21st June Proclaimed International Yoga Day by United Nations

“Atha Yogaanushaasanam”

Now, Yoga is called a Discipline.

This is the first line in the aphorisms of Yoga Sutras as propounded by the great sage Patanjali.

He wrote this seminal treatise on the disciplines and the eight limbs of Yoga at the ancient capital of Bihar, Pataliputra. Yoga is an ancient art of uniting the body and the mind.

It is indeed a historical happening that the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution on January 9th this year declaring June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. The proposal was made by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 69th UN General Assembly in September 2014. He underlined that: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of an ancient tradition, which embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfillment, harmony between man and nature… helps discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature.”

This proposal of India’s Prime Minister received wide international support and the Resolution was co-sponsored by no less than 177 Member States of the UN, including Mauritius.

In line with the spirit of the UN Resolution, preparations are being made to make of 21st June, the International Day of Yoga a landmark celebration. In this connection, the High Commission of India in Mauritius is inviting all stakeholders including Yoga schools and centres, government and non-governmental organisations at an interactive preparatory meeting at the IGCIC this afternoon from 16.00-17.00 hours to devise appropriate activities to enhance the qualities of life, health and well-being through the practice of yoga.

In Mauritius, Yoga has been taught by various visiting Gurus and Swamis at different times since the last century. I recall, when I was a child, the Yoga classes undertaken by Shri Jaymangal Issory who taught Yoga at various places. My own father Suttaiburuth Makhan Singh, along with Shri Beekramsing Ramlallah, Sir Satcam Boolell, Prof Basdeo Bissoondoyal and upcoming young men in Port Louis were all practising yoga with Shri Jaymangal Issory in the 1940s and 50s. He carried on his activities till the late 1960s.

In the late 1960s and 70s, we young members of the powerful Seva Shivir movement were taught Yoga by our Guru Shri Swami Krishnanandji Maharaj Saraswati, at our leadership training camps at the Anse La Raie Youth Training Centre at Cap Malheureux. Early mornings with the sea breeze carrying to us healthy iodine and non-polluted air, we used to practise Yoga Asanas under the filao trees on the lawn facing the sea of the North coast.

Swami Venkatesananda democratises Yoga in Mauritius

But it was Swami Venkatesananda of the Sivananda Ashram and Divine Life Society and disciple of the great Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh in the Himalayas who actually introduced and democratised Yoga in Mauritius in 1963 in a big and spectacular way.

It is a fitting coincidence that as the Sivananda Yoga Society of Mauritius celebrates the 50 years of its foundation by Swami Venkatesananda, the UN also marks the first International Day of Yoga as from this year.

The Sivananda Yoga Society has brought out a beautiful Pictorial Volume on the Golden Jubilee of Swamiji’s mission in Mauritius. Swami Venkatesananda was visiting Madagascar in 1963 and the Indian High Commissioner in Madagascar, Shri Ramachandran, advised him to visit Mauritius as well. It was thus that Swamiji boarded the ship Ferdinand de Lesseps at Tamatave as a transit passenger and landed in Mauritius on 9th August 1963 on his way to South Africa.

He was welcomed by Shri Beekramsing Ramlallah, Editor of Mauritius Times and other personalities at the airport. He conquered the hearts of the youths by his dynamic and glowing personality, his disarming smile, his boundless love, his simplicity and a great sense of humour. On 21st May 1964, he started the first Yoga Asanas and Meditation class at the Kabir Mandir, Vacoas. This was the beginning of hundreds of yoga classes all over the island, in schools and colleges and at various denominations.

It was Swami Venkatesananda who created the first Interfaith meetings by inviting religious leaders of all denominations including the Bishop of Mauritius to visit his Ashram, at Beau Bassin, and share spiritual discourses over tea and lunches with him and the disciples. The Yoga Society was established on the bank of the river facing the Moka Range through generous donations. People from all religious groups and communities flocked to learn Yoga Asanas at the Ashram. The generous donation of Shri Soorooj Balgobin of a plot of land at Malartic Street saw the foundation of the Yoga Ashram.

Swamiji and Inter-Communal Meets

Swami Venkatesananda wrote regularly in the columns of the Mauritius Times to promote Yoga and philosophy. He also gave yoga classes at the Royal College Curepipe and the Queen Elizabeth College Rose-Hill. Thus it was that during his trips abroad, I would replace him and conduct Indian culture classes every Tuesday afternoon as an extra-curricular activity at the QEC.

The yoga classes became a great attainment in Mauritius. Swamiji gave yoga classes also at the MBC. He said in a note: “The MBC and particularly Dr John Poulter enabled me to shatter the illusion that yoga is only for the Indian or that it has a racial or religious tag. The presence in this country of Mrs Eve Bridges and the sisters of the International Voluntary Service (IVS) all of whom are keen yoga students also helped me in this respect. The Royal College Rector, Mr Bullen’s interest in this also helped me a great deal.”

Swami Venkatesananda made 27 trips in all to Mauritius from the time he first landed on 9 August 1963 till 31 October 1982. He would attain Mahasamadhi on 2nd December 1982 in Johannesburg, South Africa. But the seeds of yoga and service to the poor through feeding of the poor and readings from all religious books at satsangs were already sown and flourishing. He organised visits by his disciples to homes, orphanages, hospital wards and poverty-stricken villages, an activity unheard of in those days.

Swamiji popularised the various aspects of Yoga as a science and a practical way of keeping healthy through a series of publications, the most notable being his book YOGA which is given free to all members of the Yoga Society. He carried his ‘eternal’ typewriter with him, using it to type the manuscripts of his innumerable books, which are on display at the Ashram in Beau Bassin.

Swami Venkatesananda trained a host of yoga Instructors at the Ashram as well as at various places in the island. He would travel incessantly from early morning to distant villages, either by private car of devotees or by bus. He had a free bus pass given by the Vacoas Transport Company. He later would acquire a motorcycle donated by the devotees in the 1970s to spread the message of yoga. Who does not remember the ochre-robed Swami flying on his saffron coloured Vespa V999 through the roads of Mauritius? In 1969 Mr Jay Narain Roy, MLA, eminent writer and educationist and an ardent admirer of Swamiji, donated a building – the Lalit Roy Hall where yoga classes are held to this day.

Swamiji also took part in the Curriculum Research and Development Committee set up by the Ministry of Education in 1970s and advised the panel about the introduction of Hinduism as a subject at the Cambridge School Certificate. He submitted the first syllabus which was later developed and adopted. Swamiji had access to temples, mosques, churches and paid respect to all great world spiritual leaders of his time.

Swamiji came to Mauritius during the pre-independence period. “The youths were disoriented and at a loss in a world where no guidelines were available in the spiritual field.” The hundreds of yoga classes given by Swami Venkatesananda have helped thousands in leading an integrated and holistic way of life.

In the past two decades, through the Patanjali Yoga classes of Swami Ramdev, the TV Yoga Master, millions of people can practise yoga while at home from his TV classes.

Now yoga will be globalised and lead to greater sensitization and awareness, with the UN proclamation of the International Day of Yoga on every 21 June as from this year.


* Published in print edition on 24 April  2015

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