International Day of Yoga isn’t without its controversy — in India

As we get closer to June 21, the first International Day of Yoga, it seems like a chorus of concern is growing in India. I’ve seen bits and pieces here and there, but this two-fer Wall St. Journal combo brings it all into focus, with some familiar themes:

India unveiled ambitious plans to celebrate the world’s first day dedicated to yoga amid growing concerns that the government’s enthusiasm about the ancient discipline signals an attempt to shift the country away from its secular roots.

In one of his first diplomatic moves last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested that the United Nations declare a day for yoga. He got his way and June 21 became the International Day of Yoga.

“This is our heritage,” said  Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at a news conference Tuesday to outline India’s big plans for the day. “This is for the benefit of all mankind; for the betterment of the entire world.”

Many Indians, however, are suspicious of the Modi government’s intentions. Yoga is closely associated with Hinduism. Mr. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has Hindu-nationalist roots.


Since the BJP took power last year, some Muslims, Christians and other minority groups say Hindu-nationalist politicians and leaders have become emboldened to make comments and take actions against non-Hindus.

Just Monday a member of Parliament from Mr. Modi’s party and a Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, said anyone opposed to yoga should leave the country.

“They should drown in the sea. They should spend their lives in darkness, shut in a dark room,” he said in a televised speech. “They should leave India.”

As some states have started requiring yoga lessons in schools since the BJP took over, Muslim leaders have complained that the way yoga is practiced can be against Islamic beliefs.

Here’s a familiar idea for you:

Leaders say the practice of “surya namaskar” or sun salutation–a series of poses–goes against Shariah or Islamic law, which doesn’t allow Muslims to bend before anyone other than Allah, or God.

“We don’t believe in praying to the sun,” said Mohammad Abdul Rahim Quraishi, spokesman for Lucknow-based All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Yet, Mr. Quraishi said that schools in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have made yoga sessions compulsory, and the lessons include “surya namaskar”. He said that the sessions also require chanting of the word “Om” or other Sanksrit verses or shlokas, which he believes are connected to Hindu religion.

“They are trying to impose Hindu religion. On that, we have objection,” Mr. Quraishi said.

It isn’t all just a simple day of yoga.

Posted by Steve


Yoga news: TV show to ‘demystify’ practice, folks worry about yogafication of meditation

A trio of stories to start your week in the know.

First up, the Discovery Channel, tied to the International Day of Yoga, is going to air a program that seeks to demystify yoga and its spread across the world. From the Economic Times:

The hour-long-special programme titled ‘The story of Yoga’ aims to celebrate the first International Day of Yoga and takes viewers through a journey to rediscover the age old practice. The show would be telecast in five languages including Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Bangla and explores the evolution, mysticism, spiritualism and cultural ethos of yoga.

“‘The Story of Yoga’ is one of the most comprehensive narratives that provide an in-depth view on the evolution of yoga from an ancient practice to a lifestyle choice that’s making tremendous impact on people lives around the world,” says Rahul Johri, EVP and GM – South Asia, Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific.

No mention of Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois, but there is mention of Iyengar and Sivananda. Watch for it.

Secondly, still tied to June 21 (International Yoga Day) is news of how it’ll affect the railroads in India:

Indian Railways has issued orders to its over 13 lakh employees across the country to turn up at office at 9 a.m. on the International Yoga Day on June 21 and perform Yoga as all railway offices will remain open on forenoon on the day despite being a Sunday.

In a letter to all 16 zonal heads, PSUs and others, R R Prasad, executive director (Training & Manpower Planning) Railway Board has said that since it would be the first occasion for the celebration, it has been decided that lndian Railways may celebrate June 21, 2014 as the lnternational Yoga in a big way befitting the occasion and to spread awareness.

To observe the day, the railway has ordered that all offices will open on June 21 in the forenoon and officials may be directed to report at 9 a.m. and even there will be prize distribution to best practitioners of yoga.

And finally, folks are worried that as meditation spreads (in part, I suspect, under the whole mindfulness trend), it will lose its religious roots — like yoga has (according to them, at least). From the Washington Post:

Yet in gyms, businesses and public schools in every direction from the museum — which sits on busy Georgia Avenue — meditation is often presented as something akin to mental weight-lifting: a secular practice that keeps your brain and emotions in shape. Gyms list it alongside Zumba classes, and public schools say it can help students chill out before tests by calming the mind and training it to look upon disruptive thoughts from a non-judgmental distance.

This rough juxtaposition between the religious and secular versions of meditation epitomizes a key debate about the ancient practice as it explodes in the United States: What is the purpose of meditation? And who decides?

To Mahraj and her community, called the Brahma Kumaris, promoting the religious component is part of the purpose of the Silver Spring center, which is more about spiritual advocacy than a museum in the classic sense.

It does sound familiar.

Posted by Steve

An International Day of Yoga highlight: World-record sized class

The Ashtanga world seems a little slow today (maybe the full moon hangover) so we’ll point you to another highlight of the upcoming International Day of Yoga, to be held for the first time on June 21. (That’s three Sundays off, for those having trouble keeping track, and Father’s Day.)

From the Economic Times:

[A] 35-minute mass demonstration of 15 yoga asanas by 45,000 school children, government officials, diplomats, army personnel and NCC cadets, led by PM Narendra Modi himself, at Rajpath will possibly lead to a record of sorts.

The event has already been registered as an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, under “largest yoga demonstration/class at single venue” and if government sources are to be believed, every inch preparation to make the event a grand spectacle is directed at that. “The PM is insistent that the event makes an impact internationally,” a government official said. An AYUSH official part of the inter-ministerial group organising the function said they were “trying very hard to get the record set but the rules of the world record are tough.”

Part of the diffuculty? Getting 35,000 or so folks to the spot by 6:30 a.m. Oh, problematic but most beneficial yoga time!

Here’s a loose outline of the class:

The event on June 21 will start at 6.45 a.m. A 35 minute exercise session is said to include fifteen yogic postures. “We have stretching and loosening exercises, a two- minute rig veda invocation in the beginning. The programme will end with a hindi prayer,” an official said. The session that includes basic yogic asanas such as shalabasana, pawanmuktasana, makrasana among others will be followed by breathing exercises Kaapalabhaati and Pranayana for fifteen minutes and meditation for six minutes.

Leaders of this effort are hoping people in 176 countries will participate. Give or take, there are 195 or 196 countries, by the way. (Apparently Taiwan isn’t considered a country by everyone.)

Posted by Steve

Mysore to be ‘crucial part’ of International Day of Yoga

Given its emergence “as the yoga capital of India with specialists in various forms of yoga like Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga etc.”, Mysore will be a focal point of the first International Day of Yoga.

That’s from a news report in the Bangalore Mirror (from which I took the description of Mysore’s being India’s yoga capital):

Ayush and health & family welfare departments are planning to hold yoga marathons, called Yogathons on June 21 in Bengaluru and Mysuru as part of celebrations across the world after the United Nations recently announced that day to be celebrated as International Yoga Day.


“The reason why Mysuru is being shortlisted is that it has a tremendous number of yoga teachers and they have their own network. Over the years Mysuru has emerged as the yoga capital of India with specialists in various forms of yoga like Ashtanga Yoga, Iyengar Yoga etc. They have done better than most Indian cities which is why it has to be a crucial part when we observe the first International Yoga day this year,” he said.

The quote’s from Vijaykumar Gogi, director, department of Ayush, which you’ll recall is the government agency that Prime Minister Narendra Modi created to focus on Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy.

According to the report, an exact venue in Mysore hasn’t been picked yet.

Posted by Steve

To start your month, a detailed look at the Hanuman Chalisa

We haven’t tossed a Hanuman Chalisa at you in a while, so it’s time to break that streak.

This isn’t new, but, as they say, it’s new to me. Judging by what I read, it dates back to 2006. But as with anything Hanuman-related, it’s timeless: A word-by-word breakdown/translation of the Chalisa:

1. Jaya – Hail Hanumana
gyaana – wisdom
guna – virtue
saagara – ocean
jaya -hail
Kapeesha – Lord of the Monkeys
tihun – three
loka – world
ujaagara – enlighten/awaken

1. Victory to Hanuman, ocean of wisdom and virtue,
Hail Monkey Lord, illuminator of the three worlds.

2. Raama
doota – messenger
atulita – incomparible
bala – strength
dhaamaa – abode
Anjani putra – Anjani’s son
Pavana –wind
suta -son (off spring)
naamaa – the name

2. Ram’s emissary, abode of matchless power,
Anjani’s son, named “Son of the Wind.”

Hat tip on this one to Gary Goldberg, via the Facebook.

Posted by Steve

Are these your next yoga pants?

I wasn’t going to pass this on until I noticed two things:

  1. The first store is going to open in Mysore, so I’ll take a leap and guess they have Ashtanga in mind. (Goa and Pune are among the next ones.)
  2. And there was this in the “about” part: “It has taken designs from ancient India and recreated them using cutting edge technology to make them relevant to our modern day yoga practice.”

So, OK, I’ll bite. I’m curious what all the yoga-wear makers have been missing.

And I’ll back up. The company touting this is called IKA Yoga Wear Pvt. Ltd and the product that will marry ancient designs with cutting-edge technology is called Proyog.

It gets better. According to the company, there hasn’t been a real set of clothes designed for yoga yet:

Co-founder and Product Head, Malika Baruah asserts, “Yoga wear across the globe has been largely sportswear in disguise. None of the global brands have paid attention to the specific needs and requirements of yoga. 95% of the market comprises of polyester and nylon products that are antithetical to yoga. Proyog, on the other hand, has stayed true to yoga wherein every product is designed to enhance the practice. It is very unlikely that a yoga practitioner will go back to anything else after having tried Proyog.”

I’m thinking that’ll come as news to a few companies out there.

I will applaud one part of IKA Yoga Wear’s mission: “The company is intent on demonstrating to the world, India’s ability to design and manufacture best-in-class products in the multi-billion dollar yoga wear market.” In other words, it wants to lift up part of India’s economy — and do so within a business sector of which the country ought to have a big piece.

Not surprisingly, the company’s launching on June 21 — International Day of Yoga.

Posted by Steve

The power of 5 in India and elsewhere

Did you ignore Cinco de Mayo? Of course you did, because you had to get up early this morning.

And maybe it feels like yet another mostly made-up holiday that just serves our consumer appetite.

But there is plenty of power in 5, as Tim Miller helpfully notes this week in his blog:

As it turns out, 5 is a pretty special number in many traditions, especially in India, where we find:  The Pancha Tanmatras— The Five Sensory Potentials or Subtle Elements—Shabda (sound), Sparsha (touch), Rupa (sight), Rasa (taste), and Gandha (smell); The Pancha Jnanendriyani—Five Sense Organs–Ear, Skin, Eye, Tongue, and Nose; The Pancha Karmendriyani—Five Motor Organs—Mouth (expression), Hand (grasping), Feet (motion), Urino-genital (emission), and Anus (elimination); The Pancha Mahabhutani—The Five Elements—Earth (stability), Water (fluidity), Fire (illumination), Air (movement), and Ether (communication and self-expression).

He goes on to note some 5s that pertain specifically to yoga. And I’d add one he doesn’t seem to have listed: The five Pandavas from the Mahabharata.

And of course there is Panchamukha Hanuman, who hangs above our front door.

Posted by Steve