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Yoga changed my life in all ways that matter. The practice continues to connect me deeply to my physical body, it lends clarity to my voice and to my work in the world, and it shines a bright light on the path that I am grateful to be on. Yet, I don’t celebrate or observe International Day of Yoga.
Even as I set out to write this article, I am aware of a voice inside that is a little anxious about the backlash and the vitriol faced by anyone who criticizes the person or the political party that originally proposed this day. I have experienced it every time I write about it. But we need to address the many colors and hues of the complex story behind International Day of Yoga—especially in this moment of reckoning and humanitarian crisis that is happening in India.
India is the country of my birth, my blood, and bones. A part of my heart is with my people facing this wave of the COVID-19 pandemic with courage, resilience, and a resourcefulness that is etched in every molecule of this unique and complicated country. I honor all those who are courageously speaking truth to power and those who are afraid to speak out for very valid reasons. I stand with them. I lend them this voice.
An invaluable gift
“Yoga is an invaluable gift from our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action. Yoga is not just about exercise; it is a way to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.” These are the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address during the opening of the 69th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on June 21, 2014. A record 175 member states passed the resolution to celebrate the day as International Day of Yoga, aiming to raise the awareness of the benefits of the ancient practice for the modern world. In 2015, Mr. Modi led the largest yoga lesson in the iconic Rajpath in Delhi. Some 35,985 people practiced together, setting a new world record.
Since then, International Day of Yoga has been observed everywhere from Machu Pichu to Mumbai, from London to Lucknow, from Hollywood to Bollywood. It is highlighted in health magazines and at yoga “festivals,” by social media influencers and celebrities and everyday people. It is celebrated in yoga studios, on playgrounds, on campuses, and in community centers—by politicians and everyday people.
But if we dig a little deeper into the significance of such a day, the story behind the declaration and the formal global observance is a bit more nuanced and shaded than many may be aware. There are many narratives to be unwound in order to understand the complexity.
Ancient civilization, young republic
The day was chosen because it was an auspicious one, Modi said—it falls on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which has special significance in many parts of the world. From the perspective of Hindu mythology, the summer solstice marks an auspicious season. It begins the transition to Dakshinayana, the season between the solstices, when the sun travels toward the south on the celestial sphere. The second full moon after summer solstice is known as Guru Purnima, the day we celebrate the goodness of our teachers. On this day, Shiva, the god of destruction and recreation, and the first yogi (Adi Yogi), is believed to have begun imparting the knowledge of yoga to the rest of mankind.
This ancient practice, birthed in the Indus Valley of present-day India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, has strong roots in Sanatan Dharma (what was later called “Hinduism” by Islamic and colonial rulers). It was also influenced by Buddhism, Sufism, and Jainism. Its roots are deep across this land.
India is an ancient civilization and yet a young republic, having won its independence from many colonial rulers, most recently the British in 1947, less than 100 years ago. It’s a country still recovering from the trauma and grief of centuries of depletion of natural resources and material wealth; the loss of millions of lives and of human dignity; the looting of temples, places of worship, and palaces; the methodical cultural degradation of indigenous peoples. India has endured the mockery, then banning, then capitalization and appropriation of indigenous practices such as Ayurveda and yoga. The recovery from the depth of this devastation has been arduous.
This history of colonialism is one of the factors that provides the context for an international day honoring yoga—a perceived and real need for validation of all the rich wisdom and heritage that India offers and has offered the world. There is also a deeply felt need to reclaim all that was taken one way or the other by the British and other colonial rulers. In this light, one could see why this ancient practice has been proclaimed by the present Indian government as a “soft power,” a prominent cultural export, and India’s gift to the modern world. It is all these things. So, of course many in India support and celebrate International Day of Yoga. They see it as a symbol of reclamation.
But there have been many skeptics and critics of the day in India as well. And they have good reason to raise questions.
A symbol of reclamation
An important element in this story is the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Modi—an unabashedly nationalistic faction often conflating patriotic fervor with a Hindutva rhetoric.
Hindutva, a term coined by Veer Savarkar, a freedom fighter and Indian independence activist, is not to be confused with Hinduism. It is an ideology that seeks to establish the dominance of the Hindu way of life and define the Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. This ideology has gained traction through the years and has been co-opted by the BJP. Today its pro-Hindu ideology is seen as a response to growing and prevalent Islamic fundamentalism in the region.
What was intended to elevate one Indian culture is being used to suppress another. In August 2019, the government revoked the constitutional autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state and split it into two federally governed territories. Then there was a proposal for a citizenship verification process, which, combined with discriminatory citizenship law amendments enacted in December 2019, could leave millions of Muslims without a nation.
Once again, yoga has been co-opted and appropriated in an act of grandiose and performative showmanship—this time as a political tool to strategically homogenize a diverse and complex culture. Dissent has been framed by those in power as being anti-national. (This may sound familiar to Americans.) Under the government’s strict sedition and counter-terrorism laws, dissenters, protesting farmers, marginalized groups such as the Dalits, and minority religions such as Sikhs, Muslims, and others have been threatened, harmed, and killed when speaking out against the government’s actions (or inactions, in the case of the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic).
If International Day of Yoga were a true celebration of yoga in its entirety, there would be no harming of human lives (ahimsa) and more truthtelling (satya) by those in power.
A global phenomenon
Even as we look at yoga in the context of the political situation in India, another reality is that in the modern world, yoga is global. In the United States, mainstream yoga has been taken over by the dominant White, able-bodied, cis-gendered culture—appropriated, capitalized, and reduced to a physical self-care practice and wellness lifestyle choice. In the West, the neo-colonization of yoga, personal and systemic racism, and Hindu-phobia have erased the traditional roots of the practice, ignored the people and teachers whose region it came from, and caused more separation than unity. International Yoga Day, a so-called celebration of yoga, is often used to gaslight the very real issues of discrimination and prejudice faced by South Asian and other BIPOC yoga practitioners in predominantly white yoga spaces.
So, the question many may have now is, how are we to honor and celebrate yoga? The answer lies in yoga itself. We celebrate yoga every day by practicing all the eight limbs with dedication. We honor the roots of the practice, and the land, and the teachers who gifted it to us. We can uplift and amplify diverse teachers, experts, and authors. We can offer spaces that are truly inclusive of difference. We can be accountable for the harm caused by racism, and speak out when we see oppression. We can recognize our shared humanity and the potential of the practice to transform our individual and collective suffering. We can embody compassion and courage in service not just to some of us, but to all of us. That is how an international day of yoga should be lived.
About the Author
Anjali Kamath Rao, E-RYT500, is a yoga teacher, social justice activist, and cancer survivorship advocate. Find her on Instagram at @yoganjali.