I think it is a good thing to have more compulsory physical exercise in Indian schools, particularly yoga.

Scholar Wendy Doniger has written that the modern practice of yoga is not ancient but a recent phenomenon. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra does not prescribe any poses, and modern yoga came to India in the 18th and 19th centuries with Europeans. They were discovering the benefits of exercise, encouraged by books like Rousseau’s Emile. Many dispute this fact and think yoga is ancient.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that yoga is a practice that millions of Indians are familiar with. And it will be less difficult to find people who can teach yoga to school students than instructors in other physical things like athletics and gymnastics.

I learnt some of the benefits of yoga during a course with the Art of Living many years ago. The one thing that occurred to me was that through yoga, the body could be used to calm the mind. This was after a session doing the breathing technique called Sudarshan Kriya. During this session, a photo of the Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was put in front of the class. Those who wanted to, could bow to it, but it was not compulsory. I was not comfortable doing that and so abstained from the bowing. I was also not convinced by the witty answer the guru had given to someone curious about why Ravi Shankar prefaced his name with two Sris. He said, according to the teacher of our session, that “three Sris were too many for him and one too few”.

No religion in Surya Namaskar

Anyway, I recounted this story to show that one can enjoy the benefits of yoga and take part in its group sessions without subscribing to any religious sentiment.

The government was this week compelled to drop Surya Namaskar from the various asanas, meaning postures, to be performed by schools across the country to mark International Day of Yoga on June 21.

This came after opposition from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which said the Bharatiya Janata Party was compelling Muslim students to take up Hindu religious practices.

I think this is a pity because Surya Namaskar is a comprehensive asana and probably the single best exercise one can do, whatever religion or race you may belong to.

It involves a flowing movement of standing up, bending back, crouching, doing a push up, and during all of this throwing the legs back and then springing in front.

The Surya Namaskar mixes light calisthenics and bodyweight exercises.

Is it religious? I do not think so. Few practitioners of yoga doing the Surya Namaskar, including lakhs of Americans and Europeans, see it as a form of worshipping the sun. They do it because it is good exercise.

Communal track record

In my view Muslim groups need to be more flexible on such things and not present their problem in terms that are confrontational.

Having said that, are they overreacting? The history and the background of the government and its ministers would lead us to believe otherwise. There is a constant targeting of minority groups through snide remarks by women and men in responsible positions.

It must be accepted that many groups feel under siege and threatened by the words and actions of the Bharatiya Janata Party. If they feel provoked by this, we should not be surprised.

I do not think the government meant ill in this instance of promoting yoga.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally passionate about it and a Gujarati newspaper I edited had carried a report on his exercise routine for which his office had sent photos of him doing various asanas.

It was a personal triumph for him when at his instance the United Nations General Assembly adopted June 21 as International Yoga Day, with over 175 nations supporting the move.

Enthused by this, the government is asking its departments, including the largest, the railways, to initiate some yoga activities that day. This is slightly problematic because June 21 is a Sunday.

Anyway, it would have been good if the government could have stayed out of controversy over this issue which, as I said, is a good one and beneficial to all, particularly children. That it failed in this is partly its own fault. It should have reached out to all communities. It should have predicted that given its record and reputation there would be some trouble.