Yoga Day : Promoting Health? Or Homogenization?

21 June 2015 was declared by the United Nations, following the appeal from the India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the International Day of Yoga. Prior to the much televised spectacle on 21 June, institutions, including educational institutions had been issued circulars to ensure that people participated in these programmes either by way of performing yoga or observing others perform the same.

For instance, the UGC circular sent to educational institutions clearly stated that, “In the morning a Demo by Yoga Practitioners will be organized on Yoga Day. The willing students and faculties of the universities will practice yoga as shown by the practitioners. The other students/faculties will, however, observe the same” (Letter, D.O.F. No. 1-1/2015), going on to add that the institutes were also required to send an Action Taken report to the UGC.

On the morning of 21 June 2015 and then for the rest of the day, the news channels flooded us with images of the Prime Minister, various other ministers and senior BJP leaders performing yoga along side school children and occasionally adults. Serious concerns about the right to health as an integral part of right to life were thus reduced to another photo opportunity by the ruling government, which now appears to have mastered the art of reducing concerns like health, hygiene, governance and cleanliness to one day antics performed in front of still and video and cameras. So instead of posing with brooms, we now had our ministers posing in various asanas that were performed for about half an hour. We must perhaps now rest assured that like ‘Achche Din’, ‘good health’ too is in on its way, about to reach us anytime soon.

So what is wrong if the Government of India is trying to promote yoga, when indeed yoga has proven benefits? Yoga has indeed benefited people across centuries and across continents.

But the problem lies with the government communalizing this tradition, and forcefully imposing it, not to promote health but homogenization.

The problem lies with the government giving a green signal to the corporatization and monopolization of a beneficial practice by prmoting a select few who have not only turned yoga into an industry but gone ahead to insult this practice by trying to attach it with misogynist and homophobic agendas.

Yes to Yoga As Fitness Choice, No to Yoga As Loyalty Test
The thinly-veiled agenda of the Modi Government behind Yoga Day, was revealed by the BJP MP Adityanath who declared that those who did not practice yoga and suryanamaskar should “drown in the sea.”

How can the government in a democracy, dictate a fitness choice for people? The government’s job should instead have been to provide all possible infrastructures for different fitness techniques including yoga, leaving it to people to choose.

This imposition of yoga is worsened by the attempts to yoke yoga to Hindutva and make yoga camps the equivalent of the RSS shakhas.

Navtej Johar, a noted dancer and a yoga practitioner has researched the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the first text exclusively devoted to the philosophy of yoga. He points out that Yoga is based on Samkhya, which is actually a “materialist” philosophy that considers the potency of matter as pradhana, or the chief cause of material Nature and does not mention the idea of God”[1]. The notion of theism in yoga and the linking of yoga to specific Hindu Gods came much later, with the Vedanta tradition remoulding yoga in its own image.

And today we witness a deliberate attempt to communalise yoga, turning yoga into a weapon of RSS’ ‘cultural nationalism’. Interestingly, 21 June does not seem to be an innocent choice for Yoga Day - it is the death anniversary of the RSS founder K B Hedgewar.

On Yoga Day, the RSS and BJP leader Ram Madhav cast aspersions on the Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari for his absence from the yoga event. It was clear that Ansari’s absence was being used to question his patriotism, because he is a Muslim. It emerged that the Vice President had not even been invited to the event by the concerned Minister. But Ram Madhav’s remarks revealed that the BJP is trying to turn yoga into a tool of its majoritarian politics of hate-mongering and bullying of minorities. Turning yoga into a litmus test of loyalty for minorities does a great disservice to yoga.

It must also be noted that the Modi Government is choosing not to strengthen the yoga infrastructure in government-run institutes, but is instead extending maximum financial aid to pro-BJP ‘Godman’ empires run by Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankar, and Ramdev have both been vocal voices in support of the Modi Government’s bigotry on many issues. Ramdev in particular has even linked yoga to the ‘cure’ of homosexuality.

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Where is the Holistic Concern About Health?

The road towards good health cannot bypass the survival needs of the people. Survival precedes fitness and requires at the very minimum, means of livelihood, basic nutrition and access to affordable medical infrastructure. In India, tackling malnutrition and hunger (levels of which compete with those of sub-Saharan Africa) ought to take a priority. Yet the Modi Government in its first year of office has launched assaults on means of livelihood, and cut down budget allocation on health and nutrition schemes even as it spends crores on the one-day yoga spectacle.

The Government has slashed spending on the MNREGA, a source of basic livelihood and survival. It has also slashed spending on the ICDS, which supports the health and nutrition of women and children. It has done nothing to further the rights of the under-paid and overworked Accredit Social Health Acivists or the ASHA workers who provide their service to health programmes in India. Can a government serious about health afford to be blind to the conditions of those who form the backbone of the public health system!

Ironically, one of the ministries that received extremely low budgetary allocation in contrast to what was promised was the ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH)!

Corporatization of Yoga

One of the key beneficiaries of the Government’s yoga blitz, Baba Ramdev, has established an entire industrial empire by selling yoga and using the name ‘Patanjali’ (the name of the author who compiled Yog Sutras), to sell products ranging from cosmetics, food items and detergents. Such is the irony that today many Indians are likely to associate the term ‘Patanjali’ with the products sold under this brand name than with Yog Sutras!

Today Patanjali is a multi crore business empire, with BJP state governments even trying to provide Ramdev with a cabinet rank. One would expect that such a multi crore empire could manage its own funds for promotion of yoga. But the Government has chosen to give Ramdev nearly 191 yoga camps to run (the maximum number of camps allotted to a single organisation/trust), and will pay him Rs 191 lakh for it, as has been pointed out by senior journalist Ravish Kumar in his blog[2]. In fact, it isn’t just Ramdev, heads of other similar Godman empires have been preferred by the government over several smaller organisations that focus solely on yoga. How can strengthening of such privately run yoga industries be the way to strengthen yoga infrastructure?

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