There is no end in sight to the debates on “yoga day”. At one end, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath said that those who think suryanamaskar should be excluded from the “common yoga protocol” should “leave Hindustan” or “drown themselves in the sea or live in a dark room for the rest of their lives”. At the other end, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen has appealed to Muslims to perform namaz on yoga day to protest the BJP’s attempt “to promote its saffron agenda”. These debates are significant to worldwide disputes over what yoga is and to whom it belongs.
The government’s recent efforts reflect its interest in reclaiming yoga from “foreigners” who are perceived to have co-opted it for their own profit. Yoga day has also become an important part of that strategy.
According to the protocol for yoga day, yoga is an ancient Indian “spiritual discipline” that leads to health. The protocol also defines yoga as a practice that “leads to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness”, resulting in “freedom, referred to as mukti, nirvana, kaivalya or moksha”. Given such a narrowly conceived definition of yoga that describes its aim in religious terms, it is no wonder that Indian Muslims fear yoga day.
The fear that yoga could be used to impose a Hindu nationalist agenda is not new. For several years, some MPs have attempted to make yoga compulsory in schools, angering certain Muslims who suggest that teaching it is tantamount to religious indoctrination. Another public campaign beyond India courts fear of yoga, arguing that people have been duped into thinking it is merely a consumer product. The movement warns that yoga has its origins in India and is essentially Hindu. The most suspicious and fear-inciting critics include certain Christian organisations and even some parents in Encinitas, California, who sued their public school district for teaching students yoga. Some Hindus join these Christians in defining yoga as Hindu, most notably the Hindu American Foundation.
Attempts to define yoga in terms of some national or religious identity are alive and well despite the lived and historical reality that yoga has never been a static or unified system. Rather, it has varied in its premodern and modern forms, featuring different practices and aims, many of which appeared both within and beyond Hindu traditions and the borders of today’s India.
What many scholars call modern postural yoga, which includes movement through yoga postures, usually synchronised with the breath, serves as the practical component of the government’s protocol. Postural yoga cannot be defined as either Hindu or Indian. Scholars doing historical and anthropological research have shown that yoga proponents constructed modern postural yoga systems in response to early-20th-century transnational trends, including military calisthenics, modern medicine and the physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders and contortionists. Postural yoga’s methods and aims, which include health, stress reduction, beauty, fitness and overall well-being, all according to modern medicine and standards, were specific to the time period and would not have been considered as yoga prior to the 20th century.
A responsible approach to yoga would capture the historical and lived reality that yoga is an ongoing process, not a static object. It includes a variety of historical as well as living, dynamic traditions, hence the divergences between many premodern Buddhists, Jains and Hindus who practised yoga both within and beyond India, as well as the living yoga giants, Baba Ramdev and Bikram Choudhury, or the American yoga entrepreneurs, tantric-fitness yoga advocate John Friend and the evangelical Christian proponent of “Holy Yoga” Brooke Boon. Any attempt to demarcate what counts as yoga based on particular national or religious identities, themselves constructed long after the historical emergence of yoga and the majority of its history, is historically and socially misguided.
In sum, I am deeply suspicious of all who attempt to define yoga by appealing to assumed national or religious identities. Their opinions share the same, wrong essentialising strategies as other worldwide debates over yoga’s identity. Unfortunately, the government’s and its opponents’ recent arguments on yoga have served to trap their audiences in inaccurate myths of yoga’s Indian origin or static Hindu essence.
The writer, assistant professor of religious studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is author of ‘Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture’.