Wed | Aug 12, 2020

M. Sevala Naik | Celebrating the essence of yoga

Published:Sunday | June 14, 2020 | 12:16 AM
People participate in the Mind Over Madness yoga event to celebrate the summer solstice during a rainstorm in New York’s Times Square, Friday, June 21, 2019.
People participate in the Mind Over Madness yoga event to celebrate the summer solstice during a rainstorm in New York’s Times Square, Friday, June 21, 2019.

June 21 is observed as International Day of Yoga (IDY) throughout the world every year in order to spread awareness about the positive effects of yoga on people’s health. To mark this day, the high commission invites yoga enthusiasts and representatives of yoga studios in Jamaica for yoga demonstrations and celebrations. However, in view of the current COVID-19 crisis, we have decided to celebrate International Yoga Day online this time. The online programme on June 21 will include demonstration of simple warm-up exercises, yoga postures, and meditation techniques by yoga experts and teachers. This will be broadcast live on the high commission’s social-media handles. The theme for this year is ‘Yoga at Home and Yoga with Family’ in line with the current policy of physical distancing.

International Day of Yoga: History

On December 11, 2014, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed the resolution marking June 21 as International Day of Yoga. The UN resolution noted “the importance of individuals and populations making healthier choices and following lifestyle patterns that foster good health”. A total of 177 member states, including Jamaica, co-sponsored the UN resolution, which was the highest number of co-sponsors ever for any UN resolution of such a nature.

While advocating for the earmarking of June 21 as IDY, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, harmony between man and nature, a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not only about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world, and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

Why June 21?

June 21 is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and carries special significance in many parts of the world. From yoga’s perspective, this time is the transition period, i.e., a good time for meditation.

What is yoga?

The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit word that means ‘to join or to unite’. It is cognate with the English word ‘yoke’. In the context of yoga sutras, the word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’. It is an ancient physical, mental, and spiritual practice that gives calmness, peace, confidence, and courage to the people, through which they can do several activities in a better way. At every level of existence, it is a state of harmony.

Although yoga was developed as a systematic study in India around the fifth century BCE, its practice is believed to have originated much farther in history, around 3000 BCE. Sage Patanjali’s expositions on yoga in the second century BCE make him the most revered name in the yoga tradition. Since then, yoga has remained an integral part of the Indian lifestyle and an important component of Indian culture and civilisation.

Benefits of yoga

According to the American Osteopathic Association, the benefits of yoga include increased flexibility and muscle strength; improved respiration, energy, and vitality; a balanced metabolism; weight reduction; better cardio and circulatory health; improved athletic performance; and the reduction of chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Yoga can also help a person manage stress, increase body awareness, and relax the mind.

Is yoga a religion?

The philosophy of yoga is an extension of our psychology and practices. Yoga does not consider any particular religious belief as a requirement for the practice, and one does not need to forgo any faith to benefit from yoga. The only requirement is to uphold the values of ethics and inner peacefulness.

According to Caroline McCarter, the author of Yoga Life: A Workbook of Authentic Practices, “Yoga is a science aimed at understanding the mind-body relationship, as well as calming the mind to incur less mental/emotional suffering. In their original contexts, the teachings of yoga have no theological orientation. The practices of yoga, when correctly taught, will help anyone of any religious tradition deepen their own faith. It is often said that the practice of yoga can make a Christian a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim, and a Buddhist a better Buddhist. For this reason, we find practising Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and non-theists among the countless yoga enthusiasts around the world.”

Popularity in the West

Yoga was introduced to the West by Indians like Swami Vivekanand in the late 19th century, and after that, many yogis spread yoga throughout the world. Western intellectuals also ‘discovered’ yoga, and initially, European and American interest in this practice evolved around its philosophical foundations, but it witnessed its first mass boom in the mid-20th century. Yoga also began to be studied as a subject, which established that there were long-term benefits of yoga. In the last 50 years, millions of people from all over the world have made it a part of their daily routine. Today, it is practised in various forms around the world and continues to grow in popularity.

There have been myriad styles of yoga that have blossomed throughout many Western countries, developing in a range of directions. These include restorative yoga, power yoga, Iyengar yoga, yin yoga, and many more. Most sessions typically include breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures (sometimes called asanas or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups.

What they all share is the achievement of mind-body balance, the foundation of all yoga practices across the globe. Although interpretations of this basic concept of balance often differ from school to school and practitioner to practitioner, yogis seem to have more in common than just a fundamental yearning for a balanced life. Their goal to attain harmony of the body and mind is expressive of something central to their practice and commitment to yoga, their search for liberation.

Yoga is also slowly but steadily growing in popularity in Jamaica, and there are over a dozen yoga studios teaching different variations of yoga in Kingston and in other Jamaican regions. The Indian High Commission had also been imparting yoga lessons within its premises before the current COVID-19 crisis began. These sessions were free of cost and open to everyone willing to learn. The high commission has also arranged for special yoga classes on demand from various schools, embassies, and The University of the West Indies. Since the crisis began, the classes have been conducted online through our social-media accounts.

The contemporary human condition is, by nature, stressful and full of an unprecedented anxiety. This may be why, with its emphasis on peace of mind, yoga found a fertile ground in the West at the dawn of the postmodern age. And once the seed of practice was planted, many turned to it to find a remedy for the imbalances of daily life. Yoga has now become, for many, a practice to achieve liberation from the fear of failure, the fear of pain, and, ultimately, the fear of change. Yoga is more than a physical activity. In the words of one of its most famous practitioners, the late B. K. S. Iyengar, “Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.”

- M. Sevala Naik is the high commissioner of India to Jamaica. Send feedback to hcoffice.kingston@mea.gov.in or columns@gleanerjm.com.