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Bent on Learning: Why Increased Accessibility to Yoga Is a Vital Endeavor

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As a yoga teacher since 1989, I am at the point where I am almost embarrassed to say that it is what I do because it can sound like such a cliche. Everyone does yoga; sometimes it feels like everyone sells yoga. The yoga scene, which has always been pretty wacky (think the Omnipotent Oom's yoga harem of the early 1900's), seems to be getting wackier by the day (suede yoga mat bags, anyone?).

Yoga in India was originally -- and by originally I mean more or less 3,000 years ago -- practiced by those living on society's fringes: those intrepid seekers of reality that left the cities and their Vedic lifestyles to search out truth, freedom and liberation. Vedas are the revealed sacred texts of the Hindus, and to be Vedic is to belong to the Hindu culture that produced and abided by the Vedas.

While in America there are certainly are many practicing yoga with profound sincerity, it seems as though they are dwarfed by a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely focused on, well, selling stuff that we don't really need to practice yoga.

Anyway, let it be. That spirit of commercialism and consumerism has helped to make yoga a household word, and that's not an entirely bad thing. I believe that increased accessibility to yoga is a positive result of yoga's modernization.

Why do I believe this? Because everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

One example of how yoga has become a mainstream practice can be seen in the New York City public school system. Schools are coming to realize that yoga is helpful for public students who deal with many sources of stress and trauma on a daily basis.

I serve on the board of a nonprofit organization called Bent On Learning, founded in 2001 by Anne Desmond, Jennifer Ford and Courtney McDowell. To date we have taught over 9,000 school children, and currently serve over 1,500 children per week, in 10 schools. If yoga remained esoteric and mysterious, rather than mainstream, Bent On Learning would not be able to have such a strong presence in NYC public schools. In fact, we most likely would not have a waitlist of schools from the Bronx to Brooklyn, eager for yoga classes.

Interestingly, my late teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was deeply committed to creating a yoga syllabus in the Indian school system. I did not know this when I was first studying with him, and found this out only much later after I became involved with yoga in the schools. He saw the importance of training children from an early age to be conscious of their bodies, health and the ability to strengthen their minds before unhealthy habits took root -- habits that later in life are much more difficult to reverse.

I am convinced that yoga belongs in schools, especially in NYC public schools. Out of a seven-hour school day, children in most public schools get only 15 minutes for lunch and 15 minutes for recess. Only 56 percent of NY's 1.5 million public school kids are of a healthy weight. Many schools have painted a walking track around the perimeter of their cafeterias so the kids can walk in circles to get exercise. They have to walk in the cafeterias because many schools have no gym facilities. Forty-three percent of NY's 1,450 public schools do not even have a gym teacher. Coupled with constant exam preparation, cohabitated schools and overcrowded classrooms, the DOE clearly could use some help getting children to exercise.

A proven fact is that children need to move to be healthy, and healthy kids are happy kids, and better learners. Cooped up kids, exploding with the energy of youth, are not happy kids! BOL has a simple and practical solution to this problem: yoga in the classroom. By moving the desks to the side of the room, the classroom is transformed into a yoga room, a haven for relaxation and stress reduction, and in which the children can learn skills for healthy movement, healthy breathing and concentration.

In a realm where the popular phrase 'giving back' is heard in association with such endeavors like BOL, I would prefer to think that groups such as BOL are not 'giving back,' but simply giving. Why patronize the intelligent, vital kids we are teaching? We need them as much as they need us, for they are the future of this world, and it is our duty to help however we can.

The spirit of yoga is the removal of suffering; it is the central tenet of the earliest texts. As I stated earlier, everyone suffers: inner city kids, their teachers, the wealthy who summer in East Hampton. Suffering is undiscriminating and comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga provides tools to cultivate stability, good health, mental focus, relaxation and compassion. Bent On Learning lives by this simple prescription. The children who take our classes find that it makes them happy, and perhaps a little healthier. In the BOL syllabus book, the first definition we give of yoga is that yoga is a practice of kindness. I can't think of anything more worthwhile to practice in life.

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