6 June 2024

India’s prime minister has a reputation of casting himself as an ascetic. So when Narendra Modi leads foreign dignitaries and bureaucrats in a session for International Yoga Day on Wednesday at the United Nations’ Secretariat in New York, millions of Indians will take note.

Yoga, an ancient discipline first practiced by Hindu sages, is now one of India’s most successful cultural exports after Bollywood. And it’s become a piece of India’s diplomacy. Surinder Goel, a 61-year-old yoga instructor in the capital, New Delhi, practices daily. He says the activity is “India’s contribution to the world.”

“Our prime minister has done a great job in spreading yoga to the world,” Goel said. “Today, even the Muslim countries learn and follow it, only because of the PM.”

Goel says yoga should be a daily practice worldwide, no matter how busy a person is.

“He (Modi) is the busiest man, despite that he practices daily. When our PM can do Yoga daily, why can’t the common person do it? We should make Yoga compulsory in schools. The whole world should do Yoga 365 days,” he says.

Nine years ago, the Hindu nationalist leader successfully lobbied the U.N. to designate June 21 as International Yoga Day. Since then, Modi has harnessed yoga as a cultural soft power to stretch his nation’s diplomatic reach and flex his country’s rising place in the world.

Modi has promoted yoga so much that even foreign diplomats have been seen stretching themselves in gardens and their embassy offices. Government bureaucrats and officers have taken to social media to show themselves folding in different poses and sometimes tiredly grabbing their backs after mass outdoor yoga sessions. The Indian military has done downward dog with trained K-9 units, boat pose atop an aircraft carrier and mountain pose in the high-altitude Himalayas in bone-chilling temperatures.

Modi has also been living la vida yoga, flexing his own hardcore devotion to the practice.

People perform yoga early morning in a park in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

In 2018 he posted a two-minute video on Twitter that showed him doing a range of yoga poses in a garden, including stretching and leaning backward on a rock in a spread-armed savasana that birthed many memes.

In 2019, after the final day of national polling, he retreated to a Himalayan mountain cave to meditate and seek isolation — with a camera crew that relayed live visuals to the entire nation.

A year later, Modi went the extra mile, tweeting videos showing an animated version of him doing yoga poses.

Now, Modi is guiding leaders from around the world in the practice of yoga to promote its benefits as part of his three-day visit to the U.S.

With over 1.42 billion people, which recently surpassed China as the most populous, India has become fragmented largely along religious lines. Despite its religious roots, Modi has used yoga to try and boost his image in the diverse nation.

Modi’s ministers, following their leader in practicing yoga, have sometimes marked it with religious connotations by doing sun salutations and chanting Sanskrit verses considered holy in Hinduism. Government employees and students have been asked to practice the same, and some state administrations ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have sought to make it mandatory in schools.

This has angered some of the prime minister’s critics. In particular, some Muslims — India’s largest minority, which has faced rising violence under Modi by Hindu nationalists — say they should not be forced to perform sun salutations or chant Hindu hymns.

Government ministers tried to address these concerns by guaranteeing that sun salutations would be optional, though some dissenters are not assured.

Srivalli Cherla has noticed yoga becoming more politicized in recent years.

Women practice yoga on the eve of the International Yoga Day in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, June 20, 2022. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

The 30-year-old yoga instructor based in India’s remote Ladakh region originally took to yoga for physical exercise in 2017. After months of consistent practice, she noticed subtle changes in her body and mental health, and realized yoga was helping her release anger she was holding on to.

“Whenever I am having a bad day, I come back home and roll out my yoga mat. It’s a form of mental discipline too; you learn not to give in to certain thoughts, so it challenges you mentally,” she says.

Cherla said she had signed up for a program to receive a yoga instructor certification recognized by the Indian government’s Ayush Ministry, which promotes Ayurveda traditional medicine. But she quit just 10 days into training.

“The teacher passed a comment that essentially called it a Hindu — and not secular — practice, which left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve never seen it as religious. It’s part of India’s culture, but this comment made me realize what they were teaching didn’t align with my own beliefs or experience of yoga,” she says.

In New Delhi, yogi Goel agrees that yoga is for everyone, regardless of religion. “We should not connect Yoga with religion or politics. Yoga is meant to benefit the common people, not ministers,” Goel says.

And he believes yoga has the power to do more than just diplomacy. “Yoga can change the person, the country and the world,” he says.

By Sheikh Saaliq and Krutika Pathi Associated Press