Millions twist and bend on International Day of Yoga

I think this will be our last post on IDY. First, your basic roundup. Up first, NPR’s coverage:

You don’t expect to see world leaders getting down on all fours to perform yoga in public, let alone in a mass yoga class that draws observers from Guinness World Records.

But India’s Narendra Modi did just that when he launched International Yoga Day on Rajpath, the central Delhi mall that represents the nerve center of power in India.

“Who would have thought that we would turn Rajpath into Yog-path [Yoga Road],” Modi asked the assembled yoga enthusiasts.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma was among the participants who stretched out in a carpet of yoga mats numbering anywhere from 35,000 to 37,000.

The photos with that are worth checking out.

The AP (via USA Today) went with this:

Tens of thousands of schoolchildren, bureaucrats, homemakers, soldiers and ordinary folk took part in the exercise, which was repeated in all Indian state capitals. In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, public yoga events were organized at nearly 30,000 places, state officials said.

“We are not only celebrating a day, but we are training the human mind to begin a new era of peace and harmony,” Modi told participants. “This is a program for the benefit of mankind, for a tension-free world and to spread the message of harmony.”

The New York Times covered it this way:

NEW DELHI — It was a rare sight — after a brief speech to inaugurate International Yoga Day on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi descended from a huge stage in front of the presidential palace and took off his glasses and his shoes. He quietly took his place before a sea of schoolchildren and others, mats neatly arranged in a checkerboard as far as the eye could see, to begin what was billed as the largest yoga demonstration in a single venue in history.

Reporters pounced, and a camera lens shattered on the ground. Muscular men wearing International Yoga Day T-shirts held back the crowd. Some volunteers formed a chain around onlookers.

To this, Mr. Modi appeared impervious, lost deep in his practice. After bending and twisting through most of a 35-minute session in unison with an army of more than 35,000 participants, many in identical white T-shirts, he delved into the crowd of children, who touched his feet reverently. When he beckoned, and not a moment before, they rushed to him, touching the scarf he had used to wipe his brow.

Speaking of the Times, it also had this Op-Ed over the weekend:

Since then, interpretations of yoga have multiplied. A number of practitioners, both in India and abroad, view it purely as a set of exercises. At the other end of the spectrum are Shiva devotees aiming for moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life and death, through intense meditation and asceticism. Somewhere in the middle lie New Age variations, the ones with incense and mantras and piped-in incantations of the sacred Hindu word “om,” swirling around yoga studios like stereophonic movie-theater-sound logos.

What’s striking about Mr. Modi’s grand project, given his formative years in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization, is the presentation of yoga as a secular activity. His government takes great pains to point out that 47 Muslim nations supported his United Nations resolution. In his United Nations address, he characterized yoga as “an invaluable gift of ancient Indian tradition,” rather than Hindu tradition.

Mr. Modi’s careful scripting shows him to be a consummate businessman. By presenting yoga as one of the monumental achievements of Indian thought, he is increasing the country’s visibility, promoting its brand on the world market. He will not allow the distraction of religion to interfere with the return on his investment.

You can guess where that line of argument goes.

Posted by Steve

What are you doing for International Day of Yoga?

It’s here, finally: International Day of Yoga. The build up has been pretty build-uppy.

And so the question is an easy one to ask: What are you planning to do?

Most likely, we’ll be doing a Mala today — 108 asanas of some sort, likely to be negotiated Saturday night. Maybe the uber traditional 108 Sun Salutes. Maybe a Tim Miller-inspired mix: 27 As, 27 Bs, 27 headstands, 27 backbends. (I’ll be fighting that one, or pushing for savasana to replace the backbends.)

What have you got in mind?

(Saturday, for those keeping track, happened to be International Surfing Day. So, yes, I surfed, although there wasn’t much swell here in Southern California. But it has made for a very internationally flavored weekend.)

Posted by Steve

Before International Day of Yoga there were yoga stamps

If you haven’t gotten the various messages, let’s repeat them:

  • Sunday is the first International Day of Yoga, pushed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • Lots of people are seeing it as a way for India to tighten its claim on yoga
  • Lots of other people are seeing it as an effort to turn India into more of a Hindu country and not a secular democracy
  • It’s also just a nice excuse for lots of media to do stories on yoga

To that last point, here’s a nice quirky addition. Turns out, this yoga day isn’t the first time the Indian government tried to emphasize yoga. The last time — and this will date the effort — involved postage stamps:

The set of four multi-coloured stamps in the denominations of Rs 2, 5, 6.5 and 10 were issued on December 30, 1991, depicting yoga postures – Bhujangasana, Dhanurasana, Ushtrasana and Utthita Trikonasana – respectively.

“That was a time when yoga was not popular among the masses and Swami Ramdev had not emerged on the horizon. The India Security Press at Nasik printed 10 lakh pieces each of these four stamps showing perfect postures. They were meant to take yoga to people through letters and there was no brouhaha over it anywhere in the country,” said N K Agrawal, philately expert and life member of Philatelic Congress of India.

Talking to PTI, Agrawal rues that the stamps now stand forgotten and are now known just to a few stamp collectors and dealers.

“The stamps were circulated and then disappeared. Yoga was not replicated on stamps in India after that. This particular set of four stamps now fetch around Rs 500 in the market,” Agrawal said.

Click the link to see a photo of all four stamps. The yogis don’t look too ancient.

Posted by Steve

Let’s round up International Yoga Day news, shall we?

Heading into Sunday’s first International Yoga Day, there’s more and more news focused on this Narendra Modi-inspired event. A quick roundup (and, yes, pure Ashtanga news seems a little quiet; I’m nudging Bobbie to write about something, though) is below.

Here’s NPR covering the religious issues that have come up in India: “What does yoga have to do with religion? It’s one of the debates kicked up as India’s prime minister prepares to kick off International Yoga Day next Sunday.”

The BBC has a big picture package.

The Daily Mail dives into some details of the religious issues that NPR covered:

Known for his venomous statements, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Praveen Togadia has said that use of the word Allah during yoga would not be acceptable to Hindus.

However, Togadia’s statement has come when no prominent Muslim organisation or leader has propagated  the theory of using the word Allah while performing yoga. using the word Allah while performing yoga.

And, finally, the New York Times:

Of the major initiatives that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced since taking office, few have generated as much static as Yoga Day, which will feature a vast, 35-minute public demonstration of poses by more than 35,000 government employees, students and other citizens. Though the Western world regards yoga primarily as physical exercise, Indians are more apt to see its postures and Sanskrit chants as freighted with ideological or religious meaning.

Preparations for the event set off a chorus of criticism, mostly from a handful of Muslim activist groups that say they should not be compelled to chant “Om,” a sound sacred in Hinduism, or perform the sun salutation, which they say violates the monotheistic nature of Islam. Mr. Modi’s officials have hurried to address those complaints, assuring the public that participation in Yoga Day is optional and that it focuses exclusively on health, not religion. “Om” is not part of the Yoga Day protocol, nor is the sun salutation. This decision so incensed one right-wing member of Parliament that he suggested that those displeased by the sun salutation“drown in the sea.”

Behind the headlines, there is little doubt that the yoga campaign amounts to a cultural challenge, in a capital city powerfully shaped by its British and Mughal past. New Delhi’s elites are mostly Anglophiles, fond of their whisky and butter chicken; its clerks spend their days in dim warrens of paper files, tensed against the next supervisory tongue-lashing. Many rank-and-file civil servants have bellies like first-floor balconies.

Can’t expect Anglophiles to scrunch their way into down dog, I suppose.

Posted by Steve

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