Addressing a conference after taking part at the International Yoga Day celebrations on June 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned against the misuse of the new-found popularity of yoga for economic gains. The original sanctity of yoga will be lost if we transform it into another tradable merchandise.
In the US, yoga has already become a $30 billion industry. The growing perception of yoga as a leisure activity catering to a high-end clientele does not help.
As Carolyn Gregoire writes in the Huffington Post, “Perhaps inevitably, yoga’s journey from ancient spiritual practice to big business and premium lifestyle — complete with designer yoga wear, mats, towels, luxury retreats and $100-a-day juice cleanses — has some devotees worrying that something has been lost along the way.”
The International Yoga Day was a golden opportunity for India to showcase the country’s ancient culture and philosophy.
The world is now gradually realising the value of yoga and the role it can play in keeping the global population healthier in a cost-effective way.
Unlike other exercise regimens, yoga connects the mind and the body to enhance ones total well-being to attain inner peace.
There were efforts from some quarters to politicise the June 21 event. The Congress branded it as “just a show-off, photo-op and event management exercise by the government”.
Some minority communities criticised yoga saying that it is incompatible and inconsistent with their faith.
Tested by time
The word ‘yoga’ derives from the Sanskrit root ‘yug’, meaning to control and to contemplate. The origins of yoga could be traced to pre-Vedic Indian traditions.
Yoga in its original Indian form is a holistic system whose function is to integrate personality at all levels of existence.
The main philosophical logic behind yoga is that our body and soul learn to co-exist with nature through this.
Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. No trace of yoga could be found in any other nations or religions other than Hinduism.
Yoga is a discipline that has stood the test of time. With its new-found appeal with the international community India and Hinduism should not lose control of the brand.
It was Swami Vivekananda who introduced yoga to the western world. Though, initially, yoga was considered mainly as a spiritual practice with religio-philosophical underpinnings, by the 1980s, it became popular as a system of physical exercise across the western world.
Now, to many, the benefits of yoga are only at the body level and they fail to realise the potential benefits of yoga in uniting body, mind and breath.
The renewed western interest in yoga is mainly because of its health potential. While the practice of yoga focusing on its physical postures continues to rise in contemporary American culture, adequate knowledge of its spiritual and philosophical dimensions does not.
A universal language
Though US President Barack Obama has reiterated that yoga has become a universal language of spiritual exercise in the US, crossing many lines of religion and cultures, and millions of Americans practice yoga to improve their health and overall well-being focusing on its meditative and spiritual dimensions, yoga is not turning out to be a way of life there.
Even the American College of Sports Medicine supports the integration of yoga into the exercise regimens of healthy individuals.
The college highlights the benefits of yoga as a form of stretching, and as an enhancer of breath control and of core strength.
The westernised, modernised form of the ancient discipline of yoga expresses just one component of yoga — Hatha yoga or the physical practice of postures (asanas).
But yoga, in its original form is not a therapy for better health. Yoga aims at the holistic growth of the individual.
It is time to understand the spiritual dimensions of yoga. Yogic spirituality is not just about healthy living. As Rev Joseph Pereira, a Mumbai-based Catholic priest and proponent of BKS Iyengar’s school of yoga says, most people, however, have reduced yoga to acrobatics, but yoga is not just a work-out, it is a work-in. Yoga does not pose a ‘spiritual health risk’. As the The Guardian reported recently those who are not comfortable with its religious underpinnings need only to seek it “as a spiritual path and not a religious one.”
The real value
Indologist Karel Werner writes: “The uniqueness of yoga and its great value for our time lie in the fact that it is based on a living tradition that has remained efficient since ancient times and can be applied and studied today both on the popular level by people with personal inclinations towards following a spiritual path and on the academic level by research workers in various fields such as comparative religion, philosophy, psychology, psychotherapy, and physiology. All other forms of mystical practice are closed systems accessible only to believers.”
The approach of some religious organisations considering yoga to be incompatible and inconsistent with their faith should not be a reason for diluting the true nature of yoga.
Dropping the surya namaskar (sun salutation) and slokas (verses) from the official yoga demonstration on June 21 has only helped downplay the glory of yoga acquired over thousands of years. By rebranding yoga to suit to the times we too will be relegating it to the level of a mere physical exercise.
On the occasion of the International Yoga Day celebrations India should have taken a keen interest in popularising yoga in its true nature. We Indians should be proud of future opportunities to showcase our great legacy to the rest of the world.
The writer is a Bengaluru-based professor of economics