NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the first International Day of Yoga as a "new era of peace", moments before he surprised thousands in New Delhi by taking to a mat himself to celebrate the ancient Indian practice.
The yoga-loving Mr Modi yesterday led more than 35,000 people, including bureaucrats, students and soldiers, in performing poses such as the "half camel" and "cobra" in a 35-minute outdoor mass session beginning at 7am local time (9.30am Singapore time) on a New Delhi boulevard.
Organisers hope the event qualifies for the Guinness Book Of World Records as the largest yoga class at a single venue.
The current record, according to the Guinness website, was set by 29,973 students in Gwalior, India, in 2005.
"Yoga is more than only physical fitness. We are not only celebrating a day but also training the human mind to begin a new era of peace," Mr Modi told the crowd in Rajpath avenue.
He thanked the United Nations and the 177 co-sponsoring countries for adopting his idea for the International Day of Yoga on June 21.
India was to be joined by yoga enthusiasts in 192 other countries - including Britain, where mats were rolled out along the banks of the River Thames.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was to lead the event in New York's Times Square.
"Yoga is the soft power of India and through that soft power the whole world can be one global village," she told reporters.
Mr Modi, clad in loose kurta and trousers with a scarf depicting the colours of the Indian flag, said yesterday: "This is a programme for human welfare, a tension-free world, and a programme to spread the message of love, peace and goodwill."
The Indian leader then surprised the crowds by leaving the stage, removing his glasses and securing a spot at the front of the massive session to mirror the stretches, breathing and meditative moves beamed on giant screens along the historic avenue.
He took a brief break in the middle of the session to walk around and inspect students practising around him before rejoining the routine of 15 different poses, including the "crocodile" and the "wind-releasing" posture.
Mr Modi, who credits yoga for his ability to work long hours on little sleep, had been scheduled only to make a speech at Rajpath, where colourful mats were lined across the stretch that connects the president's palace with the iconic India Gate monument.
Since storming to power, the Hindu nationalist Premier has set up a ministry dedicated to promoting yoga and other traditional Indian treatments.
But the government's push for "yoga for harmony and peace" met with criticism in the run-up to yesterday, with some religious minorities accusing Mr Modi of pushing a pro-Hindu agenda in officially secular India.
A few Muslim groups have complained that chanting the sacred Hindu sound of "Om" during yoga has clear Hindu overtones and was against Islam.
Others said they practised the ancient discipline in their personal lives and did not need Mr Modi to tell them what to do.
"This is about the mind and the body. Let us not play politics with yoga," Mr Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi and a Modi foe, said after taking part in the Delhi event.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS