On June 21, as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s International Yoga Day initiative, 45,000 people are expected to set a record as they practice asanas on the lawns of India Gate. On the same day, a rather smaller and less heralded delegation of 41 Indians will be at a Swissotel in Bangkok — also doing asanas, at the 5th Asian Yoga Sports Championships.
The participants have been selected on the basis of their performance at the 2014 national championships held in Hyderabad by the Yoga Federation of India. The championships were the 39th by the YFI since the inaugural one in 1976. “We recognise state bodies in 25 states,” says Deo Dutt, YFI president.
Dutt estimates that in the last championship in Hyderabad, nearly 2,000 children participated. Players representing India have routinely won gold medals at Asian and World level tournaments that have drawn participants and medalists from countries as unlikely as Iran, China and Pakistan. Apart from hosting tournaments, the YFI routinely hosts camps across the country.
Of the thousands of players — YFI’s term for participants — in their national championships, several have won plaudits on national TV. Others have taken their skills overseas, opening yoga schools across the world. Vipul Bhatti has done both. Termed “the rubber man” by a judge on the TV show India’s Got Talent, Bhatti has now started teaching students in China. Other former participants turned coaches are holding session with over 20,000 people in South Korea on June 21, says Deo Dutt.
All this seemingly ties in perfectly with the PM’s desire to promote yoga in the world. And yet, considering its history and contribution to the cause, the YFI doesn’t feature as prominently in the government’s plans for the occasion. While several players and participants of YFI camps will be at India Gate, the federation itself has not been involved with the organisation of the event.
The organisation has, in fact, been searching for a place in the sun for some time now. “We were recognised by the Indian Olympic Association until 2011. At that point when V K Malhotra was the interim IOA chief, a clause was removed that saw us and 38 other federations, including the School Games Federation of India, de-recognised,” says Dutt. Non-recognition has generally meant difficulty in attracting sponsors, and making it tougher for players to make the most of the sports quota for government jobs and admission to colleges.
As such, while YFI secretary Ashok Agarwal’s ultimate goal is to take yoga to every corner of the country, his immediate goal is more modest — to get YFI recognised by the Sports Ministry and the IOA.
“I have been writing to each Prime Minister and Sports Minister since 1971, asking for their support to make yoga a legitimate sport in India. I wrote to Prime Minister Modi in December last year. We have received a response, and I am optimistic that things will move forward this time,” Aggarwal says.
Adds Dutt, “The PM is doing his bit to make yoga popular. He has got the United Nations to recognise a day as International Yoga Day. AAYUSH has gone from a department to an independent Ministry. So we are grateful.”
Yash Parashar, 25, who had to raise funds to pay for his travel to the Asian Championship, says attitudes towards yoga are changing. “In the past, when I would tell people I won medals in a yoga competition, they would laugh. But because there is a lot more awareness now, it was much easier for me to raise money.”
But Parasher hopes for more. “At the end of the day, the funds came from private organisations. That won’t always be possible. For the last nationals in Hyderabad, travel expenses came to nearly Rs 5,000 per person. Many of the participants are from poor families. There needs to be some government support. I appreciate what the government is doing all over the world, but we would like some help at home too,” he says.