While on a holiday in Kenya last year to witness the Great Migration and spot the Big Five in action, I noticed a group of people, possibly Europeans, doing asanas at our hotel. While aware that yoga had spread far and wide from its birthplace in India, I was amazed to see it had become an integral part of their daily routine. Indeed yoga is India’s wellness gift to the world. By de-emphasising the religious aspects, yoga has permeated borders and gained multicultural acceptance for its health benefits, both physical and mental.
Some airports like Frankfurt, Dallas and Heathrow offer yoga mats for practitioners. Even Ayurveda, another wellness export from India, never gained the kind of mass acceptance that yoga has.
This global acceptance is India’s soft power, evidenced by the passing of the UN resolution 69/131 co-sponsored by 177 countries. During the first International Day of Yoga in 2015, every UN country, except Yemen, celebrated the occasion. This translates to 192 country ‘hearts’ won! India deserves to pat its back.
The growth in the practice of yoga has been phenomenal.
While there are no official numbers, it is estimated that at least two billion people practice yoga. Unlike America’s and even China’s institutionalised soft power strategy that actively pushes its culture abroad, the growth in the practice of yoga has been organic. American soft power has sometimes been intrinsically linked with its economic goals and its culture is often seen as imperialist. Yoga on the other hand is not seen as a threat to local identities. If anything, yoga, especially in the West, is in threat of being metamorphosed from the ancient pristine practice into unrecognisable weird forms—beer, dog, goat, nude, hot and aqua yoga. Moreover, as yoga becomes a victim of cultural capitalisation, India stands the risk of slowly being removed from the branding and cultural portrayal of yoga.
But is India losing its ownership of yoga? No. It has just not tapped the commercial aspect of yoga. If India can produce entrepreneurs who can compete with brands like Lululemon and Nike to manufacture yoga merchandise, it can regain its market share, for no story sells better than the word ‘authentic’. The Centre is in fact actively owning yoga as its own by sending yoga teachers abroad, publishing a Common Yoga Protocol, organising roadshows and yoga classes at embassies and leading the yearly celebrations on June 21. It is clear that yoga is a brand—an Indian brand. And it is India’s biggest gift to the world.
Shreya Challagalla is a Research Fellow at India Foundation. The article originally appeared in The New Indian Express on 21 June, 2018.