The United Nations General Assembly heard a variety of speakers this week that drew a lot of attention – from Emma Watson on feminism at the beginning of the week to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi today. While Modi did address some topics one would expect from the leader of a emerging economy, it was an unexpected topic that caught ears. Modi’s U.N. speech may have touched on world peace and climate change, but it was the call for world yoga that turned heads.
Elected Prime Minister (PM) in May, Modi was making his first U.N. General Assembly speech and talking about climate change when he suddenly brought up yoga. The PM invoked his country’s Hindu and ascetic traditions, which he said might provide answers to climate change. Modi then surprised everyone by calling for an International Yoga Day and describing the ancient science of yoga as “India’s gift to the world.”
“Yoga should not be just an exercise for us,” Modi said, noting that yoga should also be used as “a means to get connected with the world and with nature.” He encouraged more people to take up the practice of yoga, which predates the Islam’s arrival in India. “It should bring a change in our lifestyle and create awareness in us.”
Modi has previously explained that he was introduced to yoga when he was young. At the U.N., he pointed out that the practice “is not about exercise but discovering the sense of oneness within yourself, the world and nature.”
In the U.S., Modi is preaching to the choir. Yoga continues to rise in popularity. In 2012, a study showed that 20.4 million Americans regularly practice yoga, up 29 percent from the 15.8 million practitioners reported in a similar study in 2008. While Modi has long been a practitioner, in the U.S. less than 20 percent of those who regularly practice yoga are male.
Modi has commented that yoga is not expensive. All one needs is a mat to do yoga, per the PM. However, yoga in this country has become a multi-billion dollar business with expenditures on classes, equipment, vacations and clothing at price points from Lululemon at the higher end to Target or Walmart on the budget end.
While some U.S. practitioners worry about their attire, many forget or understate its link to India (in spite of saying “Namaste” and the Sanskrit names for poses). Modi’s reminder about “India’s gift” on the world stage to India’s gift is possible meant to remind Americans and the rest of the world audience of his country’s historical involvement.
World Yoga Day has actually been celebrated in some areas and yoga studios since 2007 (the next one is on February 22, 2015), but there has never been an official sanction. When other world leaders spoke at the U.N. about political issues, Modi advocated inculcating yoga in lives and urged the nations of the world to adopt an International Yoga Day. He noted that changing one’s “lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change.”
By Dyanne Weiss