ENHANCING THE ABILITY TO STUDY
SWAMI NIRANJANANANDA SARASWATI
Yoga is a very important subject for children. Just as we go to school to be educated and to increase the capacity of our intellect, when we practise yoga we increase our capacity to learn much more.
When the famous saint, Swami Vivekananda, was living in Chicago, USA, he used to go to the library, borrow large volumes of books, take them home and return them the next day. After some time the librarian became curious and asked him, "Why do you take out so many books when you can't possibly read them all in one day?" Swami Vivekananda replied that he read each and every page of every book. The librarian could not believe it, and so Swami Vivekananda asked her to test him. She opened a book, selected a page and paragraph, and asked him to tell her what was written there. Swami Vivekananda repeated the sentence exactly as it was written in the book, without looking at it. The librarian was astounded and did more tests. Each time Swami Vivekananda repeated the exact words written in the book.
Later the librarian discovered that Swami Vivekananda had a photographic memory. He did not have to read books. His eyes, his mind, would capture the image on the page, and whenever he wished, he could just recall a book, a page, a sentence. That was the capacity of his brain and mind. How did he develop this capacity? He did not have it when he was ordinary Narendra, before he became Swami Vivekananda. His life story tells us that he had many difficulties and problems in his early life. Yet when he started to practise yoga with sincerity, he was able to develop that quality of the brain known as photographic memory.
We can also develop the potential and quality of our brain and mind provided we know how to use and apply yoga. Yoga is not a subject for spiritual development or spiritual realisation. Rather, as the tradition says, yoga is a subject for dealing with the mind. As students, you have faced your mind. You know how difficult it is to focus on study, how difficult it is to remember things, how at examination time, despite being full of confidence, all the effort you have put into your studies suddenly dissipates and your mind becomes blank in the exam room. Most people have had that experience. We know that to deal with the brain and to develop its potential is very difficult. But yoga provides the solution.
Exams, memory and concentration
Students often ask how to develop concentration, how to face exams without getting nervous, and how to memorise. One of the faculties of mind is memory, another is intellect and another is understanding. Intellect, memory and understanding are the three faculties that students have to manage. In the past people have thought a lot about how to improve the quality of the body and mind. The yoga techniques were devised in accordance with the natural laws of the body. The body has many glands and in children the most important one is the pineal gland in the centre of the head, which is responsible for the development of the cerebral, mental faculty. Yoga says that if you can maintain the health of the pineal gland, which begins to decay after the age of eight, then the learning process, the capacity to retain information and the memory improve.
To maintain the health of the pineal gland, three techniques were devised. The first is surya namaskara, which most of you have practised. The second is trataka for developing concentration. The third is pranayama to balance the two hemispheres of the brain.
The practice of surya namaskara is composed of five different postures which influence different organs and glands in the body, ensuring they perform in an optimum manner. Surya namaskara means 'salute to the sun'. It is to be practised in the morning, when there is calm and quiet, when you are fresh and not under tension and stress from study. It is done to improve the circulation of the blood, to energise the different parts and organs of the body and to control the breath.
The breath plays a very important role. When you are angry, or tense, or frustrated, your breathing will become very shallow and very fast. When you are relaxed and peaceful, the breathing will be deep and long. Scientifically it has been proven that the breath controls many activities of the brain and that with control of the breath, we can alter the state of the mind, reduce the stress level in the brain and nervous system, and experience harmony and tranquillity.
Trataka is the most effective practice for developing concentration. During exam time, if you do five minutes before you begin your studies, you will find it very useful. Light a candle and place it so that the flame is at eye level. Look straight at the flame without blinking the eyes for half a minute, or as long as you are able to keep your eyes open. When you feel the need, close your eyes and see the afterimage of the flame in front of the closed eyes. When the after image disappears, the screen in the forehead becomes black. Then open the eyes and again look at the flame without blinking the eyes. Whenever you close your eyes, you will see the afterimage of the flame, and you look at that. You will find that the image moves, it won't remain static. Sometimes it will move up, to the left, to the right, or down, it will keep moving. So you have to make an effort to hold that image fixed at one point and not allow it to move. Do this for five minutes before going to sleep and before you begin your studies. In a couple of days you will find you are able to memorise and retain whatever you read more easily. This practice develops mental concentration. It is most important for success in studies.
Bhramari pranayama, plugging the ears and humming like a bee, balances the two hemispheres of the brain. One part of the brain is known as the right brain, the other part is known as the left brain. Many times in the right brain there is nothing left and in the left brain there is nothing right! So when there is nothing left in the right brain and nothing right in the left brain, then you cannot focus, concentrate, study or succeed in life! In order to integrate the faculties of both hemispheres of the brain there is a practice known as nadi shodhana pranayama.
Nadi shodhana has to be done in a specific way. First of all, imagine a staircase. If we look at a staircase from the side, we will see the steps. We have to co-ordinate our breath as if we are climbing the steps. For example, if we have to climb seven steps in one breath, we visualise, we breathe in and step up, we hold the breath, we breathe in, step up, we hold the breath, we breathe in, step up, etc. So one inhalation is broken into seven steps. Then we breathe out in the same manner, so the exhalation is also in seven steps.
First close the right nostril. Breathe in - hold - breathe in - hold - breathe in - hold - breathe in - hold - breathe in -hold - breathe in - hold - breathe in - hold. You take seven steps in one breath. Then breathe out and come down the seven steps in the same way. Now, close the left nostril, open the right nostril, and again breathe in - hold - breathe in - hold - for a total of seven steps. Then breathe out and come all the way down the seven steps. If you feel any strain, reduce the number of steps.
Repeat the same pattern about five times with each nostril to complete the practice of nadi shodhana pranayama. If you understand and try this practice, you will find that the retention capacity of the brain will increase. You will be able to memorise and concentrate with much less effort.
To succeed in your studies and to develop control over the mind, these three practices are a must.
Bal Yoga Mitra Mandal
The children who have been demonstrating the practices today are from Bal Yoga Mitra Mandal (Children's Yoga Fellowship). BYMM has about 81,000 members aged between 8 and 14, and they look after their own organisation and manage their own affairs. After the age of 14, the children retire from this organisation and join another one for teenagers. Until the age of 14, we teach basic yoga practices only. Over the years we have found that many children who are weak in their studies initially are able to give excellent performances. There have been times when the children have been occupied in teaching yoga to other children in different parts of the country and have not had time for their own studies. Then just before the exams, they go through their books, take the exam and come in the merit list. We don't teach the children many practices, only the most basic ones that students can use to improve their studies and mind.
Here is a success story. Once a small boy came to the ashram and although he was never sent to school, he was taught science, arts, commerce, languages, etc. by a special practice known as yoga nidra. Yoga nidra is a technique that you can do before you fall asleep in bed at night, but you need a teacher to guide you. While the boy was sleeping, his teacher would give him instructions, which would be registered by the mind. Often the teacher would read chapters from books. The next day, when the boy was awake, he would read the same chapter and the boy would say, "I know that subject, I know the content," and he would be able to describe what was written in the chapter. This was an experiment which shows that our mind is able to register information even when we are asleep.
Later, we did an experiment where we gave a young German girl the practice of yoga nidra and taught her various things during this type of sleep. When her parents sent her to school, she came home on the first day and said, "I don't need to go anymore because I already know everything they are teaching there." When she was put into the next class, she said the same thing. Today that girl has attended school very little and still knows all the subjects. Tests have been taken and she has passed every one. She is only fourteen now, but last year was admitted into a college. This is an example of how the technique of yoga nidra can work on the human mind.
Make yoga a habit
This is the effect of yoga, and therefore you have to give yoga a chance in your life. If you are sincerely committed to the practice of yoga, within one year you will be a different student. If for one year you practise surya namaskara, trataka and nadi shodhana pranayama seriously, your problems will change. Whereas today you say you have difficulty in concentration and attention, next year you will be saying you have outgrown your school and can't obtain admission anywhere because you are too young. So, you decide which problem you want to face - lack of concentration or the problem of excellence.
The problem of excellence means you have committed yourself. Therefore, do not think of yoga as a set of physical exercises that we do for health or for eradicating disease or illness. Think of yoga as a way to improve and develop the strength and quality of the brain and the mind. Then you will have a very successful life all the way from your studies to your future life. This is the message of yoga for all of you -practise yoga with such determination and dedication that it becomes a habit in your life.
How can we settle a fight with a friend without drifting apart as a result?
There is a simple solution. When the fight is over, don't carry it with you. Let it be. Drifting apart happens when you carry the frustration with you. You fought this morning, but you are still carrying the effect of the fight this evening. If you carry the impression of the fight tomorrow, then the day after it will give birth to more hatred and jealousy and you will drift apart. If you do fight with someone, in the next second look at them, smile and shake hands. Finish the fight and become friends again. We can fight ten times in a day, but also make friends ten times in the day. If you can develop this ability, that quality will be recognised by others as a virtue, as a strength, and people will appreciate you.
How can I control anger?
The easiest way to control anger is to practise shashankasana. This practice controls the adrenaline and then the aggression and anger vanish. Anyone who gets angry should do this asana at night and then go to sleep immediately afterwards. The anger will become controlled within a week.
How can I increase my height?
There are two things you can do. When I came to the ashram, my guru taught me two postures. One was sarvangasana, where the legs and trunk go up when you are lying down, and the other was tadasana. Both practices are very good for improving height. Practise sarvangasana first. Stay in the posture for at least two minutes, because when the neck is bent in this asana, it affects the thyroid gland, which is responsible for our physical growth. When there is a problem in its functioning either the body is swollen, which is the state of hypo-thyroid, or the body becomes thin, which is the state of hyperthyroid. So practise sarvangasana to regulate and maintain the thyroid gland. After this practice, lie on your back and rest for a while, then come to your feet for tadasana in which you should try to stretch as high as possible. The more you stretch, the greater the effect on your height.