The Incongruity of ‘Yoga Day’

Yasmin gyaate sarvamidam gyatam bhavati nishchitam[1]

Tasmin parishramah kaaryah kimnyat shastrabhashitam II 18 II

‘When by knowing this (Yoga-sastra) all others are clearly known, of what profit can it be to labour and find out what the other sastras say?- 18’

From younger days I have been exposed to yoga at an emotional and spiritual level, as a practice that integrates and unifies the human organism. I never believed it to be anything but an allowance for developing an inner discipline. That is the most significant thing about it- inner discipline; not an outer enforced discipline which comes due to the authority of another and not from self motivation.

Even though I was exposed to yogasana early in life, I never took to it easily, because of plain laziness. But I always remained interested in the other sides of yoga apart from asana, in particular to understand pranayama, and other aspects that signified withdrawal of senses and becoming more still. It was a difficult road considering the extremely difficult mental states I traversed. However, it never took me away from the theoretical interest.

In 2010-11, while staying in Faridabad, I came in contact with Subbarao-ji, who had been a great yoga adept and taught generations of students at the NSD, in Delhi- both yogasana and voice culture. He took me under his wing and decided to teach me. For the first time, I formally learnt yoga under the direct one-on-one supervision of a learned person. Soon thereafter he moved to Hyderabad, and my contact with him terminated. By then I had consolidated all the knowledge of yogasana I had from younger years and he added a whole array of breathing exercises as well as other exercises for voice culture etc.

Over decades of my life, by assimilating ideas from many convergent direction, if there is one thing that I have learnt about yoga, it is humility that must accompany it. In fact the very word yoga is such a big idea that it carries with it deep philosophical connotations, which are lost on most who keep using the words yogasana and yoga interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. They can never be. Yogasana is the mere start of the journey of yoga, especially if we see the eight-fold path. Asana or physical exercise is done for  one’s own wellbeing and  the purpose of one’s  body is not conquest of others. It is about cultivating a disciplined, principled stance towards life, society and the world at large. If we do not care about our body, how will we take care of anything else?

But equally significantly, yoga is not about showing-off or about marking days in the calendar year, to signify the presence of yoga as a form of knowledge, which is Indian or belongs to a particular part of the globe. All knowledge is universal and belongs to the human race- and any part of the human race can be the place of its origin. A place of birth does not hold proprietary claims, but in fact becomes responsible to take the knowledge wider- to the whole world, as an offering to the human race.

I feel amused at the efforts at the noise and the self-congratulatory back-patting in the recent media reports about the acceptance of 21st June as the World Yoga Day by the United Nations. Crores of rupees are spent in meaningless exercises by official government machinery in planning and creating events to mark it. School children and government employees are being roped in huge numbers, across the country to come, participate in yoga day exercises and displays. Why, why, why?

I cannot but see the futility of it. Instead of creating a school system in which health is a natural concern of the child, giving them ample room to play and discipline the body through various forms of exercise while at school, the government decides to institute a day to mark its commitment to public health. Why not increase the area allotted to schools and let them build spaces within them where indoor auditoriums can be built, or more public parks be created in which there would be spaces for exercising, running, playing, doing any form of physical exercises? Will one day take care of their need for the rest of the year, or be enough to inculcate a habit on a long term basis?

Does anyone remember how people live in inner city spaces in any city in India? Do you know that children have never entered a public park on ten consecutive days in their lives? Millions live in jhuggis and slums where it is not possible for ten people to stand side-by-side and exercise in any manner, where children go to open spaces and garbage heaps to defecate and they are chased by dogs, pigs and vultures? There is no question of women exercising anywhere- millions of women. I am not referring to the ones who can go to gyms, jogger’s parks, and privileged spaces demarcated from the rest of the population. I am talking of humble, hardworking, toiling girls and women, who walk out of Muslim ghettoes, of Hindu slums, of Catholic vaddos, and who only know the joy of their body when they come to dress it up for festivities and weddings. Would they ever find the space to do yoga, where their lives are so saddled with disproportionate work and responsibility?

Some might say, oh, why get cynical, this is only a start- more will be embraced by this wave. More people will start exercising and doing yogasana- in future surely.

Right, I get it, World Yoga Day is only meant for those who can  afford to take the time off or be forced into it by authority figures in their vicinity to partake of a government program. Yoga is not meant for the man on the street, because being the man of the street he still has to live off the street. So he cannot give up his occupation and join the yoga crowd, because who will tend to his teashop, bookshop, kiosk, fast food shop, or any shop on the street? Who will tend to your home if the domestic help decided to do yogasana? Okay one day is fine, but what if she gets serious and starts it everyday?

I  get it: we do not need more public spaces where people can do yoga, because as long as they know the significance of yoga, they will do it anywhere, including in their jhuggis which have garbage accumulated close by, or open drains, crisscrossing their paths, making pranayama difficult no doubt, but possible nevertheless. As long as the government can spend crores of rupees on advertizing about it and then feeling proud that a day has been marked in honor of the yoga day, we all have reasons to be proud of something which, in any case, is a part of our lives, even without this governmental effort. How we embrace it and whether it changes anything that now there is a World Yoga Day is something I am not even going to ponder about. It does not. 

It does not change anything. Oh yes, the taxpayer had been made a little proud that his/her hard earned money, is being expended in ventures where they did not have a say, without any public goods being created by way of parks, spaces, jogging tracks, conversion of lands from wastelands to green parks or anything, or even spending the money to pay yoga instructors, who would go into community centers and such public spaces and teach people yogasana for free. At least it would have created more employment!

The institution of the yoga day is actually a repudiating of the very spirit of yoga, which is not about yogasana alone, nor about dominance of yogasana over other any other path of living. The word yoga, signifies union- meant to be a union of the opposites within a person, the evolution of an integrated self, by overcoming through diligent hard work the duality, we are all torn by and emergence of a unified being. It is not meant to be a dominance of any religious belief system over another, in a bid to make them look lesser, or insignificant.

Yoga is about overcoming one’s own lower nature by letting the divine aspect within express by conquering the lower mind, instincts and tendencies. This is the attitude with which I have followed the path of yoga in its different forms, and tried to comprehend the diverse streams of bhakti and karma yoga. To feel the need for a World Yoga Day is the sign of mind having an egoistic attachment to fame and need for adulation, in which we want to drive home the point of our knowledge to other countries, instead of trying to offer it to our own people in ways that they can access it easily, safely and joyfully.

If only more people remembered that Hindi song from the film Guddi-

Hum ko mann ki shakti dena, mann vijay karein; doosron ki jay se pehle khud ko jay karein.

‘Grant me the courage, that before seeking to conquer another, I conquer my own (divided) self’            -the real essence of yoga will come alive for a whole civilization.

It is reasonably doubtful whether 21st June will accomplish the same. India does not need to ‘sell’ yoga further, but become a land of real knowledge seekers, who live the spirit, not mere salesmen, alienated from the soul of what they stand in the market as their wares. It is a world market, let us sell something else now. Any ideas?

(It seems India repeatedly needs to  project its ‘soft-appeal’. Now from a land of snake charmers, holy men and elephants, we are the official salesmen of yoga. Thank you baba Ramdev- but you only came in the line of scores of gurus, before you, nothing special. I remember in my childhood watching Dhirendra Bramhachari. You have sold yoga well, starting from the Astha Channel. But what was your contribution to it, which others did not make? You only came in a time of the media boom, that is all!)

[1] Ghosh, Shyam (1980). The Original Yoga. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. p.6

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prateeksha sharma

Recovery Specialist in Mental Suffering- via counseling. Non Profit Founder. Love to write, tend to dogs, manage a little garden. Largely a hermit. Equally as much- classical musician with fingers in many pies. Parallel work in applied musicology-in particular pedagogy. Also...a Phd researcher

2 thoughts on “The Incongruity of ‘Yoga Day’”

  1. You’ve got an interesting viewpoint Prateeksha – Very reasonable facts well pointed out. I can’t agree more. Yes I also admit that in the midst of the media pomp and public relations glitter, the key component of personal humility is lost and that killed the essence of Yoga. Probably politicians and religious fanatics won’t care much about the basics. They have already got their way of fame.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Manuchettan for your echo. But isn’t this pomp more like a peacock preening its own feathers and gloating. Did anyone ever say that Yoga did not belong to India? What sort of a feat is that a government deploys official machinery, just to enter the Guiness Book? I thought that was meant for individuals or organizations at best…those that grew long whiskers, ate rasagollas and so forth!

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