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Yoga should be mandatory in school

Countries across the world have discovered the benefits of yoga for children. Let's not be the last to sign up

Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times.
Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times.

This will probably irritate you, I’m quivering as I write it. I can picture myself on stage, making eye contact with stern, unblinking you, knowing I’m on the less popular side of the “yoga should be compulsory in schools" debate because, of course, you believe in the freedom to choose.

But our educational institutions have never been known for offering choices right from the limited third language options to the Shakespeare play in the syllabus. You can’t tell the teacher that you would rather learn Hamlet over Twelfth Night and most of us grew up thinking rote learning was education.

As ideas go, insisting that children learn yoga in schools works perfectly alongside Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s other initiative to encourage girls to play sport, which he says builds, err, SPORTS (skill, perseverance, optimism, resilience, tenacity, stamina). Aside: The title of this column is a favourite essay topic for aspiring management students these days, along with “mankind should end war before war ends mankind" and “leaders are born, not made".

How the government will find yoga teachers when we are already short of one million primary and secondary school teachers is a question beyond the scope of this column. It’s like asking me how the state will teach Indian men to give up the great outdoors for the subsidized toilet installed in their homes as part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

It took me a lifetime of attempts and many injuries to find a teacher who could help me fall in love with yoga. Now I believe everyone should do yoga, especially geeks and couch potatoes. You don’t have to worry about taller, stronger, fitter people being better than you—yoga is the ultimate equalizer.

I’m happy the All India Council for Technical Education has said yoga will now be one of five compulsory extracurricular activity options for students from engineering and technical colleges if they want their degree. Until recently, extracurricular activity was optional. Oh stop moaning! You only require 25% attendance.

If I’m evangelizing it’s because yoga got rid of my beer belly (almost), strengthened my core and back muscles, improved my immunity and upped my lung power significantly. When I went on a high-altitude trip last year, I didn’t have to pop a headache pill or carry a barf bag like some of my younger travel companions. One recent British study quoted in the Time magazine found that mind-body activities such as yoga can “reverse stress-related changes in genes linked to poor health and depression". That almost sounded like Baba Ramdev, who has an ambitious plan to popularize yoga across the world.

It’s now easy for me to identify people who Suryanamaskar their way to health and I am confident that many of the ministers who strike poses for the camera are not regular yoga practitioners. From the government’s perspective, compulsory yoga is an idea that has more chance of making it to prime time television than boring education reforms such as training teachers or encouraging more innovative methods of teaching.

Let’s do it, I say. As long as yoga lessons don’t go hand-in-hand with lectures about India’s bovine bounty or fraudulent medical knowledge that convinces you from an early age that yoga can fix everything from your mother’s overactive thyroid to your father’s arrhythmia, I’ll be a cheerleader for the cause.

If we work together, it’s possible to reclaim yoga from its khaki shorts practitioners. As Nata Menabde, the World Health Organization’s executive director at the UN, said recently: “Yoga is for people of all religions, races and nationalities because yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a lifestyle."

Now that I’ve taken politics and Patanjali off the mat, you’ll surely agree that our children need yoga for their physical and mental well-being? At 14.4 million and growing, India now has the highest number of obese children in the world after China, according to a paper published in The New England Journal Of Medicine. Our schools no longer have playgrounds; and our neighbourhood parks specialize in saying no (no playing ball, no cycling, no stepping on the grass). Most Bengaluru parks shut their gates from 10am-4pm—even on weekends. How often have you seen children trying to dodge traffic while learning to cycle on busy roads?

In these circumstances, learning an activity that works every muscle in your body and activates endorphins while utilizing only a modest square of floor space is nothing short of miraculous.

Countries across the world have discovered the benefits of yoga for children. Let’s not be the last to sign up.

Yoga can help children navigate New India where exam stress routinely leads to suicide and school bags exist only to weigh you down. Last year a study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham) found that 68% of schoolchildren under the age of 13 suffer from mild back pain, which could later develop into chronic pain.

“Early slip disc, spondylitis, spondylolisthesis, persistent back aches, early degeneration of spine and postural scoliosis are some of the problems that these children face," B.K. Rao, the chairman of Assocham’s health committee, told The Indian Express in September.

And if your attention-deficit child finds your yoga session “boring" because your routine doesn’t come with an accompanying playlist or fast-moving images on a screen, I’m sure you’ll think of something. I’ve almost convinced Babyjaan that yoga is the fastest route to becoming a star gymnast.

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