Breathtaking: Thousands gather in New York City’s Times Square for a full day of yoga classes and celebration of inner peace
It’s Official: International Yoga Day
Millions take to their yoga mats as the United Nations names June 21, the summer solstice, as the annual global celebration of India’s science of yoga
The times they are a-changing. Hardly a century ago yoga was an arcane discipline for the few, dismissed as a world-negating practice not helpful in “real life”—a term which then meant paying your mortgage and finding your soul mate. That was then; this is now. On December 11, 2014, in a proposal endorsed by a record 177 of its 193 members, the United Nations General Assembly adopted June 21 as an annual International Day of Yoga.
In America alone there are now over 75,000 yoga teachers, and the business of yoga has grown to a staggering $20 billion a year. Ironically, a yoga class has become one place to look seriously for a kindly, disciplined and forward-thinking spouse.
Yoga’s public expression soared on June 21, 2015, as millions of practitioners in nearly every nation gathered to stretch, breathe, let go and find oneness within. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat humbly on a green yoga mat to lead 35,000 people—including citizens, cabinet members and foreign diplomats from 100 countries—in a massive 35-minute yoga class that earned a Guinness World Record (a national obsession in India).
“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. It is not about exercise, but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Yoga Day participants worldwide. He recalled that he tried his first yoga asana—the tree pose—during a visit to India earlier this year, sharing that once he regained his balance he “began to feel a certain peace of mind. My hope is that yoga will give people everywhere the sense and the oneness we need to work together to live in harmony and usher in a life of dignity for all.”
In all Indian state capitals, schoolchildren, bureaucrats, homemakers, soldiers and ordinary folk took part in the exercise. Every branch of the Indian military participated, on nuclear submarines and in the deep snows of Kashmir on the world’s highest battleground. In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, yoga events were organized at a staggering 30,000 locations.
Despite the massive turnout in India, the majority of participants were in other countries all over the world. This spiritual celebration in nearly every nation on Earth, all on the same day, may be unique in the history of the world.
One significant (though comparatively small) gathering was held on a soccer field in Lisbon. Following a tradition started in 2002, over 1,000 Europeans, united by the motto “The Light Is Coming,” gathered at the Prof. Moniz Pereira Athletics Track to practice yoga, celebrate the concept of a day without bloodshed throughout the planet and honor ethnic and cultural diversity and inter-religious tolerance. The impetus for Lisbon’s “World Yoga Day” tradition has come from Portuguese satguru Amrta Suryananda Maha Raja, who recently received India’s Padma Shri award—in part for his 14-year effort to get the UN to recognize this day.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Yoga Day in New Delhi, attended by 35,000 practitioners from 100 nations
While Lisbon may have been the place where World Yoga Day started—and where some of the most difficult asanas were performed—this June 21 it was suddenly among the smaller gatherings. In Singapore 4,000 participated; in Paris 9,000 enrolled for the class at the Eifel Tower; in Sydney, Australia, 10,000 came together—and in spite of soggy weather, over 30,000 reportedly showed up in New York’s Times Square.
In organizing the event for India, the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy), had to make some last-minute concessions to the program to accommodate religious differences. The Surya Namaskar routine was removed because Muslims objected that it deifies the Sun. Also removed was the chanting of AUM, thought to be too closely entwined with Hinduism and Buddhism.
Such complaints are not uncommon. Christians in the United States have sued (unsuccessfully) to have yoga removed from public schools, arguing it is a Hindu practice and thus has no place in secular classrooms. Probably aided by all the publicity, yoga classes for youth are burgeoning, as teachers help students reduce stress, nurture simple physical disciplines and even learn to harness their emotions and get along better.
Indeed, many feel threatened by yoga’s cultural impact. The Washington Post’s June 6 edition revealed how some US communities struggle to understand yoga’s relationship to meditation (see sidebar). The article begins at the newly opened Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, Maryland, where exhibits refer to the pursuit of God, the “Supreme Soul” and often “The One.” A constant visual theme is an orangeish, reddish light emanating from a vague, otherworldly source. The message is clear: Meditation is about connecting with the Divine. That message is in confounding contrast to what’s commonly presented in business seminars and public schools throughout the US, that meditation is something akin to mental weight-lifting, a secular practice that keeps your brain and emotions in shape. 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. Gyms, meanwhile, list yoga (i.e., hatha yoga) alongside Zumba classes, as if it were merely a set of physical exercises.
This jumbled juxtaposition between the religious and secular versions of yoga and meditation epitomizes a key debate about the ancient practice as it explodes in the United States: What is the purpose of yoga and meditation? And who gets to decide?
Soft Power Is Artful Power
Yoga Day will have far-reaching impact in the years ahead, for it is an open affirmation of India’s soft power in the world. According to Joseph S. Nye, Jr., who coined the term in the late 1980s, “soft power” is the ability of a nation to persuade or influence others without force or coercion. It is a term widely used in the world of foreign policy, and some argue that these gentler forms of influence are, in the long run, more potent than any military. India is a formidable force in the world of soft power, from its spiritual treasures to its culinary genius (are there really 9,000 Indian restaurants in London?), from its millennia-old music, art, drama and dance, to its sophisticated medical knowledge-base (ayurveda has exploded around the world). Spreading increasingly, powerfully, globally are India’s national ideas of nonviolence, religious tolerance, devotion and soul-stirring philosophy. Chinese philosopher Hu Shih (1891-1962) observed: “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 2,000 years without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”
Soft power, it turns out, is a better way to change the world, a surer tactic to influence and change the values held by others. As Mr. Nye noted, world security hinges as much on winning hearts and minds as it does on winning wars. Your yoga mat may be the next international battlefield.
What Is Yoga?
he term yoga refers to a wide variety of Hindu practices. Therefore, it is always helpful when discussing yoga to use a modifier to clarify which kind of yoga is meant. The yoga most widely taught is known as ashtanga yoga. Ashta means eight, and anga means limb. This system comprises eight progressive practices, of which the well-known postures are the third. The first two—and the foundation for all spiritual progress—are yama and niyama, Hinduism’s ethical restraints and guidelines for a dharmic, spiritual life.
Vamadeva Shastri, author on yoga and ayurveda, notes that the meditative side of yoga is little known: “Yoga today is most known for its asana (yogic posture) tradition—the most popular, visible and outward form of the system. Buddhism, by comparison, is known as a tradition of meditation, as in the more popular forms of Buddhist meditation, like Zen and Vipassana. Many people who have studied yoga in the West look to Buddhist teachings for meditation practices, not realizing there are yogic and Vedantic forms of meditation that are traditionally not only part of the yogic system but its core teaching! In the Yoga Sutras, only three sutras out 196 deal with asana. The great majority deal with meditation, its theory and results.”