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On the occasion of International Yoga Day (21 June), Dr Shameem Black shares her insights on yoga and its close association with the concepts of politics, identity and culture.
In a year marked by global health crisis, the United Nations has dedicated the 2021 celebration of International Day of Yoga to “Yoga for well-being.” In many parts of the world, millions have turned to yoga during the pandemic to bolster their immunity, pursue spiritual growth, improve their moods, remain active in lockdown, and combat the loneliness of life in a world of masks, walls, and screens. But it’s not just individuals who have turned to yoga for hope that they can stay well. Nations have too.
In India, where yoga has achieved heightened political prominence in recent years, yoga sits at the heart of longstanding anxieties about how the country should pursue well being. In the early twentieth century, anticolonial reformers argued that India had been colonised because its population was physically weak. As historians have shown, the practice of yoga was in part reinvigorated by Indian elites in the 1920s who wanted to train a generation of strong young men. Yoga allowed Indian leaders to appear strong on a world stage, even and especially when India was politically weak.
Echoes of these histories reappear today in the India of Narendra Modi, whose election as Prime Minister in 2014 brought yoga to renewed national prominence. Modi has promoted yoga as a low-cost health technology with nationalist cache. Yoga plays a role in Modi’s “Fit India” movement, which encourages Indians to “devote time for physical activity and sports every day” and “encourage my family members and neighbours to be physically fit and make India a fit nation.” Yoga can also be compatible with the Hindu nationalist rhetoric of India as a vishwaguru, or teacher to the world, which has been used to project images of a rising Indian nation with ambitions on a global stage.
The pandemic has amplified this national branding. When International Yoga Day came around in 2020, Modi promoted yoga as a way to boost immunity and cope with lockdowns. In early 2021, India emphasized its identity as a vishwaguru through its vaccine diplomacy, when the country presented itself as a benevolent patron in its regional neighbourhood.
As 21 June comes into view, with close to 30 million COVID cases, India now has turned from the giver of aid to the recipient. Yet the language of yoga continues to underwrite the ideal of an imagined healthy India, even as thousands fall sick each day. Baba Ramdev, one of India’s most famous yoga gurus and leader of a spiritual empire of nationalist products, projected this idea when he controversially blamed India’s COVID deaths on the failings of Western-inspired medicine. Such proclamations continue a long history of Indian anxieties about being perceived as a sick, unfit nation.
Regardless of how yoga promotes the well being of individuals, it remains highly prized for the well being of national identity.