As over 170 countries around the world celebrate the fifth International Yoga Day on June 21, it is a good moment to reflect on this treasure of ancient India and a unique part of the world’s intangible heritage.
Practised in various forms around the world and continuing to grow in popularity, yoga is essentially an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India possibly around the 5th century BC. It is, of course, an effective workout. But it is much more than that. It is a comprehensive approach to achieve wellness. It recognises the vital connection between the body and the mind. It aims for balance and equanimity, peace, poise and grace. It is a sublime expression of the quest for excellence, for synthesis and harmony. It is an eloquent epitome of the Indian worldview.
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit and means “to join” or “unite”. The science of yoga joins different facets of human existence. The Indian seers have unequivocally emphasised physical fitness as the first and the crucial first step towards human progress. “Shareeramadyam khalu dharma saadhanam”(a healthy body is the prerequisite for achieving higher goals). Recognising that “yoga provides a holistic approach to health and well-being” and also that wider dissemination of information about the benefits of practising yoga would be beneficial for the health of people all over the world, the UN proclaimed June 21 as the International Day of Yoga via Resolution 69/131.
We are living in times of great challenges, of unprecedented change in unpredictable directions. The way we live, learn, work and enjoy is changing rapidly. Lifestyles are getting transformed through technology. We are making significant progress in our relentless quest for economic growth and prosperity, in enhancing convenience and comfort, in enriching our knowledge and skills, in enlarging our choices for entertainment and education. However, as the global community started drafting its development agenda in 2015, it realised that we have been missing a big component of “development”. There was a need for balance. There was a need for caring for the poor. There was a need for caring for the planet. There was a need to look for gross national happiness in addition to gross national product. There was a need to avoid excesses, avoid reckless exploitation of nature, avoid excessive consumption. Our individual lifestyles and patterns of global governance needed to be rebooted. Sustainability has become the new mantra. “Balance” is at the heart of sustainability. And that “balance” in all spheres starting with physical well-being is what yoga is all about.
The Bhagavad Gita makes two important statements: “yoga-sthah kuru karmaani” (Do your duty with a yoga approach) and “samatvam yoga uchyate” (balance is the essence of yoga). Yoga is an approach to life that focuses on physical balance, mental equilibrium and working towards a harmonious synthesis of diverse elements including the protection of the environment. Quite appropriately, the theme of the 2019 International Yoga Day is “Climate Action”.
Yoga’s benefits are slowly being realised the world over. As the world makes the epidemiological transition and the contribution of most of the major non-communicable disease groups to the total disease burden is increasing, it is important that individuals make healthier choices and follow lifestyle patterns that foster good health.
As Harvard Medical School experts have recognised, yoga, a combination of four components — postures, breathing practices, deep relaxation, and meditation — has a significantly positive impact on health. It can alleviate arthritis pain, reduce the risk of heart disease, relieve migraines and fight osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia. A study showed how yoga increased blood vessel flexibility by 69 per cent and even helped shrink arterial blockages without medication.
Since yoga works across multiple systems in our body, Harvard researchers have documented that it helps to rev up immunity and decrease the need for diabetes medications by as much as 40 per cent. Yoga, according to these researchers, does so much for one’s health and well-being that people who do yoga use 43 per cent fewer medical services and save anywhere from $640 to more than $25,000 a year!
It is truly a matter of quiet satisfaction that India is contributing to the health and well-being of millions of people across the globe. Leading from the front, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been spearheading this massive knowledge-sharing exercise. The fact that the UN resolution moved by the Modi government was co-sponsored by a record 177 countries bears testimony to yoga’s universal appeal and India’s readiness to support the cause of global health.
Establishment of the first India-China Yoga College at the Yunnan Minzu University in Kunming in China and the India-Turkmenistan Centre for Yoga and Traditional Medicine in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan are a few of the important first steps in the efforts to spread the benefits of yoga.
After assuming office as Vice President of India, I have been visiting various foreign countries as a part of strengthening bilateral ties with those nations. I was pleasantly surprised to find that yoga has become hugely popular all over the globe. I have learnt that quite a few schools in some countries, including the US, have introduced yoga as a part of the curriculum for children. I have seen yoga centres in many countries like, for example, Peru. In Costa Rica, a presidential decree was issued declaring all activities and initiatives related to promotion of yoga and meditation to be in the public interest.
Yoga is not just about health and well-being. It is also about “focusing” and “excelling”. As the Bhagavad Gita states, “Yogah karmasu kaushalam”(excellence in your work is yoga). This excellence comes as a corollary to “dhyana”(concentration) and “dharana”(retention) along with “yama”(ethical behaviour) and “niyama”(discipline) as a part of the eight-fold approach of yoga as defined by Patanjali, the pioneering exponent of yoga.
Yoga, therefore, is a way of thinking, a way of behaving, a way of learning and a way of problem-solving. It is a unique way of connecting ourselves with the external environment and generating positive synergies of thought and action. It creates stability, enhances ability and promotes conviviality. It can serve as an effective ground for sustainability.
“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life,” remarked the famous yoga guru, the late B K S Iyengar. This symphony is resonating in a million homes today across geographical, national, linguistic and religious boundaries. I do hope the people of the world benefit from these melodies and become free from the maladies that afflict them. On the fifth International Day of Yoga, I can do no better than greet the people of India and the world with the timeless universal prayer of the ancient Indian sages: “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Niraamayaah, Sarve Bhadraani Pashyantu, Maa Kashchit Dukhha Bhaag Bhavet (let everyone be happy, healthy and see good everywhere)”.