a brief history of international yoga day

a brief history of international yoga day

I started researching this post fully intending on taking down International Yoga Day. Even though I really didn’t know what it was all about. I didn’t pay much attention to it when it was announced at the end of 2014 and started rolling in June 2015, but I do recall the controversy and overt nationalism.

I also recall weird Facebook messages from random people wishing me a “happy yoga day.” I’m generally not into recognizing special “days” or calendar sanctioned celebrations (unless they involve a day off of work), so I just couldn’t get too excited about IYD. This year, after receiving several press releases and newsletters about upcoming events, I knew I had to dig into it.

While I was planning a takedown of IYD, I ended up being charmed by the event, which seems benign on the surface and is described on official websites in flowery, motivation language. However, over the course of my research, I also discovered IYD’s dark underbelly and its right-wing, nationalist, and religious roots.

international yoga day: the ultimate global yoga project

The inaugural IYD happened on June 21, 2015, a few months after it was proposed at a United Nations General Assembly by then new prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. It was supported by 177 nations, the highest number for any UNGA resolution, and went through without needing a vote. Most of the world, apparently, loves yoga, and the countries seemed happy to officially celebrate the practice on a designated day. (Notable other official world recognition: in 2016, yoga was added to Unesco’s “intangible world heritage” list.)

When he introduced the event in September 2014, Modi said of the practice: “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. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.”

The whole proposal and adoption of IYD was very wholesome and positive. It was just one big feel good story, and the global media glommed onto it. God knows we needed feel good stories in those days, and we still do now, maybe even more than ever. We need stories that celebrate what unites us rather than what divides us.

It makes sense that something called the United Nations would endorse a global yoga project. The UN has practiced yoga activities since the 1960s. The staff yoga club states on its FB page, “The yoga community at the UN recognizes that the principles of the United Nations, as presented particularly in the United Nations Charter and other major internationally adopted instruments, are intimately related to the basic values promoted by the yoga tradition. Notions such as the pursuit of peace, solidarity, interconnectedness, improvement of human conditions, and respect for the environment, are also core values in yoga.”

What’s not to love about that? It makes even the most cynical yoga nerd’s heart melt.

the political roots of IYD

Despite the near-universal support, Yoga Day wasn’t without detractors and critics. Many Muslim organizations in India accused the PM of pushing a Hindu agenda. Ensuing debate and rising tempers did anything but create feelings of peace and harmony, the original intention of IYD

IYD events ruffled feathers in North America as well, in Vancouver of course. The pipeline-supporting, public services-slashing premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, proposed closing down the Burrard Bridge, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, for a group yoga class in partnership with Lululemon and yoga studio chain YYoga. She boasted that it would be the largest IYD event outside of India. The $150K price tag and inconvenience of shutting down a busy street prompted a backlash, and the event was cancelled.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, “Vancouver yoga exec” Terry McBride of YYoga exemplified how tone deaf the event organizers were. “Because you have Christy Clark involved, which means that people have to criticize everything government does,” he lamented. “I understand the politics of it, but they are really losing sight of what this is… Vancouver is a huge market for yoga. We have some of the best teachers here. Yoga studios are an amazing part of the community. They are all focused on wellness.”

This is an overt example of how IYD could be politicized. Of course, the roots are political – Prime Minister Modi is an anti-Islamic right wing populist, and many have accused him of using IYD to push a nationalist agenda. But the Vancouver situation is interesting because a politician who favours the rich, attacks teachers and other public sector workers, and prioritizes big oil’s interests over the environment would gravitate to a large scale public yoga event as a PR opp.

the build-up to #IWD2017

Now in its third year, the hoopla for IYD continues to build. While there are events around the world, it’s still a much bigger deal in India, and nobody seems to be more excited about it than Prime Minister Modi. He’s been tweeting about it for weeks, sending out yoga tips and facts to his 30 million followers. According to his timeline, the first IYD 2017 events started popping up on the weekend. Modi enthusiastically shared pictures of practitioners in Afghanistan and a crowd gathered in front of a temple in Wenzhou, China.

I’m happy to see that many of the events in major North American cities appear to be organized by people of Indian descent and celebrate yoga as one of India’s great contributions to the world. Although inevitably, it also is being cast as a vehicle for yoga brands or studio chains (YYoga in Vancouver, surprise surprise, and Wanderlust).

Nevertheless, I’m pleased to see creative and collaborative ways of riding the #IYD wave. The Yoga and Body Image Coalition, Accessible Yoga, and Yoga International have teamed up for an IYD social media video challenge as a way to amplify voices who offer accessible yoga, present diverse and empowered images of ‘what a yogi looks like,’ and celebrate community.

So IYD is more positive and hopeful than I originally assumed, but I’m still not going to personally participate. I have other ways of connecting with the roots of the practice. I’ve already stated that I’m not much for observing days (even when they come with a much-appreciated day off), although I understand why people want to do it.

If you’re one of those people who loves yoga and celebrating days, then IYD is perfect for you. You may want to shake up how you participate. Check out what’s happening in your area and commit to attending an event organized by the South Asian community, rather than your local yoga studio. While you’re there, make an effort to talk to people about their practice and life. You could also try a different aspect of the practice – rather than asana, seek out chanting or meditation, or explore a devotional, lineage-based practice.

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