International Yoga Day

This Sunday (June 21st) is the first International Yoga Day. However, it’s tantamount to having International Exercise Day. The celebration of this event furthers the confusions and ignorance about Yoga’s true value. Allow me to explain why.

Last year India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Canada and the US. He was given the opportunity to address the UN. This is what he had to say:

International-Day-of-Yoga“We need to change our lifestyles. Energy not consumed is the cleanest energy. We can achieve the same level of development, prosperity and well being without necessarily going down the path of reckless consumption. It doesn’t mean that economies will suffer; it will mean that our economies will take on a different character. For us in India, respect for nature is an integral part of spiritualism. We treat nature’s bounties as sacred. Yoga is an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition. Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being. It is not 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.”

His address was so well received that the UN declared June 21st as International Yoga Day. Across India and the world, Sunday will be host to massive classes but I ask, what good will that do?

There is an inherent fallacy found throughout the Yoga community that doing Hatha-Yoga (postures) will have some profound effect on our lives. In the true spirit of Yoga, we must be precise and clear about our ideas. There is no reason to believe that doing exercises will make you happy. It will help you be fit and healthy, both of which are important but you don’t need Yoga to achieve them.

Mr. Modi called Yoga a “holistic approach to health and well being” and I agree fully (holistic meaning “complete” or “whole”).  The sweeping tendency in the modern Yoga movement is to focus on the first (health) and (largely) forget the second part (well being/happiness). If we practice in a partial way then we will only enjoy partial benefits. If we practice holistically then only can we expect holistic benefits. More dangerous is the baseless assumption that practicing the first will also give the second. We know very well that happiness does not lie in the body but is found in the mind.

I think it’s a real shame because not only do we short-change Yoga but mostly we short-change ourselves. Yoga’s most precious gift is in regard to our mind (peace & happiness), which we are in desperate need of in our modern lives. I agree that health is important and a pre-requisite for happiness but beyond that what will it bring us? Fitness is great but it’ll never make us happy. My concern in reducing Yoga to a form of exercise is in losing it’s most valuable gem.

I certainly do not wish to take anything away from all those enthusiastic Hatha-Yoga practitioners who are going to participate in lovely community events on Sunday. I encourage the physical practice but I would also suggest an addition: I encourage everyone to take five minutes of quite reflection and self-examination. Please remember that Yoga is about right knowledge and right practice. We should not be so naive as to think a few thousand (or million?) people doing Sun Salutations is going to change the world; imagine if that same number re-invented themselves from the inside by practicing holistic Yoga. That is a world I would like to see.

yoga around the world