On International Yoga Day, yoga is just politics by other means

A bit of a stretch.
A bit of a stretch.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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The business of yoga is steadily growing and includes an over $10 billion industry in the United States alone. Yet, some fear that yoga has been forgotten in India where it is being replaced by damaging “foreign” habits, such as eating unhealthy food and remaining stationary at desk jobs for most of the day. That is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken it upon himself and his government to reclaim yoga from the yoga enthusiasts abroad, who are perceived to have co-opted the practice.

Modi’s recent decision to appoint a Minister of Yoga in Shripad Naik reflects his ongoing efforts to reclaim yoga for India. The Ministry’s strategy is to expand the role of yoga in key areas of Indian civil society, including schools, hospitals, and police training centers. This strategy widened last year when Modi proposed designating an annual internationally recognized yoga day to the UN General Assembly. The resolution was adopted in December 2014 after a unanimous vote in its favor. June 21 is now the “International Day of Yoga,” and the Modi government has made extensive plans to celebrate the first Yoga Day.

Modi’s government has been busy writing a “Common Yoga Protocol” for Yoga Day and planning events in India and at India’s embassies across the world. The most hyped event, however, was in Delhi, where Modi hosted a 35-minute public demonstration of yoga postures with the hope of qualifying for the Guinness Book of World Records, for the biggest yoga class ever held.

Although Modi’s government assured the public that participation in Yoga Day was optional, senior officials were subjected to enormous pressure to be at the event at 7am on Sunday, June 21, and to publicly contort their bodies into yoga postures. In fact, Modi’s government sent out a memorandum advising them to prepare for yoga day, warning that the record-breaking title would be at risk if officials arrive ill-prepared.

All of these efforts to make the first Yoga Day memorable serve as a key part of Modi’s strategy to reclaim yoga for India, and gain international power and respect through recognition that India has contributed the gift of yoga to the world.

The preparations, however, have not gone without obstacles and glitches. In fact, there is no end in sight to the debates over Modi’s extensive plans to celebrate Yoga Day with rising tensions across a wide spectrum of Indians: Hindu nationalists, for example, suggest that reclaiming yoga for India is a key part of rightfully establishing it as a Hindu nation, while religious minorities fear the government will privilege Hindu practices and ideas, in what is supposed to be a secular democracy.

On one end of the spectrum, one member of Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Yogi Adityanath has said that opponents of Yoga Day—or those who think surya namaskar, a sequence of postures believed by some to be Hindu should be excluded from the yoga protocol—should “leave Hindustan” or “drown themselves in the sea or live in a dark room for the rest of their lives.” On the other end, the All India Council of the Union of Muslims (AIMIM) has appealed to Muslims to perform namaz or “prayers” on Yoga Day in protest against what it considers the BJP’s attempt “to promote its saffron agenda.” These debates over the government’s decisions regarding Yoga Day are significant to worldwide disputes over what yoga is and to whom it belongs.

According to government protocol, yoga is an ancient Indian “spiritual discipline” that leads to health and “leads to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness,” resulting in “freedom, referred to as mukti, nirvāna, kaivalya or moksha.” This definition of yoga captures one Hindu understanding of yoga’s aims while ignoring the wide variety of other yogic aims found among Hindu traditions alone much less the variety of aims practitioners from other traditions have attributed to yoga throughout its history. Given such a narrowly conceived definition of yoga, it is not surprising that religious minorities fear the government’s agenda for Yoga Day.

The fear that yoga might be used to impose a Hindu nationalist agenda is not new to Indian politics. For several years, some members of the Parliament have attempted to make yoga compulsory in public school physical education, angering some Muslims who suggest that teaching yoga in schools is a part of a Hindu nationalist attempt at religious indoctrination. Another public campaign in parts of Europe and North America incites fear of yoga and argues that non-Hindus have been duped into thinking yoga is merely a consumer product when yoga in fact has its origins in India and is essentially Hindu.

Yoga’s most suspicious and fear-inciting Western critics include certain Christians, including Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Pat Robertson (television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America), the Roman Catholic Church, and even some parents in Encinitas, California who sued their public school district for teaching students yoga. Some Hindus join these Christians in defining yoga as Hindu, most notably the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).

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. Rather, it has varied in its premodern and modern forms, featuring different practices, ideas, and aims, which appeared both within and beyond Hindu traditions and the borders of India, themselves constructed long after the historical emergence of yoga and the majority of its history.

The type of yoga popularized around the world today, modern postural yoga, which includes sequences of postures synchronized with the breath, serves as the practical component of the government’s protocol. Postural yoga cannot be defined as either Hindu or Indian. Scholars doing historical and anthropological research have shown that yoga proponents constructed modern postural yoga in response to early-twentieth-century transnational trends, including military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders, and contortionists. Postural yoga’s methods and aims, which include health, stress reduction, beauty, fitness, and overall well-being, all according to modern medical standards and ideals, were specific to the time period and would not have been considered yoga prior to the twentieth century.

Yoga includes a variety of historical as well as living, dynamic traditions, hence the divergences between premodern Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus who practiced yoga, as well as the living yoga giants, Baba Ramdev and Bikram Choudhury, or the American yoga entrepreneurs, tantric-fitness yoga advocate John Friend and the evangelical Christian proponent of “Holy Yoga” Brooke Boon. Any attempt to demarcate what counts as yoga based on a particular national or religious identity is historically and socially misguided.

There are positives about the opportunity to celebrate yoga. After all, many studies have shown modern postural yoga to have benefits for physical and mental health, and practitioners around the world often testify to it bringing about positive transformations in their lives. Nevertheless, any simultaneous attempts to define yoga in ways that bind it within Hindu or Indian identities and accordingly outside of others, are problematic.

There are many reasons then to be suspicious of both Modi and those of his opponents who attempt to define yoga in terms of some assumed national or religious identity. Their opinions regarding Yoga Day share the same, wrong essentializing strategies as other worldwide debates over how to define yoga.

Most high-profile opinions on yoga are largely uninterested in nuanced portraits that reflect the real complexity, dynamism, and diversity of yoga lives. Unfortunately, Modi and his opponents’ recent arguments concerning yoga have served to trap their audiences in inaccurate myths of yoga’s Indian origin or static Hindu essence.