NEW YORK – Unwary visitors to Times Square on June 21 – the day which commemorates the International Day of Yoga, since its inception in 2015, and which this year coincided with the Summer Solstice – were fascinated, riveted by the sight of a deluge of green mats spread on the ground with the Hindu symbol ‘Om’ on it.
Thousands of people stretched out in postures, contortions, in tandem, at various intersections as the day went on; yoga teachers and gurus directing asanas from one of several makeshift stages. Sanskrit shlokas and chants reverberated intermittently.
The American apparel company American Eagle, with the hashtag #AerieREAL, was a big sponsor, dominated the ad space around Times Square, conducted some classes too. There were plenty of freebies, even for newbies, who wanted to try out for a yoga session, which spanned the course of the day. Swami Parmananda was scheduled for the evening. Despite the soaring heat, participants were enthusiastic and energetic; recognized they are part of one of the biggest cultural movements globally this millennium.
The green yoga mats were doled out free, as were generous goodie bags that came with it, which included among snack items and promotional discounts for services, a quartet of medimix ayurvedic soaps manufactured by Cholayil, located in Andhra Pradesh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who sowed the seeds of the International Yoga Day at a UN speech, in New York, in 2014, had then envisioned yoga as a way to inculcate curiosity in India’s ancient traditions. He had spoken fervently of yoga’s multi-benefits – unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.
Modi, of course, was only spreading awareness of yoga to the uninitiated, which in the US, had roots in New York more than 100 years ago. Swami Vivekananda wrote his iconic book ‘Raja Yoga’, in Manhattan, in 1896, which traced the birth of yoga to India in the 5th century BCE. It was only after the second World War though, that yoga finally started to take shape in the US, after Indra Devi, a Russian-origin yoga teacher, opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, California, in 1947.
Today, though Modi’s vision has taken root as a wider phenomenon globally than perhaps he even envisioned, it has its stark contrast too. It’s hard not to notice in photos of Modi leading participants at yoga sessions in Dehradun, only males in the background. Contrast that to Times Square, where the sea of faces doing yoga comprised mostly of young women.
As to who is appropriating yoga today, leading it in ways which does not connote India or its traditions is a different conversation altogether, on which an entire thesis can be written.
For many young yoga practitioners and teachers in New York, even though they may not have traveled to India, it has a strong attraction for them; yoga is the spark that ignited their interest in the country and they are grateful for it.
Take for instance a yoga teacher who goes by the name of Ashutosh now, or simply ‘Ash’ as he told this writer, in a conversation at Times Square. A Puerto Rican by origin, the 39-year-old changed his name from Hernan Aviles to his given name after being taught Hatha yoga by an Indian guru, in Puerto Rico, back in 2006. He now teaches yoga to young corporate professionals for $100 a session, which usually lasts an hour.
“There is great enthusiasm for yoga,” said Ashutosh, adding: “I teach mostly people in their 20s, and they get hooked to it fast.”
Today, there are according to some estimates some two billion people who practice one form or the other of yoga. Newsweek reported that according to a 2016 Yoga Journal report, 36.7 million people practice yoga in the US, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Yoga practice has benefits for both physical and mental health. Experts believe that it can help conditions such as depression and PTSD.
Yoga’s increasing popularity means that some feel that the practice is becoming commercialized, with luxury yoga brands such as Lululemon selling prayer beads for $108, Newsweek pointed out. The yoga market is now worth $16 billion in the US.
Yoga continues to make news for ingenuity too, with cities vying with each other to be in the headlines.
After a world record was set by 40,000 people in New Delhi in the inaugural year of the International Day of Yoga, four years ago, this year Kota in Rajasthan surpassed that easily, managing to gather a humungous gathering of 200,000 people to set a new Guinness World Record.
Among other notables, there was also the awesome sight of Indian Air Force instructors performing yogic poses in the sky. If one of them was mistook for the fabled Trishanku, you would be forgiven.
There is also the indelible image of mesmerizing display of yoga postures via laser beams on the United Nations Secretariat wall, in New York. The UN display beat for creativity the display of the Indian tricolor on the Empire State Building every August 15th, to commemorate India’s Independence Day. But for Indians, both score evenly when it comes to invoking pride for motherland.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)