In the article titled “Barring flag hoisting, Yoga Day seems almost at par with Independence and Republic Days” on Scroll.in, Ajaz Ashraf's argument is premised on faulty interpretation of incorrect information.Ashraf claims that Prime Minister Narendra Modi de-secularised yoga and that it was the securalisation of the discipline, or its detachment from its Hindu roots, that made it popular internationally. This is a gross error.
All yoga teachers know that the discipline comes from India and the Hindu tradition. Most teachers end their classes by folding their hands in the prayer position and say "Namaste”. Hence it is not the secularisation, but rather, the consumerisation of its effectiveness that has made yoga popular internationally. This has been done by monetising yoga lessons and creating a billion-dollar industry of its accessories.
Ashraf pejoratively quotes the RSS-BJP's claim that "yoga belongs to all". Rather than proving the saffronisation of yoga, this seems to show that the Sangh Parivar, wants to give yoga as a gift to the world, which automatically disproves Ashraf’s Hinduisation hypothesis.
Ashraf recognises that the practice of yoga can relieve daily stress. His hypocrisy after admitting that is painful to read. The essence of his article is that Modi chose June 21 as International Yoga Day because that is the date on which "Lord Shiva is said to have become Adiyogi, or the first yogi".
This is incorrect from various perspectives, but I will only mention the issue of dating.
It was not the day of the summer solstice that Shiva taught yoga to the Saptarishis, or seven sages. It was the first full moon after the solstice, which is known as Guru Purnima, or the full moon of July.
In his desire to sensationalise, Ashraf wrote: "It is perhaps just a coincidence that on this day [June 21], in 1940, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, KB Hedgewar, died in Nagpur."
To indicate that this could have been the basis on which the date of International Yoga Day was decided is as absurd as blaming my guru, Neem Karoli Baba Maharaja, for the 2001 terror attack in New York, which took place on September 11 – the day he had left his physical body in 1973.
Ashraf's tone discounted the positive impact of yoga in predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan. In India, the vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University said that yoga is an integral part of the culture of his campus, and this article tells us about Muslim practitioners of the discipline at yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali institute.
The author ignores how this initiative brings together people from around the world for a healthy activity.
Here is proof of this. In December 2014, when Narendra Modi suggested that the United Nationals declare June 21 as International Yoga Day, a record 175 nations, including the US, Canada and China, co-sponsored the resolution – the highest number of co-sponsors ever for a UN General Assembly resolution.
Further, though Ashraf lamented that “the linking of International Yoga Day to Lord Shiva is a reversal of the secularisation of yoga”, the reality is that Modi never linked the day to Shiva! He chose summer solstice because of its universal recognition.
This narrow criticism brings to mind other ill-informed arguments against yoga.
Some conservative members of Abrahamic faiths tell followers not to practice yoga, lest they be tainted by, or attracted to a polytheistic pagan cult. These misguided critics claim that doing an exercise such as surya namaskar (a salute to the sun) amounts to worshipping the sun, which is against both Christianity and Islam, which are monotheistic.
However, in every yoga class I have ever attended, there has been no mention of worshipping the sun. The surya namaskar is simply described as a good full-body workout to start the day. Teachers, in fact, rarely bother to make their classes face the east. And since most yoga studios have ceiling-to-floor mirrors, instead of a sun God, students are usually busy examining themselves to see if all the yoga classes have made any difference to their posture or physique!
Some Indian Muslim organisations have also said that Yoga is un-Islamic. Shortsighted and orthodox critics have complained that if their followers repeatedly chant the Sanskrit word Om, their faith in their respective Gods will be negatively impacted.
To nullify that fear, Muslim yoga students could take Allah’s name while exhaling, while Christians could say Amen – a simple trick of enunciation can offer the benefits of the discipline to the broader Muslim or Christian world. It is not outside yogic traditions to make personal modifications in postures or practices to suit the individual physical or mental needs of the practitioner.