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International Yoga Day: a celebration of national or religious heritage?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga on International Yoga Day in Ranchi, India, 21 June 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga on International Yoga Day in Ranchi, India, 21 June 2019. REUTERS/Rajesh Kumar

Millions in India have participated in the fifth international Yoga Day – vaunted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as way to promote the ancient practice as the country’s signature cultural export. But critics say the Hindu nationalist PM is blurring the line between religious and national heritage.


Prime Minister Modi led the way for the International Day of Yoga on Friday 21 June, performing sun salutation exercises and other flexible feats in a mass session with an estimated 30,000 other devotees of the discipline.

It was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2014 and first took place in 2015 as an international event.

"We should make efforts to take yoga from cities to villages and tribal areas. Yoga is above religion, caste, colour, gender and region, it is above everything," he told a gathering in the eastern city of Ranchi.

The theme of this edition of yoga day is climate action. Modi says yoga can "foster oneness...with all the flora and fauna, with whom we share our beautiful planet".

Scenes of mass yoga exercises in open grounds, parks and halls were mirrored in various parts of the country, even in the icy slopes of the Himalayas where Indian army personnel put out their mats to perform various exercises.

Bal Mukund Singh, a yoga instructor for over 30 years led yoga events in the capital, Delhi.

“In India many people forget yoga. They know the name of yoga but they are not practicing. That is why this day is important to remind everyone of out ancient heritage,” Singh told RFI.

Hijacking for Hinduism?

But preparations for the event have also set off a chorus of criticism. Not everyone is convinced that the government’s programme is free of all religious or cultural association.

“The government in this aggressive mode will have to clarify – are they trying to promote a Hindu heritage or are they trying to promote an Indian heritage that has been accepted the world over?” opposition Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar told RFI.

Some Muslim groups have raised concerns pointing specifically to yoga's close ties to Hinduism.

“The whole world knows that Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), which is part of yoga, is against the basic ethos of Islam. That is you are praying to the sun…which as Muslim we don’t, we only pray to Allah,” Assadudin Owaisi, a prominent Indian Muslim politician told RFI.

Recent initiatives like Sanskrit week, an effort to celebrate an ancient Hindu language, and bans on the slaughter of cows, considered holy among Hindus, are raising concerns among religious minorities.

Studies have shown yoga’s benefits for dealing with anxiety, depression and sleep disorders, with yoga considered more effective than a simple physical activity but less than psychotherapy.

The discipline is between 3,000 and 6,000 years old and originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, possibly among religious ascetics.

As yoga finds its prestigious position in the UNESCO’s list of intangible world heritage, awareness about the ancient Indian mind-body discipline and its influence on millions of lives globally continues to grow.

According to various estimates, there are over 36 million yoga practitioners in the US alone (up from 20.4 million in 2012) with practitioners spending up to $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories.

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