Of Yoga, Yogis and Yoga Day

Mumbai, June 20th 2020

Tomorrow the world will celebrate its sixth International Day of Yoga. A resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in 2014, with a record backing of 175 countries, resulted in observing 21 June as the International Day of Yoga. Also popularly known as Yoga Day, every summer solstice is awaited eagerly by millions of yoga enthusiasts across the world.

What’s behind this phenomenal interest in yoga? Let’s first understand what yoga is. The word yoga has its roots in Sanskrit and literally means “to be in union with the universe”. It can viewed as both a process and a resulting state of existence but in essence it is a system of inner well-being. Its process includes methods and practices to achieve good health, stillness of mind, a balanced personality and for an individual to be in harmony with the universe. So, undoubtedly it’s the several benefits that yoga provides that’s behind its universal resurgence.

Yogis, then and now

The system of Yoga was compiled by sage Patanjali who lived in India between the 4th and 2nd century BC. He was the assimilator of yogic sciences reflected in his work Yoga Sutras and so complete was his work that as far as inner well-being matters, there may be nothing left to be explored.  As per folklore, as assimilator he merely consolidated practices that prevailed for nearly three millennia prior to his time. These were first pronounced by Lord Shiva, better known as the Adi Yogi or the first guru.

For centuries, the Yoga Sutras, like everything else were communicated verbally and passed on from guru to disciple. In fact the traditional delivery method of yoga is through a guru-shishya or guru-disciple relationship. Sanjeev Shukla aka Sivarupa in his book Yogis of India, captures the lives of eminent yogis that includes Ramakrishna Parmahansa, Ramana Maharishi and Swami Sivananda Saraswati. However, it was Swami Vivekanada and Swami Parmahansa Yogananda -author of Autobiography of a Yogi– who popularized yoga in the West.

There is a stark difference between yogis then and now as information technology has created global platforms to spawn remote followings. Contemporary yogis like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are among those who are involved in this global outreach. While most yogis traditionally were male, this is now not so. The late Mirra Alfassa aka The Mother established a school of Integral Yoga at Pondicherry. More recently, women yogis like Mata Amritanandamayi and Anandmurti Gurumaa have gained prominence.

The System of Yoga

While yoga originated in India, its acceptance has been universal and it has adapted to local socio-political and cultural norms world over so much so that it can hardly be called a Hindu custom. The system of yoga has physical, mental, emotional and life energy dimensions with a spiritual underlying and it is the latter that gets mistaken for a Hindu religious practice. To get this right one needs to grasp the difference between religion and spirituality. Yoga is free of dogma and lacks belief systems, two essential elements for it to be considered a religion. Yoga is experiential in nature and its approach scientific and save for a minor aspect in bhakti yoga, it does not even associate itself with any rituals. Spirituality is common ground among distinct religions and it is this common space that yoga provides access to.

Apart from yoga belonging to Hindu religion, there are several other myths about Yoga. It is certainly not an exercise regime and it is not about setting up morning and/or evening practice sessions. Yoga is a way of a life, a way of being which once attained can provide an endless source of bliss and well-being and help break down boundaries.


Myths about Yoga Pic credit: Isha Foundation

One of the startling blind spots in yoga’s popularity is that an overwhelming number of practitioners focus on hata yoga alone which concerns itself with asanas or postures. The Yoga Sutras are essentially content threads across different yoga domains and of 196 in all only one sutra dwells on hata yoga. There are many other forms of yoga which include raj yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga and karma yoga but only the more committed practitioners of yoga adopt these. It must be remembered that notwithstanding the benefits of hata yoga, its adoption in isolation is limiting.


Structure of Yoga

Structure of Yoga: Source, Bihar School of Yoga

Yoga Day

From New York’s Times Square to the Great Wall of China; from Australia to Brazil, Yoga Day is celebrated across the world. The US alone has an estimated 36 million yoga practitioners. The choice of the summer solstice as Yoga Day is an inherently good one. It’s the longest day in the Northern hemisphere which is home for 90% of humanity. The summer solstice has immense cross-cultural  significance and has been celebrated by several faiths. Also, it was on this day that Lord Shiva first imparted yoga teachings to a group of seven disciples. So, Yoga Day serves as a reminder to humanity to acknowledge nature’s methods of attaining well-being. However, it would serve no purpose if people were to follow yoga just for one day while ignoring it the rest of the year.

Not everyone looks at yoga as the gold standard for inner well-being. Vikram Zutshi, a Los Angeles based writer and film maker dwells on the real reason we should celebrate Yoga Day. Many critics cite yoga Day as the agenda of India’s Hindu nationalist party and accuse it of giving yoga a religious colour. The politicization of yoga is indeed unfortunate but is not a good enough reason to throw it away.  What detractors miss is that it is less important who proposed International Day of Yoga and instead focus on yoga’s essence which is to be in unison with the cosmos. Only when we are in that state can we truly dissolve our identities and heal the world. Look at it this way, if a zealot gives a person the gift of liberation then should one accept or reject it?


Feature image credit: AlbanyHerald.com, Africa Yoga Project

Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own


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