Thousands Across the U.S. Celebrate 1st International Yoga Day

  • Participants perfected their yoga poses at Times Square in New York on the occasion of International Yoga Day June 21, 2015. (SnapsIndia photo)


SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – As rays of warmth attempted to emerge through the fog-shrouded Marina Green here June 21 morning, an estimated 3,000 people saluted the sun’s arrival on the first International Yoga Day, coinciding with the summer solstice.

Thousands of people across the U.S. performed asanas throughout the day at International Yoga Day celebrations organized by local Indian consulates and Indian American organizations.

In San Francisco, the festive event started with a prayer, followed by the screening of a video message by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had called for yoga to be celebrated during a speech at the United Nations.

“Yoga is more than only physical fitness,” declared the prime minister, thanking the U.N. General Assembly for creating the day. “We are not only celebrating a day, we are training the human mind to begin a new era of peace, Sadbhavana,” he said, noting that societies free of stress could create a more-harmonious violence-free world. (See separate story on celebrations in India.)

As the day wore on, yoga prostrations gave way to exuberant dancing and drumming in Marina Green, as Grammy-nominated musician Jai Uttal sang “Om Namah Shivaya” and other traditional kirtans. Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was the chief guest at the San Francisco celebration, and joined San Francisco Indian Consul General Venkatesan Ashok in celebrating the day.

Jaitley described yoga as an art and science that stabilizes the human mind, controls the human emotions and brings the human body back in tandem in a state of fitness. “I must say that we are delighted that coming from a civilization where yoga started, that (the practice) carries the message of peace, humanity, well-being of the human being and the human mind across the world,” he said.

The San Francisco event was organized by the Consulate, in collaboration with the Art of Living Foundation; the Isha Foundation; Brahma Kumaris; Yoga Ascent of North America; Ashtanga; Overseas Volunteers for Better India; Hindu Swayam Sevak Sangh; Yoga Bharathi; and Iyengar Yoga. Booths around the perimeter of the event allowed passers-by to learn about the benefits of practicing yoga.

In Washington, DC, more than 1,500 people celebrated International Yoga Day at Sylvan Theater Stage on the National Mall, next to the National Monument. India’s Ambassador to the U.S. Arun Singh attended the event, along with Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department. Former Miss America Nina Davuluri also attended the festivities, which were emceed by Carrie Trybulec, director of the Gandhi Memorial Center.

The participants also included White House officials and representatives from the Department of Health, the National Security Council, the Smithsonian Institutions, National Dance Therapy Association, and the World Bank. Members of local academic institutions and think tanks also participated in the day-long festivities.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, delivered a congressional resolution commemorating the day.

Many political leaders from across the U.S. issued proclamations and felicitation messages to support and commemorate the First International Day of Yoga, including: Maryland Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr; Virginia Governor Terence R. McAuliffe; Charles D. Baker, governor of Massachusetts, Greg Abbott, governor of Texas; Bruce Rauner, governor of Illinois; San Francisco, Calif., Mayor Edwin Lee; Mayor of Irvine, Calif., Steven S. Choi; Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose; and David Maher, mayor of Cambridge, Mass.

The Indian Embassy presented this event in collaboration with Indian American organizations, and ‘Friends of Yoga’, a group of organizations which support and promote yoga. Guided Yoga sessions – based on a “Common Yoga Protocol” video created by Government of India – were offered throughout the day. Yoga organizations also presented yoga-related activities to highlight various facets of the practice. Local Yoga studios from Washington also participated in the event.

Indian American flutist Deepak Ram and percussionist John De Kadt delivered a joyful musical collaboration during the festivities. Indian dance was also presented in yoga form.

The Embassy has been organizing various yoga related curtain-raiser events to welcome and promote the First International Day of Yoga. In late April, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar kick-started this series with a talk on “Nurturing Peace Through Meditation.” The Embassy hosted Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s talk on the “Relevance of Yoga in Modern Life.”

The Embassy also collaborated with local yoga organizations to present events on Capitol Hill; the University of Maryland; and the World Bank, along with places of worship. On the eve of the International Day of Yoga, the Embassy collaborated with other organizations to present yoga events at John Hopkins University in Washington, DC and Annapolis, Maryland. Annapolis Mayor Mike Pantelides participated in the celebration.

A day later, June 22, the Embassy joined the Hindu American Foundation to host the first-ever “Yoga on the Hill Day.”

“Before we move onto the filibuster pose, where you do nothing, we’ll go to the ‘reaching across the aisle asana’. If you’re a Democrat, pair up with a Republican, and vice versa,” instructed Eddie Stern, renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher, as 50 Congressional staffers and DC insiders stretched over to their partners.

Gabbard – the first Hindu elected to Congress – attended the Hill festivities and reflected on the church shootings that occurred earlier in the week as Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine people at a bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

“It’s been a great weekend of celebration and a real opportunity to help spread awareness of the true meaning of yoga,” Gabbard stated. “While the physical benefits of yoga are well known, there are deeper understandings of yoga that can help us recognize our true divinity.”

Participants took part in one of two 30-minute long yoga sessions, led by Stern. Before and after the session, they were encouraged to contemplate the broader teachings of yoga, as detailed in a visual exhibit prepared by HAF. Karthik Krishnamurthy, a local volunteer from the Art of Living Foundation, led a guided meditation session to complement Stern’s asana course.

IANS reports from the United Nations in New York: The International Day of Yoga celebrations here sought to symbolize the unity of humanity. School children dressed in red sat with the powerful. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was clad in a plain white yoga-themed track suit. Diplomats, rising in unison to do the asanas, were called out by yoga guru Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living movement.

One of IDY’s aims is to promote respect for the environment, a topic of great urgency now. Moon quoted from Modi’s UN speech last year: “Yoga is not just about exercise; it is a way to discover the sense of oneness, with yourself, the world and nature.”

Symbolically, a monarch butterfly fluttered into the shamiana and hovered over the children getting ready for their yoga practice.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj emphasized in her keynote speech that yoga was not a religion and should not be seen as belonging to any particular religion. “It is a science,” she said.