India set to roll out the mat for yoga day

Enthusiasts rehearsing ahead of International Yoga Day at Rajpath in New Delhi yesterday. Some 35,000 people will take part in the 35-minute mass outdoor yoga session in the capital tomorrow.
Enthusiasts rehearsing ahead of International Yoga Day at Rajpath in New Delhi yesterday. Some 35,000 people will take part in the 35-minute mass outdoor yoga session in the capital tomorrow. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Enthusiasts in other countries also expected to join in the celebration

NEW DELHI - The heart of India's capital will transform into a sea of colourful mats tomorrow as thousands perform the camel, cobra and other postures for the first International Yoga Day championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Shortly after dawn in a New Delhi boulevard, some 35,000 bureaucrats, students, soldiers and others are to take part in the 35-minute mass outdoor yoga session, hopeful of qualifying for the Guinness Book of Records.

Yoga enthusiasts in other countries are also expected to stretch and bend for the celebration of the ancient Indian practice, including in Britain where mats will be rolled out along the banks of the River Thames.

Mr Modi, a vegetarian who practises yoga daily, has made Yoga Day a key initiative of his Hindu nationalist government since he took office 13 months ago.

"Yoga has the power to bring the entire humankind together!" Mr Modi tweeted last year after pitching the idea during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Preparations in India have been gathering pace since the UN agreed to the day, with schools, military barracks and even jails encouraged to participate in their own sessions tomorrow.

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and others have been roped in for promotion. Mr Modi's many pot-bellied officials have also been ordered to attend classes to practise "wind-releasing" and other postures.

Posters and other advertisements have been published throughout the country, encouraging residents to descend on their local park for "yoga for harmony and peace".

Mr Modi calls yoga "the anchor of my life", helping him work long hours on little sleep. But he will make only a speech tomorrow and not take to the mat himself at the mass session along Rajpath boulevard.

Starting at 7am India time (9.30am Singapore time), instructors will teach the session, to be beamed on giant screens along the historic avenue.

Mr Modi wants to reclaim yoga as an historical part of Indian culture which has been lost to the West because of its enormous popularity.

The Premier, a staunch Hindu nationalist, has set up a ministry dedicated to promoting yoga, ayurveda and other traditional Indian treatments. He has started free yoga classes for his government's three million bureaucrats and their families.

"Yoga is the soft power of India and through that soft power, the whole world can be one global village... (and) violence can be removed with this kind of peace," Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has told reporters.

But the preparations have sparked criticism, mostly from religious minorities who accuse Mr Modi's government of pushing a pro-Hindu agenda in officially secular India.

Some Muslim groups complained last week that the sacred Hindu sound of "Om" chanted during yoga, as well as certain poses such as "surya namaskar" or sun salutation, have clear Hindu overtones and were against Islam.

"While doing yoga, one needs to do surya namaskar, which means you pray to the sun. The government needs to understand Muslims cannot pray to anybody except Allah," Muslim lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi told the Press Trust of India news agency.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'India set to roll out the mat for yoga day'. Print Edition | Subscribe