Improved discipline, grades as SWAHA pupils Meditate (Trinidad Express)

Wayne Bowman, Trinidad Express: School employs non-religious meditation and yoga to assist students in controlling their tempers and dealing with stressful situations.

Driving recklessly, the man behind the wheel of the pick-up seemed he could care less about the lives of the school children making their way home on Friday along the narrow Coalmine Road in Sangre Grande.

In fact, his reckless behaviour forced at least six of the students to jump into the ditch running along the road, which has no pavement.

Now, one would have expected this driver to fall under the wrath of the children and to be on the receiving end of insults and obscenities. Heck, that’s how many kids and most adults would react.

That was not the case here though. The six children simply climbed back onto the road, checked each other to ensure that no one was hurt, and continued their trek to Sangre Grande.

This was when I realised that there must be some validity to the story I was in pursuit of: I was making my way to the SWAHA (Society Working for the Advancement of Human Aspirations) High School to speak to the principal about how the school helps its students deal with anger management and other issues.

The school employs non-religious meditation and yoga to assist the students in controlling their tempers and dealing with stressful situations.

Since starting in January 2003, students, parents and teachers alike have seen marked improvement in behaviour, interaction and grades among the students.

The school’s principal, Pundit Balram Persad, said before they started to teach meditation and yoga there were problems with discipline at the school.

“We had some problems, nothing extreme like heavy violence with knives and such, but a lot of pushing and shoving, name-calling, expressions of anger, restlessness and the use of obscene language,” Persad said.

Persad further explained that there were many valid reasons for the students to be stressed and, at times,
angry. The principal said he and his teachers began to take a deeper look into the daily experiences of the students in an effort to get to the root of the problem.

Commenting on efforts to deal with school violence and indiscipline by introducing more guards, a police presence and conducting searches, Persad said: “These are all good, but are really only band-aids. What happens when the adhesive power of a band-aid wears off? It falls away. We realised that we needed to get to the root of the problems and dig away at these, treat with these and then we could begin to build by laying down the foundation of proper values within the children.”

Among the stress factors identified were dysfunctional families, daily problems with transportation to and from school and limited extra-curricular activities.

For the non-Hindu students there were additional factors such as the adjustments they were required to make because they were attending a school housed in a temple, Persad explained. One of the major adjustments was that they had to have their meals in the courtyard and not in the school once they contained meat.

Persad decided that it would be best to find a way to assist the students in learning to cope with the challenges, while working on dealing with the various issues.

He explained that meditation and yoga exercises were chosen because they helped the body combat stress in a positive way by oxygenating the tissues better and removing carbon dioxide, thus making the body stronger. It also rejuvenated the brain and spinal centres, thus sharpening the thinking centres, he added.

Meditation also relaxes the lungs and heart rate. The breathing exercises of yoga help to calm the nervous system, relaxing the body and mind. It also helps to improve blood circulation.

“The practice of meditation and yoga is a powerful tool in the management of stress. We teach non-religious out of respect for the non-Hindu students. We get the children to focus on values and affirmation. They chant statements such as ‘I am a peaceful being. I am a loving being’. They learn deep breathing and how to control their breathing,” Persad said.

Persad also uses pop culture to underscore the effectiveness of meditation to his students. He shows them films and interviews of Hollywood, Bollywood and other actors and artistes who practise meditation and yoga. Instructors from the Raja Yoga Centre come in and teach the students.

Since the 2003 start of the programme, Persad said there has been a marked improvement: students are no longer having conflicts amongst themselves and their grades have improved tremendously.

The meditation, however, was not all that was done to ease the stress being experienced by the children. Persad and his teachers also put several things in place to make life easier for the children.

PTSC now provides transportation for the students, some of whom come from as far as Mayaro, Navet, Biche, Manzanilla and Arima.

Along with the Hindu religious observances and celebrations, the school also encourages the non-Hindu students to express their own religious identities. There are functions to observe: Eid, Christmas, Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day and other religiously significant events.

Persad has also established a Culture Day on which students of all races and religions are encouraged to share aspects of their culture with the other students through displays and performances.

There are also now several extra-curricular activities for students, including a debate club, drama group, dance troupe, tassa group, choir, boys’ cricket and girls’ cricket teams.

In fact, a student of the school, Mark Moffet, was last week selected for the National Under-15 cricket team.

In an effort to get parents more involved in the school life of their children, Persad introduced a system under which students get extra credit whenever their parents attend PTA meetings and other school activities.

“The students make sure that their parents attend everything because of the extra marks they get. What this really achieves though is [to] build a stronger relationship between parent and child and get the parents actively involved in the children’s education. There is also a Sound-Off session in which the students are allowed to air their frustrations and speak out about whatever they have problems with at school. This gives them the assurance that they have a say in how the school they attend is being run,” Persad said.

The SWAHA High School opened its doors on August 29, 2001 with an intake of 105 students. It is a denominational, government-assisted school.

Currently, there are 315 students between Forms One to Three. The school will have its first Form Four batch this coming September. Although run by the Hindu organisation, the Society Working for the Advancement of Human Aspirations (SWAHA), the school is open to students of all religions.

The school is currently housed at the Tulsi Manas Hindu Centre, but a new building is at present being constructed a few metres away and should be ready to house the students come September 2004.

Speaking to the students, one gets the sense that they are, for the most part, well-adjusted and well looked after by their teachers. They are respectful and quite articulate when asked questions about their school and the meditation classes.

Persad said there were still many challenges being faced by the school and its students. Among them are the dangers they face daily on the Coalmine Road. As noted earlier, the road is narrow and without a pavement. Persad has made several requests to the authorities for the road to be widened and for a pavement to be constructed. These have proved futile to this point. There is land on either side to allow for the widening.

For now, however, the students of SWAHA High School have to make the risky trek along the road, diving into ditches whenever an uncaring, reckless driver whizzes by. This gives them a daily opportunity to put to test the meditation and yoga exercises that they are being taught to help them cope better with the challenges of life.

What some students say:

Roxanne Skeete, 15: “Before the meditation classes, I was very aggressive and got vex easily. Now I am more calm, relaxed and can control my temper. It has also helped me in my studies. I used to drop asleep over my books while doing homework, but now I just take a few deep breaths and I’m awake and able to do my work.”

Rasheeda Ali, 13: “Meditation works for me. My grades used to be down, but now I’m doing better. I do it at nights when I’m studying.”

Avinish Pattoo, 13: “When I get vex, I breathe deeply and I calm down. I also used to have a pain in my foot sometimes and now I don’t get it anymore.”

Jagdees Gosine, 12: “I am more flexible and I’ve realised how great my inner self is. It helps my lungs exercise and wears pain away.”

[Original article no longer available]
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