Q. Paramhansa Yogananda wrote that education for children and youths should be “all-sided,” that is, focused not only on the development of body and intellect, but also on moral and spiritual values. For many years, Usha, you’ve been involved in spreading Yogananda’s vision of education. How did you first become involved.
A. I was introduced to Yogananda’s vision of education during my first visit to Ananda Village in 1975. The school at Ananda Village had been in existence for about three years, and the teachers were using some of Yogananda’s ideas in their classrooms.
In 1984, I moved to Ananda Village and began teaching fifth and sixth grades. By then I had six years’ experience as a teacher in public schools. Having taught in public schools, I knew something was seriously wrong with the traditional approach to education but I didn’t know how to bring about a change.
Building on Yogananda’s vision
Q. You were living at Ananda Village in 1986 when Swami Kriyananda wrote Education for Life, the book which has become the cornerstone of the movement to spread Yogananda’s vision of education. When were you first exposed to the book?
A. I believe it was May of 1986, shortly after Swami Kriyananda finished the book. He invited a small group of us who were involved in Ananda’s school to spend a day and a half with him discussing the principles in the book. At the book launch the following day, Kriyananda made the astounding prediction that the Education for Life system would be bigger than Ananda. His statement had a tremendous impact on me – I felt as if time stood still!
After the publication of the book, the Ananda school staff met regularly as a study group to discuss the book in depth. As we experimented with applying the Education for Life (EFL) principles in our classrooms, our understanding grew.
Q. Swami Kriyananda writes that Education for Life builds on the groundwork laid by Paramhansa Yogananda at the school he started in India, along with the insights gained from meditating on Yogananda’s ideas and applying them in the Ananda School classrooms.
Does Kriyananda’s statement capture your understanding of the spiritual roots of the EFL system?
A. Yes. You can even think of the system more broadly as translating ancient Vedic principles for today’s classroom. The EFL system is a big step forward in bringing Dwapara Yuga, the new age of energy, into manifestation.
An energy-based framework
Q. How would you describe the importance of the book, Education for Life?
A. I think it is a very important book, and a seminal book. When you read the book the first time, you may not realize its power. A single sentence can have enormous implications. Education for Life gave me an entirely new perspective on how to work with children and, more broadly, on the overall goals of childhood education.
Q. Can you describe that new perspective?
A. One of Education for Life’s unique contributions to childhood education is the concept of working with students in terms of the level and quality of their energy – or what Kriyananda calls their “specific gravity.” By “specific gravity” he means whether a child’s energy is usually “light” or “heavy.” A child with “light’ energy is basically positive, expansive, and aware of others’ realities. A child with “heavy” energy is usually more negative, contractive, and self-centered.
I know of no other educational philosophy that gives an energy-based framework for understanding how to work with children. Frankly, I doubt that people could have understood specific gravity without the new energy-consciousness of this new age.
Specific gravity is a wonderful tool. It helps a teacher know how to guide each child to move forward in positive ways. It also helps children become more aware of how the level and quality of their energy influences their attitudes and behavior.
Q. Can you give an example of how a teacher might use specific gravity principles to help a child move forward in a more positive way?
A. Yes. If a child has low energy and is unwilling to participate in a school activity, a teacher unfamiliar with specific gravity might try to reason with the child. An EFL teacher, however, knows that the solution to heaviness is action, and will think of a way to get the child moving — perhaps with a brief game, an errand, or helping out in the classroom. Usually the child’s exertion of energy will carry over into a willingness to participate in the classroom activity.
Tools for a well-rounded human being
Q. You mentioned that Education for Life also changed your views on the overall goals of childhood education. Can you elaborate on that?
A. Yes. When I arrived at Ananda Village in 1984 I still thought the purpose of education was mainly to train the intellect. Education for Life’s concept of “tools of maturity” expanded my understanding.
Kriyananda explains that every human being relies on four basic “tools” in order to function effectively in this world: body, feeling, will, and intellect. A well-rounded human being is someone who has developed all four of these tools. An EFL teacher provides opportunities for the development of all four tools, not just the intellect.
Q. Children are obviously born with different inclinations and educational needs. Some are more physical; others are more mental or emotional. How do you address these differences when using the tools of maturity?
A. Every classroom presents this challenge. One of the principal ways we address the differences is to make sure that we have activities during the day that appeal to each of the four tools. Another way is to use a single lesson in ways that draw upon all four tools: body, feeling, will, and intellect.
For example, a second-grade math lesson would obviously engage the intellectual tool of maturity. If the teacher asks children to draw pictures of baby ducks to illustrate a math problem, that activity would interest children with a strong feeling tool. If the teacher challenges the children to see how many math problems they can finish in five minutes, the will tool is engaged. And if she asks for everyone to stand up and do as many jumping jacks as there are letters in their first name multiplied by two, the children with a strong body tool are happy!
Q. Does modern public education address these obvious differences among children?
A. Unfortunately, no. There is still mainly what I call a “cookie-cutter” approach – the thought that everyone needs to have the exact same skills and body of knowledge, and to pass the exact same standardized tests. This approach tends to highlight students’ weaknesses and often destroys curiosity.
Q. Education for Life has been described as “a non-sectarian system based on universal spiritual principles.” Can you explain what that means?
A. Our goal is not to train children for any particular spiritual path. Our goal is to help them recognize the values that are universal to human happiness – harmony with others, truthfulness, generosity, willingness – and to understand that they will be happier if they strive to live by these high ideals. We help children to recognize for themselves which actions make them feel happy and expansive (compassion and generosity) and which actions make them feel unhappy and diminished (selfishness and restlessness). Learning is based on students’ experience, rather than on abstract theory.
Students gain essential life skills
Q. Ideally, spiritual education should prepare children for the challenges they will face after they leave school. Can you sum up how EFL prepares children for dealing with the ups and downs, the successes and disappointments that are integral to life?
A. If I had to sum it up, I’d say it is by creating situations and tasks that give them opportunities to practice the life skills they need, and by helping them to reflect on, and learn from, their own experience. Two of the essential life skills are 1) being aware of the level and quality of their energy and 2) understanding how to increase, calm, or focus their energy.
Through classroom activities, students learn to recognize when their own energy gets low and how to raise it. Through service projects, they experience how giving to others brings not only higher energy but also happiness and fulfillment. And through music, guided meditations, and harmonious classroom environments they experience calmness and joy, and begin to understand the value of being quiet and inwardly centered.
Q. Have EFL graduates shown they can be successful in the world?
A. Yes, and in all areas: corporate business; entrepreneurship; the legal profession; the healing professions; education; computer technology; graphic design; and the arts (music, dance, theater.) There are graduates with PhDs in various fields, and graduates who are dedicating themselves to spiritual pursuits.
Q. How would you sum up the impact of Education for Life on your life?
A. It has given me an avenue for service that fully engages my heart, mind and soul. Having to tune into the energy flows in students has helped me understand how the ebb and flow of my own energy determines whether I live blindly and blame others when things go wrong, or try instead to view all life experiences as life lessons.
Using the tools of maturity has helped me realize more deeply that we all come into life with widely varying talents, orientations, and strengths. This understanding has helped me tune into my heart more, and I have more compassion for everyone, including myself. And I have so much more to learn.
A non-sectarian community of interest
Q. How soon after the publication of Education for Life did the Ananda school staff become involved in EFL outreach activities?
A. Almost immediately. The school staff continued the tradition, started by Nitai Deranja, the founding principal, of holding summer seminars for teachers. In 1987, we held the first summer seminar that focused on the EFL principles.
Q. At a certain point you moved to Portland, Oregon, where you became part of the Ananda Portland Church and founded an EFL school associated with the Ananda community. Is that correct?
A. Yes, I moved to Portland in 1996 to serve as a minister at the Ananda Church. Within two months, a couple of parents asked me to start a school. Along with Karen Busch, a teacher who had attended the Ananda Village EFL summer training program, we started our first EFL school in 1997.
Q. Is it correct that at a certain time you began to combine serving as director and teacher at the Portland school with EFL outreach activities?
A. Yes, that’s correct.
Q. How did this broadening of focus come about?
A. To advertise the Portland school and attract students from outside Ananda, I began writing articles in the local New Age magazine. Some of the articles were published in Tikkun, a national magazine started by Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of Spirit Matters and other books. One thing just led to another. A literary agent who read one of my articles contacted me and asked if she could represent me when I wrote a book. Soon after, I wrote, Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook, which was published in 2007.
Being the author of a book opened the door to many more outreach opportunities, which eventually resulted in introducing EFL principles to a large number of Christian organizations.
Q. How did you learn of these organizations?
A. I spoke as part of a panel in the 2008 “Seeds of Compassion” event in Seattle, Washington which featured the Dalai Lama. One of my co-panelists was a Presbyterian minister who arranged for me to meet the President of the Center for Progressive Christianity, a national network of more than 300 affiliated Christian congregations, groups and individuals.
The Center was looking for someone to help them develop a Sunday school curriculum for their organization. The lessons they wanted – on values such as kindness, inner peace, and positive attitudes – were right up our alley. So they hired me and another Ananda teacher, Lorna Knox, author of I Came from Joy, to create the curriculum. The curriculum is featured on their website under the name, “The Inner Wisdom Series.”
Responding to the growing demand
Q. I understand that training in EFL principles is increasingly in demand. How are you responding to this growing interest?
At the Ananda College of Living Wisdom (now based at Laurelwood, near Portland), we offer a college-level EFL teacher training program for undergraduates, and a one-year certificate program for teachers who want to learn the EFL system. This program includes internships at our Ananda EFL schools (known as “Living Wisdom Schools”). Nitai Deranja and I recently revamped and expanded the college curriculum.
A. We also offer online training, with live interactive classes. The training classes include links to videos of EFL training courses that were filmed at the Portland EFL school. The online course enables us to reach many more people, including those living in distant locations like Alaska or in other countries. The interest in EFL is especially high in Italy, Slovenia, and India.
Q. Are you planning any other future outreach?
A. Nitai is developing two support networks: Families for a New Tomorrow and Educators for Higher Consciousness. He and I will continue to speak at conferences, offer classes on EFL wherever there is interest, and develop curriculum packets for teachers. Nitai has scheduled a world tour from winter 2012 through early spring 2013.
Q. From your description, EFL seems already to have become an international movement?
A. Yes it has. There are six EFL schools in this country, new schools in Italy, India, and Slovenia, and many teachers with EFL training who have introduced aspects of EFL at their respective schools, both public and private.
The Education for Life system appeals to the increasing number of people who are seeking alternatives to traditional education. Nowadays, wherever I give a talk about Education for Life, people are very interested, and that interest is growing.