By naming June 21st as International Yoga Day, India is spreading a healthy practice and promoting the country's brand value, but it's also reclaiming an age-old tradition.
The concept of yoga was first mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures of the 6th century BCE, the Rig Vedas. It was later discussed in other seminal texts -- the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. In the 4th century CE, Maharishi (great sage) Patanjali is believed to have organized the diffuse practice into a set of structured principles. The word yoga in Sanskrit means union.
The official website of the International Day of Yoga defines yoga as the process whereby the individual is united with the Cosmic Consciousness. Modern guru Deepak Chopra explains it more simply as the union of mind, body, and soul.
With such a broad mission, it's natural that yoga includes a wide range of activities, such as prayers, rituals and service, meditation and mantras. And there are several types of yoga, of which Hatha yoga -- with breathing exercises (pranayama) and poses (asanas) -- is just one.
In India today, yoga is still not very commercialized. There are no chains of yoga schools. Yoga is usually a solitary activity, done first thing in the morning in the comfort of one's own home or at most congregating at the neighbourhood park with a local teacher and a few neighbours wiping the sleep out of their eyes. There are no chains of yoga stores; in fact, there is no yoga clothing per se.
People wear whatever comfortable stuff they may have on hand -- often a loose kurta and pyjamas (in the true Indian sense of the word). They don't even have mats. If they're doing it at home, they lie on whatever carpet happens to be on the floor or they may carry an old towel to the neighbourhood park.
However, since the 1970s, the West -- and in particular America -- has taken Hatha yoga and run with it. And undoubtedly Indian immigrant teachers of the art have aided the process. Bikram Choudhury began a chain of centers now worldwide that bear his name and offer 90 minute classes consisting of 26 poses. Iyengar Yoga, developed by BKS Iyengar, is more complex and graduated, consisting of some 200 asanas and 14 pranayamas. And there are now many other schools and teachers plugging their own variations, including nomenclature. Patanjali may be flummoxed as to why his majestic and mysterious sounding 'Adho Mukha Svanasana' is now referred to as the rather practical "downward-facing dog."
The western brand of yoga also comes with exciting must-have accessories. The maharishi of yoga apparel is Lululemon. What began in Vancouver, Canada is now an international chain of stores. They sell "technical, sweat-wicking pants" for $98 and the "yogi everyday tank" for $48. You can also purchase their "reversible mat 5mm" ($68) and their "essential mat carrier" ($32). And there are other chains making inroads into the market, like Zobha, Gaiam, and Zella of Nordstrom.
But what western yoga really offers is a sense of community. Yoga is a group activity, with often the yoga stores themselves offering classes to their clients where they can exercise together while surreptitiously comparing outfits. But in India, with 1.2 billion fellow Indians, one doesn't need to go to yoga class to find community.
You can find community in the overcrowded buses, in the queues in the vegetable shops, and even in your own home made up of a large extended family. In fact, in India, the hard part is to escape from all that community.
There has been discussion whether the West's adoption of yoga is cultural appropriation. Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the "use of elements of one culture by members of another" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation ). But the reason it is often controversial is that it typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of a less privileged group without context or deeper understanding.
One could argue that this is a case in point because Americans have taken yoga without its religious meaning. However, it was Indians like Choudhury and Iyengar, who went to America with an almost missionary zeal to convert the natives to their art form...and they were successful. Furthermore, doing yoga is not a case of a young woman wearing a bindi for a night of clubbing or a model in a native headdress for a photo shoot; these are people adopting a healthy lifestyle and making a long-term investment in terms of both time and money.
Besides, American dominance is no longer as obvious. And it seems even India itself is stripping yoga of some of its religious significance to broaden its appeal. In light of protests from Muslim groups, at least for International Yoga Day in India, the sessions will not include the very popular Surya Namaskar asanas nor the chanting of Om.
Whether faced with cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation, a bit of re-appropriation -- done in an inclusive manner -- never hurts. At the request of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution establishing International Yoga Day. The first celebration in 2015 saw yoga sessions happening all over the world.
There was a mass gathering of some 35,000 at Rajpath in Delhi matched by an almost equal number at Times Square in New York City. Similar events are being planned for the second International Yoga Day this Tuesday. New York may have cooler dressed participants, but New Delhi will definitely have the hotter yoga, with summer temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius.
And to placate any debate, Merriam-Webster seems to wisely offer two definitions of yoga: a capitalized Yoga ("a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation") and a lower-case yoga ("a system of exercises for mental and physical health"). India can have the ancient, authentic, and comprehensive Yoga while the West can have the stylish and selective yoga -- with the twain hopefully meeting all over the place.
As Patanjali would no doubt have calmly but firmly urged, just do it.
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