International Day of Yoga 2024

Dr Graham Burns asks why so many in the yoga community, in India and the West, shy away from celebrating the International Day of Yoga (IDY).

Every year since 2015, 21 June has been celebrated as the IDY, a day when yoga studios and organisations across the world stage special events to honour the gift that is yoga. And why not? If you are reading this, you probably appreciate, and wish to celebrate, all that the ancient traditions of yoga – and their more modern iterations – offer us.

Why, then, do many in the yoga community, in India and the West, shy away from celebrating the IDY? Is it because yoga should be for every day, not just 21 June (remember the ‘A Dog is for Life, not just for Christmas’ campaign)? Or is there more to it?

International Day of Yoga Origins / Political Background 

For many of us, our lukewarm response to the IDY stems from its origin as a tool of India’s soft power, promoted by the BJP government led by Narendra Modi. The IDY was first proposed by Mr Modi, and adopted by the United Nations, in 2014, to celebrate yoga as ‘India’s gift to the world’. So far, so uncontroversial – none of us would realistically argue that yoga’s earliest origins lie anywhere other than India. The controversy arises from the sort of India promoted by the BJP, and from its apparent co-option of yoga to support that.

It is incontrovertible that, under recent BJP governments, India has taken great steps forward economically and, in some respects, socially. This has, however, come at a cost for many. Despite India’s constitutional commitment to being a secular state, the BJP explicitly promotes the idea of India as a Hindu country. But, although around 75-80% of Indians identify as Hindu, India also has sizeable populations of Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, and adherents of other religions or none. There is plenty of evidence that these hundreds of millions of non-Hindus have been marginalised, in some cases perhaps even persecuted, by the current government and its supporters. For Modi and his followers, yoga is not simply India’s gift to the world, but specifically Hinduism’s gift – a so-called ‘5000 year old Hindu practice’.

Many of us find this problematic for several reasons. First, we have no evidence of yoga as far back as 5000 years ago (which also long predates the use of ‘Hinduism’ as an umbrella term for a range of related Indian religious traditions). Secondly, the yoga we know and love today is a syncretic creature. It is the product not just of the religious and cultural milieux which morphed into Hinduism. As scholars have long appreciated, one of the best known ancient yoga texts, the Yogasūtra of Patañjali, probably from around 400CE, shows apparent influence from both Buddhism and Jainism. And, as yoga developed and changed over the centuries, it did so not just in a Hindu environment. Arguably, the Jains gave us our earliest standing postures, and the Buddhists some of the key techniques of haṭha yoga, such as the bandhas. And, whisper it, there is also possible influence from Sufi Islam. When yoga reached the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-Indian influences came into the picture, including from western exercise and dance. All of these combined with yoga’s undoubted ancient Indian roots to create the hybrid we know today – so can we really call yoga ‘Hindu’? If we promote this idea, are we not sidelining the important influence of non-Hindus into our contemporary yoga? And are we not giving fuel to those of other religious backgrounds who have banned yoga from, e.g., church halls as incompatible with their beliefs?

The Significance of the Date

There is also controversy in the choice of 21 June as the date of the IDY. Ostensibly selected because it is the summer solstice (perhaps less auspicious for those in the southern hemisphere), it may – or may not – be coincidental that it is also the anniversary of death of K.B. Hedgewar, founder of the RSS, a Hindu fundamentalist para-military organisation, sometimes considered verging on the neo-Fascist, with which the BJP is affiliated and of which Narendra Modi himself is a former member.

The Gift of Yoga

And, finally, what of the yoga which Modi and his followers are claiming as the 5000 year old Hindu gift? Is it the profound mental and ascetic yoga of our earliest sources? Curiously, no – it is yoga as an everyday means of wellbeing and physical fitness, goals both relatively recent in origin and heavily influenced by non-Hindu sources. 

Does all this matter?

For me, the answer is ‘yes’. I am concerned about the motivations behind the IDY and the politicisation of yoga, which they represent. However, while I personally remain unwilling to celebrate the IDY, perhaps there is an argument that, in the 10 years since the UN approved the date, the IDY has outgrown its political origins – ironically, like yoga itself, it has been adopted by the west and turned into something rather different. 

Dr. Graham Burns is a Yoga Scotland philosophy tutor.
He has taught both Hinduism and yoga history at SOAS University of London.

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