It should not be left to the government to decide at its own slow pace what is good for the well-being of the public at large. Local federations of yoga can take the matter in hand
By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
Phased lifting of lockdown in a pandemic period restricts mass celebration of International Yoga Day in India. It is likely to be celebrated in small numbers. The large-scale yoga sessions will take place in times of normalcy, hopefully. Elsewhere there is hardly any mention of the celebration. Media attention is rather focused on lamenting the financial losses caused by cancellations of concerts on Music Day, which is celebrated on the same day.
Indian diplomacy succeeded in garnering international support for the proposal of a yoga day during the early years of the NDA-led government. The next step would be to have a special day for yoga only, which will give it the attention it deserves.
Yoga spread from India to the rest of the world in the 20th century and is being adopted in more countries. Its benefits on health and well-being are widely acknowledged, and a plethora of books are published in several languages across the world. Yoga classes are held even in most improbable countries known for being closed to outside influences.
Observation of nature and animals inspired several physical positions in yoga, which knowledge of human anatomy shows they help blood circulation and the massaging of all the organs in the body. Yoga also inspires more motivated learners to be inquisitive and explore other disciplines of yoga apart from hatha yoga. It then opens windows on vast areas of knowledge and the philosophy underlying them.
Most of the early western specialists spent years in India, learning yoga from experienced teachers. André Van Lysebeth is one such well-known yoga teacher in Belgium who wrote on the topic in the 1970s and greatly contributed to making it popular in France and French-speaking countries. Eva Ruchpaul, who is the wife of a Mauritian doctor in Paris, not only published books on yoga but also trained doctors in the techniques of breathing. She was a pioneer in a discipline which has been up to now of great use in medical treatment.
Today yoga has engendered different branches of physical exercises which are given European names. A few years back, there was an attempt to disown the Indian root of yoga by American families who were worried to see youngsters integrating yoga as part of their lifestyles and were uncomfortable to acknowledge the influence of a foreign culture. There was an awkward claim to present yoga as a Christian cultural phenomenon just as Ayurveda recipes were unscrupulously copied in a typical American way and even exported back to India.
It is a totally different picture in France. The French openly admit the influence of yoga in all sorts of new disciplines with French names to enhance physical well-being. The new disciplines are flourishing into successful businesses, ranging from more dynamic physical exercises for men, advanced courses on the flow of energy along chakras to mass sessions of meditation and healing by a new brand of French specialists. Associations of the Indian diaspora in France object to what they call ‘appropriation’ of Indian culture. Their stance is aired in French media. It is randomly lumped up with the series of claims hailing from other minorities who have a propensity to complain about something every two days in France.
Some members of the Pondicherrian community, natives of Sri Lankan origin and of overseas French islands are likely to be in the forefront of this kind of reaction. They already have past records of harbouring age-old resentment against their culture being ‘appropriated’ by other segments of the population in India itself. Something which gives them a revolutionary edge in a few noisy claims made in heated debates. Such observations are made in the amphitheatres of universities and occasionally in private assemblies. All the nuances in the flow of cross-cultural legacies in India over millennia are not taken into account; namely, the widely claimed ‘older culture’ was also imbibed with external features inherited from other sections of Hindu culture. Anyway, on one occasion in the 1990s a professor of Pondicherrian origin reassured worried students during a course on Indian civilization in Reunion, telling them: ‘Don’t worry, westerners will not ‘appropriate’ our culture any time soon. It will take centuries before they come to anything close to acquiring the Indian mental landscape.’
Deep within, people of Indian origin cherish the treasures of their culture. It is matter of elegance and decency to keep one’s culture as a private garden to oneself. They are not keen on convincing or winning other hearts and minds. Proselytism and the ‘assimilationist’ style of other cultures splashing their goods around are viewed as inelegant and vulgar. The belief is: let everyone find their own way.
This being said, yoga has a universal appeal which transcends cultures. Considering the western quest for other branches of knowledge in India in the 1950s, and the invitation made to swamis and gurus to come over to the US, UK and other western countries to lecture and teach, yoga was bound to become increasingly popular. And the Indian PM’s proposal in 2015 paved the way to more overtures.
There is nothing new in western countries borrowing treasures from other civilizations to enrich their own culture. The other point is to what extent people of Indian origin abroad value their own culture, if ever they are aware of its worth. And if there is an awareness that they pick up today the clothes that westerners threw away yesterday, in terms of ideas, interaction in society and cultural habits. If you run after trash, you can’t blame others for picking up your cherished treasures.
As regards yoga, we do have a feeling that not much is being done to promote it so that it benefits a greater number of people, starting with the young in schools and the rest of society. It should not be left to the government to decide at its own slow pace what is good for the well-being of the public at large. Local federations of yoga can take the matter in hand and see whether there is a sufficient number of yoga teachers locally to press for scaling up of teaching the discipline in the country. If our citizens simply acquire breathing techniques not only for physical health but to gain self-control in a society prone to fly into a temper over any trifle, it will be a tremendous benefit to themselves and to society as a whole.
* Published in print edition on 23 June 2020