International Yoga Day

December 12, 2014    BY Kathryn Ashworth

To say that yoga has grown in popularity over the past few decades would certainly be an understatement. Yoga is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The US yoga market alone is estimated to be a $10 million a year industry with over 20 million practitioners. And globally? Recent reports suggest that around 250 million people are practicing. And this Thursday, the United Nations officially declared June 21st “International Yoga Day.” But before we get into the significance of this decision, let’s take a look at our modern yoga culture.

The United Nations officially declared June 21st “International Yoga Day.

With such a rise in popularity, it’s probably not much of a surprise that the yoga industry has become a “something-for-everyone” market. More and more, hybrid classes which merge yoga with other disciplines like pilates, dance, weight-lifting, or cycling, as well as niche styles, such as naked yoga and pot-friendly yoga are emerging. And for many of us  this raises the question, “what exactly is yoga anyway?”

Overall, current trends would seem to suggest that “yoga” has become a primarily exercise-oriented industry. According to a  2012 Yoga Journal survey, out of the 20-plus million Americans practicing, 78.3 percent reported being drawn to the mat in order to improve flexibility, reduce stress, and to address matters of general health and fitness.

And yet, historically speaking, yoga is a 5,000 year old tradition of which asana is merely a part. At the heart of this practice is the desire to unite with divine consciousness. Many fear that recent trends are far too secular, watering down the core of yoga. As a result, movements to reclaim yoga have arisen. A pertinent example of this being the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Yoga Back” campaign whose mission statement speaks to a growing sentiment that spirituality is all too often left out of fitness-centered yoga:

“With proliferation of new forms of ‘yoga,’ the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost. Take Back Yoga aims to bring to light yoga as a life-long practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.”

Even more recently, yoga’s country of origin has been making efforts to reclaim the practice in its own way. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had this to say: “There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form...We’re trying to establish to the world that it’s ours.”

To promote the practice, the prime minister recently introduced a ministry of yoga as a part of a greater movement to expand the practice of yoga across India into various sectors of civic life—including school systems, police centers, and hospitals. Yet, the hope it seems, is not only to reinstate yoga as uniquely Indian, but also to reinstate core values of the practice globally, which according to Modi, are "unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being.

In September 2014, Modi addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and promoted the practice of yoga at large: "Yoga should not be just an exercise for us, but it should be a means to get connected with the world and with nature," he stated. “It should bring a change in our lifestyle and create awareness in us, and it can help fighting against climate change." With these sentiments, he proposed a collective recognition of yoga: International Yoga Day.

On Thursday, December 11, 2014, a mere three months after Modi’s speech, the UNGA made it so. June 21st is now “International Yoga Day.” The UNGA stated that the motivation behind this decision was that creating a "wider dissemination of information about the benefits of practicing yoga would be beneficial for the health of the world population." The resolution, which was conceived under the “Global Health and Foreign Policy” initiative, was received with enthusiasm. Not only was it co-sponsored by 175 out of the 193 UNGA member states, it was also voted in by acclamation alone.

What’s your take? What kind of impact could this initiative make?

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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