Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Joan Sala and Aloka Marti have been engaged in over the past 14 years with Auroville children

There are very few activities in Auroville which can be termed ‘cutting-edge'. One of them is the work which Joan Sala and Aloka Marti have been engaged in over the past 14 years with Auroville children. Originally termed ‘Body Awareness', they later changed the name to ‘Awareness through the Body' to better express the intention of their work. Now they are bringing out a book – Awareness through the Body: a way to enhance concentration, relaxation and self-knowledge for children and adults - to share what they have learned.
In 1992 Joan and Aloka, who have backgrounds in physical therapy and body work, were requested by teachers at Transition School to give classes to improve the posture of the children. In the book they describe how “after a few classes we realized that, along with work on posture, there were a number of other things that the children needed to know and experience. They needed to acquire more self-awareness, responsibility for themselves and their actions, and an understanding of their limits and capacities.”
Joan and Aloka already knew techniques that, in its own particular way, encouraged a journey of self-discovery, self-mastery, and the ability to experience reality in a more complete way. Now they set about adapting them to the needs and capabilities of the children. Their goal? “To provide tools for individuals to expand consciousness, explore different planes of the being, discover their inner selves and eventually their psychic being.” And the method they chose was “to discover and explore the body and through the body awaken the consciousness of the entire being and all the parts that form it.”
It sounds awfully ambitious, particularly when one realizes they had agreed not only to teach Transition School students but also Kindergarten children, some of whom were as young as four years. Moreover many of the children, they were soon to discover, needed sense of boundaries and responsibility. “When we began,” write Joan and Aloka, “we found we were navigating high seas in a wholly inadequate boat....Before class we often had to gather the children from the tree-tops”.
Over the years, however, Aloka and Joan evolved a programme which has proven to be not only very popular with the students, but highly effective in attaining certain objectives. These include enhancing concentration and focus, developing awareness of the different levels of consciousness, refining the senses, learning how to explore, understand and manage emotions, developing a sense of how to collaborate with others, and cultivating the ‘witness attitude'.
All of this, and more, is achieved through deceptively simple exercises which, under Joan and Aloka's sensitive guidance, draw out the children's latent knowledge and abilities.
Take the ‘witness consciousness', for example, which Joan and Aloka describe as a place from which one observes, without partiality or emotion, all that happens both within and outside the being. How, you might wonder, could Joan and Aloka develop such an advanced ability in children? The answer is, it takes time. With the youngest they simply ask, “How's life today? How are you feeling?” As they get older, Joan and Aloka ask them to ‘scan' their breath, their mood and thoughts. Then, when they judge the children are ready, they ask the children to identify that part in themselves which is able to observe all this without becoming involved. “This positioning of oneself,” they explain, “is what we call the witness .”
“The witness attitude,” write Joan and Aloka, “is at the foundation of all the principles we use.” To put it another way, the exercises they use are opportunities, more than exercises, for the students to expand their awareness and understand themselves better.
Other simple exercises are used to improve concentration and relaxation, to heighten sensory awareness, to use the mind as a sixth sense, and to make the student aware of his subtle physical body. Two major series of exercises explore the influence of the five elements and of evolution on the individual's body, mind and emotions.
Joan and Aloka stress that theirs is not a rigid programme. They are constantly modifying and adjusting it according to the needs of the children. It's a dialogue: sometimes Joan and Aloka lead, sometimes they step back and let the children innovate. But the aim is always to expand awareness and to provide the children with the means to make the most conscious and effective use of their enhanced capabilities.
This is a fine book, not only because of the practical wisdom it contains but also because of the values it embodies. Heidi Watts lists some of these in her introduction. “An equal and integrated address to all aspects of the person. The omnipresent thread of reflection which runs through all the activities....An unspoken and implicit trust in the students to find their own way with the right balance of challenge and support....The integrity of the work which remains true to its principles in every manifestation.”
Perhaps the best compliment, however, comes from one of their students who wrote “It is good how you two are ready for us at any moment.”
It's also good to know that the future of Auroville will rest, partially at least, in the hands of those who have received such a profound and important training. Alan
Awareness through the Body: A way to enhance concentration, relaxation and self-knowledge in children and adults by Aloka Marti and Joan Sala. 304 pps, 264 colour photos. Published by SAIIER More info: atb@auroville.org.in

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