Last Sunday, June 21, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi joined a record-setting number of people around the world to celebrate the first International Day of Yoga. After Modi proposed the celebration to the United Nations General Assembly last year, 170 countries signed on as co-sponsors, hosting public yoga lessons from New York’s Times Square to Seoul.
Hindu nationalist parties’ recent efforts to spread yoga within India, however, and Modi’s ties to such parties, have caused alarm among India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims, who fear that the country is losing its secularism. Long associated with Hinduism, yoga is considered a cornerstone of India’s “‘glorious past,’” according to an RSS party representative quoted in Reuters—a party working to mandate yoga instruction in schools.
Modi has been careful to promote the holiday without referencing religion, toting its health and even environmental benefits, and official government protocol for the day vaguely calls yoga a “spiritual discipline.” He has assured participants that they will not be asked to use the word “Om,” a sacred sound in Hinduism.
Yet International Day of Yoga has been designed with nationalism in mind: according to Reuters writers Rupam Jain Nair and Andrew Macaskill, Modi is trying to “seize on yoga as India’s signature cultural export” in an era when it has spread throughout the world, and evolved into dozens of schools and styles.
However, multiple authors have pointed out that yoga is not necessarily Hindu, nor Indian. Its origins are complex, and its forms today diverse; the postural yoga popularized in the West, for instance, is a creation of the early 20th century, when it began to spread beyond the Brahmin community. As Quartz writer Andrea Jain sums up:
High-profile attempts to define yoga in terms of some national or religious identity are becoming increasingly common despite the lived and historical reality that yoga has never been a static and unified system.
Worth the Read
Joseph, Manu. “Making Yoga an Exercise in Democracy.” The New York Times. June 10, 2015.
Najar, Nida. “International Yoga Day Finally Arrives in India, Amid Cheers and Skepticism.” The New York Times. June 21, 2015.
Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. “Honoring the Roots, Celebrating The Blossoms on International Day of Yoga.” The Huffington Post. June 20, 2015.
Suri, Manil. “India and the Politics of Yoga.” The New York Times. June 19, 2015.
"2nd Annual Yoga with Lululemon Athletica," User: daveynin, 2010, Flickr Creative Commons.