An awestruck ashram volunteer shares about this unique initiative where young students took it upon themselves to offer tools of transformation to others.
#1: Amazing at Adapting
Every day last summer, I had gotten used to hearing chirping sounds and joyful footsteps approaching the Sadhana Hall at 9.25 am. And I would know it was time for me to wrap up my morning practices. The Sadhana Hall was the venue for the Isha upa-yoga sessions conducted by Isha Vidhya students. I would often hang around, enjoying the sight of the children preparing the hall for their “students”. The way they spread and straightened the carpets diligently, confidently tested the microphone’s audio and scrupulously maintained the cleanliness and aesthetics of the place was no less than any enthusiastic and adept Isha volunteer.
This summer too, I had the fortune of seeing these disarming children in action. We had 160 students from 8 Isha Vidhya rural schools visiting the ashram to teach upa-yoga. Usually, a batch of about 30 children from each school would come on Monday, and leave the next Sunday. For some, this was their first trip outside their hometown. For many, this was the first time they had stayed without their parents.
On Monday, the day they arrived, they would be shown around the ashram and given guidance on how to conduct the upa-yoga sessions. The next day, you would see them standing in front of hundreds of ashram visitors from various walks of life and various countries as well. Keeping in mind their rural roots, it was amazing to see how fast they adapted – the ease with which they conducted the classes and spoke with so many new people of diverse backgrounds.
#2: They Have Taught Upa-Yoga to Nearly 100,000 People
Last year, Isha Vidhya students taught 30,000 visitors to the ashram, and another 50,000 in other places such as schools and even police stations around their villages. This year, they have reached out to another 20,000 people so far.
“It was a really different feeling to teach our elders,” said one of the shy girls. “They would sometimes affectionately pull our cheeks, hug us and bless us,” another girl added. “I would like to continue to teach yoga. It’s really fun. This has been my best holiday so far,” said a 12-year boy.
“I made friends with a Chinese girl and learnt a little Chinese too!” was an excited declaration from another. An adult Isha Yoga teacher shared a striking observation. She saw a child run up to a visitor to the ashram to urge her to join the upa-yoga session. “The way this little girl spoke without any hesitation to this lady in English, she seemed just like a trained Isha Yoga teacher to me,” she said in admiration.
#3: 4:30am is Wake-Up Time
Though their wake up time in the ashram was 4:30 am, some of the children woke up as early as 4 am. When I asked if it was difficult for them to wake up so early, almost all of them confessed “yes” on the first day, but to their surprise, within a day, they adapted to it. They enjoyed being at the Guru Pooja at 5:30am every day. Seeing so many people in the ashram practicing yoga so early in the morning was an unusual and inspiring sight for them.
Then, from 9:30am to 4:30pm, they had non-stop sessions daily, with classes happening every 30 minutes simultaneously in two venues.
#4: Handling Failure at an Early Age
During the sessions, some children remained outside the hall. They would speak to the ashram visitors, explaining to them that they should go for the class only if they could commit to stay for the full session – approximately 30 minutes. However, for one session, the children did not seek an explicit commitment from the visitors. Because they overlooked this little aspect, the situation turned out be unpleasant. More than a hundred participants who went in for the session got up to leave within 10 minutes. The girl who was conducting the session tried to make them understand and stay back and learn the practices, but nothing worked. Almost the entire group left before the session was over. It was her first session and she was shattered. She broke down and cried.
However, one of the Isha Vidhya teachers immediately came to her side. Once she was calm, the teacher oriented her on how to handle such situations. She realized that what she was doing was an offering, and it was up to people whether they wanted to take it or not. She later shared that she came away from the incident with a tremendous sense of maturity.
Many other children also shared having similar emotional stir-ups, but as the week went by, they grew increasingly mature and could handle even impolite visitors with poise.
#5: Favorite Foods? Beetroot Salad, Greens and Kanji!
On a lighter note, I asked them what they thought of the ashram food. What items did they like, what they didn’t like? “Ashram food is healthy,” they said unanimously. And, would you believe me if I said that some of their favorite foods were beetroot salad, greens and kanji (porridge)? I didn’t believe them either! It didn’t sound at all like a child’s choice of food. I thought they had been trained to give me certain answers which I would like to hear.
However, after prodding, I discovered that for many of them, sheer deprivation had made them realize the value of healthy food. Many of them came from impoverished communities and were first-time school-goers from their families. One of the boys shared, “Initially, I wouldn’t eat the school lunch (the free and nutritious mid-day meal at Isha Vidhya schools) because I liked my mummy’s cooking. But then I began losing weight and felt tired much more quickly than other students. Then my mummy and teachers told me to eat the school lunch and I started reluctantly. Soon, I gained weight and stamina. Now I find school lunch to be tasty. We get spinach rice, beetroot rice, lemon rice, dal rice among other items.”
#6: Humble Background and Humble Gratitude
I asked them where their parents worked. Some of them shared about their parent’s meager professions with such simplicity that it brought tears to my eyes. Though I have been a fulltime volunteer at Isha for many years, it never quite occurred to me what an enormous difference a school like Isha Vidhya can make in the lives of children from such backgrounds. Many of them would have had no other avenue to go beyond the struggles of basic survival.
#7: They Feel Special Studying in Isha Vidhya
“I have friends who are in other English-medium schools. But when I hear about their schools, I feel our school is much better – though they are paying so much to be there,” one student said with pride. Another added, “Our teachers are friendly, playful and approachable. When we make mistakes we are corrected kindly. And teachers rarely speak to us harshly.”
#8: Ashram = Beauty, Peace and Cleanliness
Most of the children were sad to leave the ashram. I asked them what touched them the most about the ashram, and they poured out many things:
The children were wonderstruck by the beauty of the ashram and found it very peaceful and clean. Offering milk to Dhyanalinga was also one of their most memorable experiences. They thoroughly enjoyed the evening games with ashram volunteers, which included seven stones, badminton and frisbee to name a few.
They were also in awe of the smallest details and the largest structures, including: the architecture of the Dhyanalinga dome and Spanda Hall, the Adiyogi statue, the enticing Pepper Vine eatery, the ponds, fish, peacocks, Bhairava the bull, bonsai plants, night blooming jasmine and Nandi!