Yoga has been growing exponentially – and organically -worldwide in the past few decades, but credit goes to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for taking the initiative to get United Nations to declare June 21 as International Day of Yoga to be observed every year.
The resolution in the UN General Assembly on Dec 11, 2014, endorsed by a record 177 members, recognized that “yoga provides a holistic approach to health and well-being, and that wider dissemination of information about the benefits of practicing yoga would be beneficial for the health of the world population.” The resolution invited all nations, UN and world organizations as well as civil society and NGOs to observe IDY to raise awareness of the benefits of practicing yoga.
The UN resolution followed Modi’s call during his address to UNGA on Sept 27 last year wherein he stated: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”
June 21 was suggested for yoga day because it is the Summer Solstice (longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere), and from the perspective of yoga, it marks the transition in the Sun’s celestial passage from north to south. This year June 21 falls on a Sunday.
Lauding Modi for IDY, the Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who himself had earlier lent support for a yoga day, said, “It is very difficult for any philosophy, religion or culture to survive without state patronage. Now, official recognition by the UN would further spread the benefit of yoga to the entire world.” Sri Sri and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (founder of Isha Yoga) are traveling around the world headlining events attended by thousands in the run up to the International Day of Yoga.
Yoga is at least 5,000-year-old and one of the six systems of Indian philosophy. It was codified by Maharishi Patanjali in 200 AD as Yoga Darshan, containing 195 Yoga Sutras. The core essence of Patanjali is the eightfold path or Ashtanga Yoga containing observances and practices for the holistic growth of a human being – physical, moral, mental and spiritual. Yoga’s literal meaning of union (of individual consciousness with universal consciousness) lays out its higher reaches.
In today’s world, though, yoga to most people has come to mean the practice of asanas – physical postures, but Patanjali’s treatise has only one sutra about postures- sthira-sukham asanam (2.46), which translated from Sanskrit means: posture should be stable and comfortable. So where are the numerous asanas practiced in yoga classes coming from?
The answer is, they originate from the age-old Hatha Yoga tradition, one treatise for which is called Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
The modern revival of yoga can be traced to T. Krishnamacharya, who started teaching it from Mysore in 1924. Among his students prominent in popularizing yoga in the West were B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) and K. Pattabhi Jois (Viniyasa Yoga). Another major stream of influence within India and and abroad has been Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and his equally formidable disciples including Swami Vishnu-devananda (Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers), Swami Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga) and Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga). In India lately, Baba Ramdev has taken his yoga-pranayama mix for curing ailments to every nook and corner of the country.
Yoga also received a fillip with the introduction of Indian spirituality to the West starting with Swami Vivekananda’s iconic address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 in Chicago. Followed meditation movements of Yogananda Paramahamsa (‘Autobiography of a Yogi’; fame), TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, Swami Muktananda, Osho Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, and more recently Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These too had a yoga component.
Today, yoga is practiced by an estimated 300 million people worldwide. In the western countries, you can find a yoga studio almost every few blocks. In the US, the number pf yoga practitioners is estimated to be over 30 million. A survey by the redoubtable National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that in 2012, nearly 10% of US adults and 3% of children participated in yoga, almost double than 5% of adults and 2% of children a decade earlier.
The purists can argue that in its current form, yoga has been reduced to a system of physical exercises. But the practitioners must be liking it, enjoying it and benefiting from it enough to continue to spend their time and energy and money on the practice. Besides, one can also argue that the asana practice, unlike gym workouts, does create a sense of peace and equanimity – a meditative state in short. Interest is also kindled in practitioners about yoga’s other dimensions and its origins.
Yoga is part of India’s great heritage. UNESCO’s director general Irina Bokova, who met PM Modi in Paris earlier this year, affirmed that yoga is in the list of elements to be considered by the Intangible Heritage Committee for inscription on UNESCO’s register. She also told an Indian daily that “UNESCO’s general conference in October will also look to endorse the International Day of Yoga”.
Modi launched a portal (www.Idayofyoga.Org) for the International Day of Yoga onApril 10 from Paris while addressing a gathering at UNESCO headquarters. The portal gives details of events and venues connected with the IDY, besides videos on individual yoga postures.
The Government of India has planned to celebrate the IDY in countries around the world, including United States. In Washington DC, on June 21, Embassy of India is organizing a day-long event at the National Mall in collaboration with various yoga organizations, practitioners, and community organizations. In New York, Times Square is the leading official public site for IDY and dignitaries from the UN and Indian government are scheduled to attend the day long event. It is special because Times Square Alliance has been holding a mass yoga event on Summer Solstice for the last 13 years at the Crossroads of the World.
Undoubtedly, the global observance of the International Day of Yoga and related events will make millions of people to become aware of the tenets of yoga, encouraging many to follow a yogic lifestyle, a life that is healthy and harmonious. In turn, IDY is an opening for the world community to realize human oneness, and move beyond war and strife towards peace and harmony.