Of course, it doesn’t take a Vedic-era rocket scientist to understand that the International Day of Yoga never had much to do with yoga. It was always more about the churning PR wheel of the government, and its desire to assert itself on the global stage, assuaging anxieties about being left behind.
Alas, it’s chosen to do this via coercion and an undercurrent of duress, cajoling reluctant parties to get involved in two Guinness World Record attempts, one for the world’s largest yoga class and the other for the most nationalities in a class: instead of an inclusive and non-divisive celebration, we have a tawdry record attempt, conducted under the mistaken impression that such things (much like a 56-inch chest — seriously, who brags about that?) are signs of greatness.
A recent cabinet circular states: “The cabinet secretary has mentioned that if officials turn up without practice and their performance is not up to the mark, we run the risk of the record claim in the Guinness Book of World Records being affected.”
“There is a stick hanging over all of us,” Kuldeep Kumar of AIR told the New York Times in a recent piece. “When the Prime Minister comes, if officials do not show up, of course it is bad for their career.” Then there’s the desire to put India’s cultural worth on display.
“Yoga is the soft power of India,” said foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, “and through that soft power the whole world can be one global village, and this trend of violence can be done away with…” Ah yes, this trend of violence.
Would that include the violence emanating from the mouth of BJP MP for Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, who said that if anyone objected to the Surya Namaskar, they should drown themselves in the sea (in fairness to Swaraj, she has disowned his comment)?
Try as they might, politicians and leaders on all sides can’t help scoring points while shooting themselves in their feet. H R Nagendra, credited as being one of Modi’s gurus, talks in the same NYT piece about the benefits of yoga. “It is the extreme stress that takes place, the stressful life, the wrong lifestyle, which makes them go for homosexuality.” But don’t worry, he adds. Yoga will cure that.
It isn’t long before other aspects of Western culture (remember, homosexuality is foreign) get a bashing. This from Shripad Naik, our own yoga minister:
“Earlier, our people used to get up before sunrise and sleep before sunset, but now our lifestyle has changed. They are going to the pub, they will go in the middle of the night, at 12 or 1, and eat chicken and many, many new dishes… (but) There will be a lifestyle change…our style will come.”
The irony of course is that if Naik opened his eyes, he’d realize that, in many ways, his style (minus the xenophobia and vitriol) has already arrived — as healthy lifestyles, often analogous to the old Indian habits he outlines above, are increasingly popular in the West.
It is the yoga that was transmitted from India to America in the ’70s that’s chiefly responsible for this. The yoga that my foreign friends and teachers practise, the people who have taught me more about discipline, professionalism, equality and respect than most. And now my own mother-in-law, in a small town in northern England that’s historically more prone to drinking and fighting, attends a weekly yoga class. She also eats brown rice and vegetables for most meals, has cut down on red meat, caffeine and alcohol, and partakes, along with my father-in-law, in intermittent fasting. Sure, the yoga she and her friends partake in is barely Indian, or even Californian, but its heritage is undeniable.
And while there are certain faddish forms — such as Acro-Yoga and Broga (yoga for bros) — that smack of rank commodification, are they really any worse than piling as many people as possible into one space in order to get bragging rights to a Guinness World Record?
The worst thing is, India has a massive store of global goodwill and cultural capital. If the administration wasn’t so obsessed with records and its fringe elements not so rabid, it could have easily ridden on that. Instead, a celebration turned into a showcase for incompetence, vanity, tension and communal bigotry. All things that are, sadly, as Indian as yoga.
Kapoor is an author and Goa-based yoga practitioner
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