The Awareness Through the Body school in India helps their kids explore their spiritual core in order to improve concentration and to help them see themselves as part of the community as a whole.
Carol Greenhouse | December 2008 issue
“Balance is always a matter of imbalance,” Joan (pronounced Joo-AN) Sala tells his sixth-grade students as they teeter atop round wooden platforms on curved pieces of rubber in an unfurnished classroom in southern India. Sala is co-founder of Awareness Through the Body (ATB), a program initiated in 1992 at a school in Auroville, India. Gradually gaining a foothold in Europe and the U.S., ATB helps kids become more present in their bodies, explore their spiritual core and manifest higher consciousness. Those are uncommon objectives in an education climate shaped by test scores, college prep and job-market-driven curricula. Still, says Sala, everyone’s goal is to help young people live fuller lives. The difference is he and co-founder Aloka Marti feel the way to do it isn’t via the brain, but the body.
“We live in a world full of stress and anxiety; we have difficulty staying focused, managing our emotions, and sometimes handling our responsibilities,” write Marti and Sala in their 2006 book Awareness Through the Body. “Many of these difficulties are related to the way we have grown up, our experiences in the world and our lack of real understanding of our own nature and our purpose in life.”
To change that, the pair spent 17 years developing dozens of exercises to integrate mental, physical, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Some 250 students between 5 and 18 from 20 countries spend an hour or two a week performing the regimens, which include balancing aluminum plates on wooden dowels, making their way blindfolded on obstacle courses, and playing a cooperative game that involves swinging on ropes to deliver a full glass of water to team members. Each activity is designed to develop what Marti and Sala see as the five aspects of our being—the physical body, energy body, life force (including feelings and ambition), mind, and soul, improve concentration and foster “the witness attitude,” the capacity to observe ourselves objectively within and without. Based on the ideas of 20th-century Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, the approach is beginning to spread to schools and homes in the Netherlands, France, Spain and the U.S.
This isn’t phys. ed. as we know it. Yet students, parents and educators alike think Sala and Marti are onto something. In the words of Nicola Mukta Martens, 22, a sophomore in international relations at the University of Sussex in England and a student in the program since kindergarten, “ATB has been one of the major influencing factors of my being. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like today without it.” The bigger question: What might others’ lives be like if it were added in schools worldwide? Karin van der Plas, the organizer behind the move to bring ATB to the Netherlands, says, “Think of the future a program like this invites: less violence, more cooperation and intimacy between people and communities.” Adds Marti: “If you start becoming aware at 10 instead of 40, there are many more possibilities to live a harmonious life.”