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Beyond postures: How yoga philosophy can foster non-violence in our classrooms

Gaston Bacquet, University of Glasgow

In A Sanskrit Dictionary, Monier-Williams (1899, p. 854) defines yoga as ‘an application of the thoughts, abstract contemplation, meditation, (esp.) self-concentration, abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system’. Whatever our current understanding of yoga is in our present day, the fact remains that yoga was, and is, primarily a metaphysical-minded discipline, and not a physical one. These are the principles that can potentially have an impact in fostering non-violence in learning environments.

The most important yogic text, the Yoga Sutras, contains 196 aphorisms analysing the discipline and aims of yoga, and only three of these mention its physical practice or ‘asana’– in fact, asana is simply described as a posture that should be ‘steady and comfortable’. All the other 193 precepts speak of achieving a union of mind, body and spirit through a journey of self-knowledge. In her book, Inhaling Spirit: Harmonialism, Orientalism and the Western Root of Yoga, Foxen (2020) traces this progressive transformation into its more physical form as a result of an increasing interest from Indian teachers in incorporating their emerging knowledge of physiology, anatomy and Western physical culture into their textbooks.

The discipline of yoga has been defined as one with eight petals or ‘limbs’:

  1. Yamas – moral imperatives
  2. Niyamas – virtuous habits
  3. Asana – postures
  4. Pranayama – control of one’s breath
  5. Pratyāhāra – increasing awareness by sensory withdrawal
  6. Dhāranā – concentration
  7. Dhyāna – contemplation through meditation
  8. Samādhi – meditative consciousness.

The elements of yoga that might interest us in education lie in the lesser-known limbs, as they provide ideas of harmony, interconnectedness and non-violence. For instance, the first limb, yamas, speaks of ‘the habit of not causing injury’ and ‘giving up hostilities and animosities’ (Prasāda, 1998, p. 164). Sutra III.24 speaks of the development of emotional and moral strength through the gradual unfolding of an impartially friendly mindset and demeanour that spreads to everyone (Iyengar, 1993). In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Iyengar also defines the goal of yoga as ‘the restraint of fluctuations of consciousness …Yoga helps quieten the movements leading towards an undisturbed state … It is the art and science of mental discipline through which the mind becomes cultured and matured’ (1993, p. 50). I contend that in order to challenge the structures that produce and reproduce violence in our classrooms, and in line with bell hooks’s ideas on self-actualisation and holistic learning and teaching (1994), we need to begin our own journey of self-knowledge towards a more equanimous mental state; this might equip us better to establish the type of relationships within our communities that make those challenges possible within the framings of a classroom.

Considering that yoga is not a discipline widely used in Western education, it is important to note that the application of its principles does not require one to be a devout practitioner or follower in the manner of Indian masters. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (in Barbezat et al., 2014, p. 11) gives a range of alternatives that can help quieten the mind and create group harmony; among them are moments devoted to silence, journaling, walking or sitting meditation, dialogue and deep listening, as well as activities that can potentially help develop a shared communal spirit, such as vigils, marches, engagement in communal artistic activities and storytelling that are all within the range of possibilities and cultural appropriateness in Western classrooms.

I believe there is an important place for this type of practice and mentality in learning environments. Wang (2018), who has conducted extensive research on non-violence in education and taught it widely, acknowledges that the main challenges to bringing these notions into the classroom derive from an ingrained individualistic and dualistic ‘us and them’ mindset. Her research with pre-service teachers in the US showed, however, a positive shift in the participants’ understanding of non-violence, not only from a wide social perspective, but also from a more personal, relational one. Her work, which integrates philosophical elements of Buddhism and yoga, involved different mindfulness practices, journaling, reading and discussion with 14 teachers in training, who documented an increased awareness of their community and a greater sense of togetherness, which positively impacted relationships both within the group of participants and between them and their social context (Wang, 2018). In short, let us move away from the purely physical practice of yoga and look into its possible applications to create more harmonious and peaceful learning environments.


References

Barbezat, D. P., Bush, M., & Palmer, J. P. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. Jossey Bass.

Foxen, A. (2020). Inhaling spirit: Harmonialism, orientalism and the western root of yoga. Oxford University Press.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom, Routledge.

Iyengar, B.K.S. (1993). Light on the yoga sutras. Harper Collins.

Prasāda, R. (1998). Pātañjali’s yoga sutras. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Monier-Williams, (1899). A Sanskrit dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/2020/web/webtc/indexcaller.php

Wang, H. (2018). Nonviolence as teacher education: A qualitative study in challenges and possibilities, Journal of Peace Education, 15(2), 216–237. https://doi.org/10.1080/17400201.2018.1458294