Yoga Day takes a stress­ful turn

In­dia is lead­ing events Sun­day. But Mus­lims ob­ject to the prac­tice, not­ing its Hindu roots.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali shashank.ben­gali Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Parth M.N. con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MUM­BAI, In­dia — Ch­ha­tra­p­ati Shivaji Ter­mi­nus, the Vic­to­rian-era head­quar­ters of one of In­dia’s largest rail net­works through which more than 600,000 pas­sen­gers travel ev­ery day, is not known as a place of calm.

But in a chan­de­liered, colon­naded ex­ec­u­tive din­ing hall, a few dozen rail­way em­ploy­ees have been at­tend­ing vol­un­tary yoga classes ev­ery af­ter­noon as part of a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored cam­paign to pro­mote the an­cient In­dian dis­ci­pline na­tion­wide.

“It’s very peace­ful,” R. Ra­jesh­wari, a 26-year vet­eran of the com­mer­cial in­spec­tions depart­ment, said af­ter an hour­long ses­sion Wed­nes­day. “My job is mostly sit­ting at my desk or run­ning around to sta­tions. I’ve never had such a chance be­fore.”

The or­ga­nized breath­ing, chant­ing and stretch­ing cul­mi­nates Sun­day in the first In­ter­na­tional Day of Yoga, an idea pro­posed at the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly last fall by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, a yoga devo­tee, and en­dorsed by 175 coun­tries.

In­dia’s lead­er­ship of the event, how­ever, has been rather less serene than some yoga teach­ers might like.

To en­sure a good turnout, stu­dents in Mum­bai have been told to come to school early Sun­day morn­ing for yoga demon­stra­tions. Army per­son­nel are ex­pected to take part at bases and aboard air­craft car­ri­ers. Paunchy civil ser­vants have huffed and gri­maced through of­fi­cial prac­tice ses­sions.

The For­eign Min­istry has flown in­struc­tors around the world and is spon­sor­ing yoga events in 191 coun­tries through its diplo­matic mis­sions, of­fi­cials said. Thou­sands are ex­pected in New York’s Times Square, where yoga guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar will take the crowd through poses that will be broad­cast via satel­lite. Events are also planned in Los An­ge­les, San Fran­cisco and other cities.

The big­gest event will take place in New Delhi, the In­dian cap­i­tal, where about 35,000 peo­ple will par­tic­i­pate in a 35-minute pro­gram at Ra­j­path, the cer­e­mo­nial boule­vard that more of­ten hosts mil­i­tary pa­rades and fu­neral pro­ces­sions. Modi will at­tend, although of­fi­cials say he will not be prac­tic­ing yoga.

Or­ga­niz­ers have ap­plied for con­sid­er­a­tion in the Guin­ness Book of World Records for the largest yoga demon­stra­tion and have re­cruited ath­letes, film stars and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to beef up the num­ber. Se­nior bu­reau­crats were sent letters last week ad­mon­ish­ing them to study the pre­scribed poses closely be­cause if “their per­for­mance is not up to the mark, we run the risk of the record claim … be­ing af­fected.”

In an­nounc­ing the un­usu­ally thor­ough prepa­ra­tions, For­eign Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj de­scribed yoga as “the best soft power In­dia has.”

“The aim is to bring the world on the path of peace,” Swaraj said. “It is needed as we have been wit­ness­ing vi­o­lence around us.”

Yet in a coun­try in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized along re­li­gious lines, some see the pro­mo­tion of yoga as part of a broader pro-Hindu agenda by Modi’s con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, which has ties to right-wing Hindu na­tion­al­ist groups that are of­ten hos­tile to re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims.

Over the last year, Modi al­lies have falsely ac­cused Mus­lims of forcibly con­vert­ing Hin­dus to Is­lam, at­tempted to make Hindu re­li­gious texts re­quired read­ing in schools and banned the pos­ses­sion of beef in the western state of Ma­ha­rash­tra on grounds that the cow is sa­cred in Hin­duism.

It was per­haps not sur­pris­ing, then, that some prom­i­nent Mus­lim groups re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in yoga demon­stra­tions be­cause of the dis­ci­pline’s Hindu roots. They ar­gued that the surya na­maskar pose, or sun salute, vi­o­lates the Is­lamic belief that only God can be wor­shiped, while some yo­gic chants are part of Hin­duism.

“Chant­ing ‘ Om, hari om’ — these are the words of Hin­duism. Mus­lims can­not say these words,” said Ab­dul Rahim Qureshi, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the All In­dia Mus­lim Per­sonal Law Board. The group has filed a case against the gov­ern­ment of the north­ern state of Ra­jasthan for re­port­edly re­quir­ing stu­dents to at­tend the yoga ses­sions.

“This gov­ern­ment is try­ing to im­pose Hindu cul­ture and Hindu forms of wor­ship on non-Hin­dus,” Qureshi said. “This is not al­lowed by the con­sti­tu­tion.”

Of­fi­cials pointed out that the sun salute was not part of the of­fi­cial list of poses for Yoga Day. Some states said the demon­stra­tions were not com­pul­sory. It all amounted to a great deal of fric­tion for an event that was sup­posed to pro­mote har­mony.

“Yoga has no re­li­gious con­no­ta­tion. Peo­ple like to make po­lit­i­cal state­ments that are not based on facts,” said Su­bodh Ti­wari, joint di­rec­tor of the Kaivalyadhama Yoga In­sti­tute, the main or­ga­nizer of events in Mum­bai.

But Ti­wari ac­knowl­edged that Modi’s em­brace of yoga had un­doubt­edly led to a reawak­en­ing of the dis­ci­pline in In­dia. With the sup­port of state of­fi­cials, his in­sti­tute will be hold­ing events Sun­day for em­ploy­ees of the rail­ways, postal ser­vice, util­ity com­pa­nies, po­lice and other agen­cies, as well as pris­on­ers and the gen­eral public.

Rail­way of­fi­cials in Mum­bai first thought of of­fer­ing yoga to their em­ploy­ees sev­eral years ago and de­scribed the classes that started last month as “in line with the gov­ern­ment’s think­ing.”

“Yoga has al­ways been there in In­dia, but it was taken for granted,” Ti­wari said. “[Modi] has taken some­thing that was there in our her­itage and strength­ened it.”

San­jay Kanojia AFP/Getty Im­ages

PEO­PLE take part in a yoga work­shop in Al­la­habad, In­dia. The na­tion is spon­sor­ing global events as part of the In­ter­na­tional Day of Yoga.

Sam Panthaky AFP/Getty Im­ages

STU­DENTS in Ahmed­abad at­tend a work­shop. An of­fi­cial de­scribed yoga as In­dia’s “best soft power.”

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