporal punishment is banned and there are new approaches to teach children in a non-violent atmosphere. Those countries have very good education standards without beating a single child! But in our country, the country of Mahatma Gandhi, whom the world sees as an example of non-violence, the law is of no use, it is not being implemented.

We are positive however that there will be a change and we actively do something to start this process of change! In our primary school we have implemented the law and taught our teachers how to teach without physical punishment. In the past five years we had to fire three teachers for this reason. There are other ways to show children that they are doing wrong without making them hate school. I believe children have to like their school and we have created such a place and such an atmosphere where children like to come every day. Without violence.

Being a Student is better than being a Follower – 16 Jun 11

Yesterday I described the last one of 10 types of followers whom I have written about in the last weeks. These were the ten types:

  1. Blind Followers
  2. Intellectual Followers
  3. Proud Followers
  4. Secret or Ashamed Followers
  5. Bribed or Paid Followers
  6. Strict Followers
  7. Flexible Followers
  8. Mass Followers
  9. Personal Followers
  10. Celebrity Followers

I have seen many followers in my life, during my time as a guru in India and also now on my travels in the west. This is how I could sort them into these types. Not everyone fits into one single category, most of them belong to several types at once.

What happens usually these days when I meet followers is that they don’t stay with me for a long time. The reason is that they usually search for a guru and I am just not a guru or master. Many leave because they realize it and others try to stick around, try to find a way of being my follower without me minding it and actually develop some closeness. What I do is to always try and let them experience that they are their own gurus.

I don’t really like the word ‘follower’ or ‘disciple’. I think it is good to learn from someone, to be a student and to keep on learning. Guru simply means teacher, so if you have the need for a teacher, a guru, why don’t you simply call yourself student? I think rather than being a follower who follows blindly like a sheep, you should be a student, eager to learn more, enthusiastic for getting more knowledge and experience.
Many gurus are good teachers and you can learn from them. Don’t make them holy and don’t see them as Gods. They are human, make their mistakes and have their faults. Don’t worship them. Give them respect as persons who have some knowledge or wisdom which they share with you.

Keep a realistic view, ask deeper than what is on the surface and see who that person is. Don’t get dependent on one individual and don’t get confused if you hear contradictive statements of several of them. In the end you need to see that you are your own master inside yourself. There is the truth and you can feel for any philosophy and teaching whether it is right for you or not.

Caste system and Poverty big reasons for high illiteracy rate in India – 18 Feb 11

In my enumeration of reasons for the high illiteracy rate of India, I have not yet mentioned two of the very main factors why there are still so many people in India who cannot read and write: the caste system and poverty.

I have written a lot about the caste system, that it still remains a part of the thinking in society and how much discrimination happens still today just because a person is born with a certain social status that can make him or her even ‘untouchable’ to some others. Of course, this also creates problems in schools.

When someone from one of the lowest castes goes to admit his or her children to school, it can very well happen that the teacher, principal or official sitting there asks ‘Why do you want your children to go to school? It is not necessary!’ and often they are just denied the right to admit children in schools. Especially in schools which are privately run, people of lower castes have to face this problem. And schools run by the government often have very less value of education. Teachers don’t come, simply don’t give classes or the school building is used as a cowshed or storage space.

Even in schools where children of lower castes are admitted, there is often a lot of discrimination from the side of fellow students, teachers and even the school management. There are problems in the classes, in breaks and in lunch times when higher caste students refuse to eat food made by lower caste people or refuse to eat together with their classmates of lower castes. This can really make a child lose the fun of going to school, don’t you think?

Not only students, even teachers are discriminated in schools. Below you see a video about a teacher of the untouchable caste. She teaches in a primary school and as the only teacher does not get a chair to sit on. Otherwise none of the other teachers could use that chair anymore because she, the untouchable woman, sat down on it. She either stands or sits with the children on the floor, the whole day long. Why would any person of this caste become teacher and what do these children learn for their life?
Even if there is a school where this is not a problem of castes, poor families of all castes have to face another difficulty: how are they going to pay for the school fees, the school books and the uniform? There is the problem of poverty again. But how are poor people going to come out of their poverty if they cannot go to school, learn and get a better job? Or how should they learn how to improve the efficiency of their farming or the quality of what they produce or sell?

When the government started their campaigns to improve education in India, they said their aim would be to have one school in each square kilometer. This doesn’t seem to have worked out that well. I know it is getting better, there has been a lot done in the last ten years. More schools have been built and the literacy rate of India has increased, even though the population has increased so much that we still have more illiterate people in number than before.

One interesting statistics however showed that if you look at an area of 10 square kilometers, there are more religious places and temples than schools. If there are 2 schools, there are 14 religious places which are probably also more frequently visited. What does this mean? Do people still put religion over education? As I always say, we need more schools than temples to be built!

More about Literacy in India

Cruel Teachers Cutting Ears of Students with Blades – 17 Feb 11

Yesterday I mentioned already that some government officials and even teachers are not interested in really educating the students of the next generation. There is a lot of corruption and I often feel that teachers only do this job like every other, for one reason: to earn money. As a teacher however you should have a heart for children, you should have the wish to give them a good future through education. This is unfortunately not the main wish of many teachers.

Two days ago we saw very shocking news on TV. A teacher of the ‘Police Modern School’ in Haridwar slashed the ears of about 40 children with a blade. The teacher was teaching primary school children of the 3rd and 4th grade. They had been playing while they should be listening to him and had not done their homework. So he took a blade and made cuts in the back of their ears.

The school management did not take any action but now, after the media reported about this, the police will investigate further.

When I see these pictures, my heart is hurting. How many times have I written about corporal punishment, about the beating, the hitting and the humiliation that happens daily in Indian schools? How can a person be so cruel to small children? Not out of the anger of a moment, but with full calculation and thought he cut the ears of not only one, no, of 40 children! Is this a teacher or a torturer? Such a brutal and calculated action, creating scars for a lifetime. This kind of person does not care even a little bit about this child, his feelings and his fear and pain. He should be arrested and I hope this will be the result of the police investigations so that other teachers also get a lesson through this.

And now think, even with all the support that you can get, even if you don’t have to pay a penny to go to school, if your teachers threaten to cut your ears, why would you go to class? Really, why would anybody come to school just to get beaten, shouted at and have their ears and other body parts slashed with blades? If a child has once seen a teacher give such a cruel punishment, he or she may easily get afraid that the teacher may hurt them even more.

What do you think how many children don’t come to school because they are afraid of punishment? Corporal punishment has to be stopped, too, in order to increase literacy in India. Schools like ours, in which the school administration takes care that no child is beaten or abused, are rare. There is a law against corporal punishment but it seems like the government does not care enough to actually enforce it. Until they care, it will go on everywhere around us here in India.

In the video below you will see the children, their ears and the teacher who cut them. Even if you don’t understand the language, the pictures are enough to tell you the story.

Emotional Connection with Children through Physical Closeness – 17 Jan 11

Last week I wrote about raising children and teenagers and I got a lot of feedback as it is obviously a topic that every mother and father has something to say about. I liked the feedback of one of my friends on facebook, Annan Boodram. He said: “Speaking from experience, Swami Ji, the first step is making an emotive connection. Once that connection is established you can begin to win their trust and then they make you their confidante.”

I fully agree with these words and I believe that an emotional connection is necessary in every relation. Especially with children it is easy to have this emotional connection because they understand the language of emotions better than the language of intellect. If you talk to them with intelligent words, definitions and facts, they won’t understand you. If you reach out to them with love and happiness, you establish an emotional bridge in between you and them.

The base for strengthening this emotional connection however is physical closeness. For any close emotional relation, I can only repeat it again and again, you need to be close physically. And then it doesn’t matter whether this child is your own child or someone else’s child, with physical closeness you create an emotional connection and you feel love and trust in between each other.

We experience this here often with children who come to the Ashram and stay for longer. Additionally I believe every kindergarten teacher and primary school teacher can confirm this theory. You spend a lot of time with a group of children, you play with them, you teach them, sometimes you have to be serious and scold them, too. At the end of one year however you realize that you developed a personal bond to these children whom you had not even known one year ago. You spent several hours nearly each day with them and thus have an emotional connection with them. They developed trust in you and many early school teachers and kindergarten teachers are remembered a whole life long.