June 21st is the International Day of Yoga (IDY). If you are interested in yoga, you may have seen notices for free classes at your local studio, or from major players in public places.
I think yoga is fantastic and want as many people as possible (who want to) to be able to take part in it. I do not however celebrate International Yoga Day as it has nothing to do with yoga: it was founded for political reasons to streamline the Indian national identity.
The fact that yoga has its roots in India cannot have escaped anyone. Nor that yoga has become a multibillion-dollar industry that many want to take advantage of.
The yoga which is communicated to us as yoga today (physical positions aka asanas, performed by married, preferably white women) may have its roots in a tradition thousands of years old, but is actually a fairly new concoction, only a hundred years young as many of you may know (If you do not know, I highly recommend the book ’Yoga Body’ by Mark Singleton).
That history connects yoga to a physical practice (the physical practice to achieving health) and shapes the worlds image of India.
To talk in depth about India’s infected history with various regimes, power struggles, the fact that it wasn’t until 1948 that they were freed from British colonialism, as well as how that has shaped Indian identity (and the desire to form a nation state with certain clear attributes) would take too long and I am not the person who can do it justice. But, there are important factors that have influenced the emergence of the International Day of Yoga which I would like to talk about.
The International Day of Yoga has been celebrated since 2015. It was established on the initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was sanctioned by the UN General Assembly (the decision was taken in 2014).
Modi said in his speech to the General Assembly: ” Yoga should not be just an exercise for us, but it should be a means to get connected with the world and with nature.” and proclaimed yoga as “India’s gift to the world.”
But the reason why Modi wants to celebrate yoga and regain the connection to the Indian identity, is, to be blunt, because he wants to strengthen the Hindu identity.
One fear in the country is that yoga (thanks to the way the outside world views it) is being used to lure in, or force, a Hindu nationalist agenda. For several years, parliamentarians have been pushing for yoga to be compulsory in schools, which has met with protests from Muslim community groups.
When the International Day of Yoga was introduced, Modi’s government sent out strict instructions to state facilities on how to organise the day, as well as clarification on reprisals if it was not carried out according to plan.
”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.” (1)
”There is an attempt to link yoga with national pride as part of India’s ancient legacy. Any opposition toward the practice is branded as anti-national. Therefore, participation in Yoga Day has become, in a way, the yardstick of one’s patriotism.” (2)
The Indian right-wing is noted for its intolerance of Islam and Christianity. On the one hand, it is still infected due to the conflict over the Kashmir area (as a result of the division with Pakistan) which propels the unpleasant climate for Muslims in India. At the same time, the traces of British rule are still clearly visible and live fresh in the memories of many, which in turn also creates resentment towards Christians.
”Right-wing movements such as RSS (Modis ursprungsparti, min anteckning), with their uniforms and their military discipline are an after-effect of British colonialism, with its denigration of Hindu military prowess: these organizations want to demonstrate the strength of Hindus. Because of historical conflict and because of the ongoing dispute about ownership of Kashmir, Pakistan and all Muslims are perceived by Hindus of the extreme right as their enemy”. (3)
That you attend a free class to feel good or arrange something to build community or draw attention to how amazing yoga is and can be, is in itself a wonderful idea. But when we do it as part of the International Day of Yoga, we (unconsciously) contribute towards Modi’s discrimination. And to say ”but my intention is community, and union” is to turn a blind eye to the fact that all attention is a boost to the original agenda. If you want to share yoga and celebrate fellowship, choose a different day, a different context.
By consolidating Hinduism as part of the Indian national identity in this way, the rights of minorities, as well as the rights of those who profess other religions, are diminished. And it is problematic to put it mildly.
There is no single way to practice Hinduism (which God, or Gods to worship: when, where and how). It is a wealth of traditions, rites, and practices and the term Hinduism, which is now used to describe the Indian religion, did not exist before the British colonized India. During their occupation, the British gathered all religions under that term. Trying to standardise Hinduism, which is still going on in the country, is not just about repressing the wealth that Hinduism carries. It is also a way of saying ”either you are with us, or against us”.
And in this case, I’m not!
(3) Religions in the Modern World : Traditions and Transformations, edited by Linda Woodhead, et al., Routledge, 2016
P.s. Thank you Christina and Jennie for helping me with the translation of this post