As teachers in Krishnamurti Schools, we are concerned with enabling self-discovery and awareness. A mode of inquiry that is dialogical and essentially verbal has been our preferred approach. Having witnessed the kinds of learning that sometimes happens in PE classes, I began to wonder whether students might be more amenable to exploring essential questions in an active, nonverbal way. I began to feel that a non-verbal approach could add a different quality and depth of learning for any type of student.
Studying Our Conditioning through its Physical Expression
As mentioned by Castellari, it is clear that our conditioning manifests itself as much physically as it does psychologically. This observation is echoed in the following extract describing young students who come to participate in a naturebased education programme at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary.
Children walk in to this forest from all corners of the country. Every single one of them, urban or rural, comes as a warm bundle of mixed energies, odd habits and tendencies, the fruit of the specific psychological, social, and physical landscapes that have grown in them. They come often in the shape of creatures who have been confined early. They are strange hybrid organisms. Some are over-bred, without poise, loud and misshapen. Other are subdued, wide-eyed and fearful. Some are brash and careless, trapped into an early insouciance. Some are easier in their bodies but weighed by their traditions. A few, and this is a handful, are swift and responsive to the landscapes without and within.
[From ‘River Talk’ by Suprabha Seshan, Journal of the Krishnamruti Schools, 2004]
Since our conditioning is displayed physically, it is possible to observe and understand it through physical inquiry. Here is one example, from my experience at Brockwood Park School, where the focus of physical activity was inquiry.
Understanding fear in meeting the unknown
As a swimming teacher I had seen how valuable water-based exercise could be as a springboard for inquiry. Students were shy to undress, frightened of entering the water, of submerging their heads, of letting go of the wall. It was easy to observe and discuss uncertainty, anxiety, and the unknown. And the feeling of freedom that came–from overcoming fear and from mastery of movement–was also vividly clear.
One year I decided to structure a whole year of PE classes around the themes of fear, freedom, the known and the unknown. We would engage in a wide range of activities, from football and cycling to yoga and dance, specifically in order to challenge one’s comfort level.
There was a great deal of resistance or fear at first. In the first term, much encouragement and persuasion were required to get the group moving, but in the second term the classes began to move more easily. As the year went on, students became accustomed to facing newness, and grew more familiar with the habitual reactions of fear, of insecurity, the insistence of the self on certain conditions for its comfort. As a bonus, some found that they enjoyed or excelled at activities they had previously derided. By the third term I was able to drop the structure altogether and allow the students–less inhibited, freer in body and mind–to choose their own activities, a choice now based on a desire for exploration rather than for comfort.
The Body and Insight
We would like, in our schools, to understand better how our minds work, and see that this understanding will have an effect on how we live our lives. In a sense, we expect that the mind’s insight will affect our behaviour. I began to wonder whether it might also be true that changes in how we attend to, or use our bodies, affects our thoughts, emotions, sense of self?
Based on David Bohm’s proposal of using the body as a source of more immediate and truthful learning than thought, Lee Nichol writes:
Honest attention to the signals in the body will often give a very different picture of what is happening in our experience than the ego would like to imagine. If someone has said something that has hurt or offended us deeply, we have a lifetime of practice at acting outwardly as if this hurt did not occur. And once this process of obscuration is set in motion, we often go so far as to deny–even to ourselves–that we are hurt. But close sustained attention to the body, alert to signals (like heart rate, jaw clenching, or rigid posture), makes it difficult to maintain the habit of obscuring the actual nature of our experience. One effect of giving attention to the body is thus to bring our conscious awareness more closely in line with what is actually occurring.
[From ‘Wholeness Regained’ by Lee Nichol, The Link, Issue 23]
I have seen that simple changes in how students hold themselves (sitting, standing, walking) have elicited changes in their frame of mind, self-image, interests and capacities. Given below is another example from my experience that illustrates this area of insightful learning.
Calmer, Kinder and Quicker
One day a German boy, new to the school, joined the swimming class. He was big for his age, and very clever in a competitive way. He already knew how to swim, he said, but wanted to improve his stroke so that he would be faster in the pool. For one month I coached him on various aspects of his technique in order to make it more efficient, and taught him the few tricks I knew that competitive swimmers use to improve their speed. He worked aggressively, single-mindedly, and we kept track of his improvements in time. Having proven myself as a legitimate swimming coach, I asked him whether he would be willing to try an experimental approach for several weeks. He agreed, reluctantly.
First I had him start to play in the water, turning circles, swimming like a dolphin, like a frog, playing mermaid, all to discover the enormous range and tenor of motion possible in the water. It was not easy, as the games served no visible purpose in improving his capacities, and made him feel silly. But we persevered, allowing embarrassment and awkwardness their rightful place.
I asked him to observe, in a most scientific way, which muscles were used during the play activities, what the effect of buoyancy was, and how air was drawn in, held, and exhaled. In this spirit of attention and experimentation, I reintroduced the various strokes. The goal was not speed, but rather, to discover the microadjustments, executed in slow concentration, that would allow the body to use the physical properties of the water to reduce its effort to a minimum. We spoke of physics and biology at first, and eventually, more fanciful terms emerged, regarding the flavor of an action, its mood, or emotional quality.
Finally, I ran out of tricks. He asked to go back to ‘normal’ swimming. I took out the stopwatch and asked him to swim a series of lengths at a comfortable pace, as perfectly as he could, watching in each moment the relationship of the body to the water. Instead of thrashing explosively down the pool, he seemed purposeful, effortless, relaxed. The atmosphere in the lane changed: other swimmers, who had previously stayed out of his way, hardly noticed him. And, astonishingly, his times had also improved. Speed seemed to be related to attention as well as to effort. I discovered later that Alexander Technique teachers use this kind of awareness and relaxation approach in sports coaching.
More importantly, the boy was able to experience a way of being – attentive, sensitive – that he had not known, or at least not in adolescence. Over the course of the month in which the experiment took place, his general behaviour and comportment seemed to change; his criticism, arrogance, and aggression began to loosen and soften. He had been able to access something through a PE exercise, but the learning was applicable to many aspects of his life and relationships.
Finally, in summing up the ideas developed above, we could perhaps keep in mind that there are these three possible approaches towards physical education:
- At its most limited, a school program of physical education keeps the body active and fit.
- In a more ideal form, the program would give equal worth to developing the intelligence of the body and the mind.
- At its most radical, the division between learning through body and mind would disappear.