By EMILY SCHAUER
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully lobbied the United Nations to adopt an International Day of Yoga, which will debut on June 21, 2015, tying the now-international physical, mental and spiritual practice back to its Indian origins.
Yoga is a practice heartily embraced throughout the Western world as people – Americans in particular – seek effective ways to relieve the stress of their fast-paced lives and improve physical fitness.
A pose-based athletic pursuit, yoga focuses on spirituality through physical training, encouraging continuous breathing and centredness. Through regular practice, yogis ideally become physically and spiritually fit.
In addition to its spiritual merits, there is a growing body of research edifying the strong conviction that yoga yields incredible physical benefits. In one review of about 35 studies, the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) found that “yoga has the same potential as [other] exercise to reduce risk factors of cardiovascular disease.”
Looking at several factors contributing to cardiovascular disease, such as body mass index, lipid profiles, blood pressure, and cholesterol, the study found that compared with no exercise, people practising yoga showed vast improvements. And compared to other forms of exercise, “yoga was found to have comparable effects on risk factors as aerobic exercise. The investigators note that this might be because of yoga’s impact on stress reduction, ‘leading to positive impacts on neuroendocrine status, metabolic and cardio-vagal function.’”
Read more about the ESC study’s findings at their website.
Yoga in America
In America, yoga has become a multi-faceted practice – a passing interest for some and a boon of peace for others. Yoga has transformed many lives and there is an ever-growing community both online and on the ground that shares ideas and techniques, and that also provides support in all varieties to its members.
While yoga’s origins in India go back thousands of years, the revolution in America is only a little over 100 years old. According to the Yoga Journal, yoga was brought to America in the 1890s, and there was an almost immediate explosion of interest. Despite barriers to the widespread adoption of yoga as a lifestyle in the past hundred years, yoga flourished, developing into an entire sub-culture of American society that persists today.
Since its import to America, it has been taken up with fervour, and the Yoga Journal observes that America boasts more than 20 million Yogis.
The American yoga scene has become gargantuan over its life. The “Yoga Journal” in 2012 partnered with research collaborators to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of this beast, revealing some interesting findings.
In summary, the industry is composed of 82.2 per cent women with the majority falling in the age group of 18-44 years. One-third of people surveyed have practised yoga for one year or less, and the top five motivations for practising were “flexibility, general conditioning, stress relief, improve overall health, and physical fitness.” More details can be found at the Yoga Journal website.
Interestingly, these data suggest that America tends to be motivated to practise by physical fitness benefits rather than spiritual wellness, despite its origins in spirituality.
If one were to draw a comparison between American yoga and Indian yoga, the former shifts course much more frequently, especially given that Americans are motivated by the physical rather than spiritual benefits. In India, many people associate yoga practice with Hinduism and yogis pursue spiritual, rather than physical, benefits. However, both in India and in the US, there are many schools of yoga. And people take to yoga for a variety of reasons.
In the US, Bikram Yoga was considered the most authentic school of yoga for several years. It was claimed to be beneficial in terms of bodily purification and muscle toning. Now the Bikram heat wave has slowly cooled and the less-intensive Ananda or Ashtanga yoga techniques are in vogue.
Little surprise would there be if, within the next several years, there will be another yoga best practice to fully engage and absorb the masses; and that, too, will fade into yet the next big thing.
Although there is an ebb and flow of trends in American yoga with an equally fluctuating population of practitioners, there is still a steadfast body of lifelong practitioners who embrace its spiritual and holistic nature, incorporating it into their lives in such a way that it becomes a religious practice, like it is in India.
The Economy of Yoga
Along with those millions of Yogis comes an entire support industry of clothing, equipment, studios –America yoga is often practised in a group setting at a studio on a pay-per-session schedule – as well as videos and podcasts for home consumption.
Through this culture of yoga, even airline industries benefit from its popularity as people go on retreats to distant centers in sparsely populated areas.
According to the Yoga Journal study cited above, yoga even weathered the deep recession between 2008 and 2012 to become one of the few industries that didn’t shrink.
As the number of yogis grows, so too does the support industry that’s popped up around yoga.
International Day of Yoga
To many around the world, Modi’s brainchild no doubt brings joyful tidings, and it is reasonable to assume that the day will be heartily embraced in the US.
Recognition of the new international celebration will not be limited to the dedicated yogis; I anticipate that anyone with a connection to yoga will strike a pose on the big day to honor its positive impact on the individual and social level.
And, undoubtedly, Prime Minister Modi’s words about the potential impact an International Day of Yoga will strike a chord with American yogis who hold global peace and environmental consciousness dear.
“By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he reasoned with the UN. “Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”
Yoga practitioners and those who run yoga schools are excited about the sudden international attention to the practice. Celebrating yoga on such a scale could be a boon to the Indian economy, as pilgrims will undoubtedly aim to visit its birthplace; but it will also mean the dilution of a very important physical manifestation of religion in India.
Modi’s successful lobby will resonate with Americans, as their beloved practice is elevated to the international stage, and will also hopefully serve as a much-needed reminder of the origins of yoga, and the culture that brought it to the rest of the world. However, it will also be critical to respect those origins and aim to keep the practice as pure as possible for those at its heart.