The summer solstice on Jun 21st was celebrated the world over as “International Day of Yoga” or more informally as “Yoga Day”.
On the longest day of the year, when I look through my social media feeds, I see posts from friends all over the world posting pictures of their favorite asanas and yoga quotes, I see live streams of thousands upon thousands of people meditating in Times Square and I feel….
The idea of International Day of Yoga was first proposed by the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2014.
”Yoga is an invaluable gift of India's ancient tradition. It embodies the unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; and is a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help in well being. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”
— Narendra Modi, UN General Assembly (from Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Day_of_Yoga)
In 2015, the UN officially declared Jun 21st, International Day of Yoga. Since then, “Yoga Day” has taken off in proportion to the popularity of yoga all over the world.
And why not? It sounds beautiful, right? What harm is there in celebrating a holistic system of health and well-being? What harm is there in acknowledging this gift from ancient India to the world? If this resolution was proposed by the Indian Prime Minister himself then there’s no cultural appropriation going on here, right?
Wrong. Appropriation of yoga is indeed happening, but it isn’t what you think. While the debate around cultural appropriation in yoga often revolves around the ubiquitous images of skinny white women in skimpy yoga gear being used to propagate a multi-billion dollar yoga industry, that type of cultural appropriation only serves to obscure a much darker form of appropriation of yoga that has been going on within India.
Yoga enthusiasts who are posting their most beautiful tree poses and downward dogs on this day may not be aware that India under Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist ruling party has become the stuff of dystopian novels. In fact, Netflix has recently aired an original series called Leila, a sort of Indian Handmaid’s Tale, based on a dystopian novel of the same name that utilizes the genre to criticize the Modi government. Since the election of Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Indian central government in 2014, mob lynchings of Muslims and other religious minorities and Dalits have been on the rise. These attacks are performed mostly by mobs who view themselves as protectors of traditional Indian values…by people who call themselves cow-protectors and protectors of women. They go largely unpunished and are sometimes even lauded and supported by elected officials.
“Human Rights Watch has reported that there has been a surge in cow vigilante violence since 2015. Many vigilante groups say they feel "empowered" by the victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP in the 2014 election. The past five years of the Modi government have seen a spate of mob attacks across India. The elements that fueled this bloody mix include religious fanaticism (specifically, cow protection), increased penetration of social media, and politicians, who ranged from being apathetic to instigators of violence.” (From Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cow_vigilante_violence_in_India_since_2014)
“Cow protection” serves as a convenient emotional label to obscure the true motives of these groups which is to specifically target Muslims (the largest religious minority in India) and Dalits (the most oppressed of India’s caste hierarchy), which are both communities which traditionally eat meat, including beef.
In addition to cow-vigilantism, there has been a surge in moral policing by mobs who call themselves “anti-Romeo squads.” These “anti-Romeo squads” attack young couples in the name of “protection of women.” Ironically, these squads do not actually attack men who harass women. They only attack couples engaged in innocent consensual acts of affection or even just conversation! The women are often physically and sometimes sexually assaulted in these attacks that are supposedly for the protection of women. The concern of these self-appointed moral police is in protecting the patriarchal values of honor and women’s purity, not in actually protecting women.
This year, on June 22, the day after International Day of Yoga, a 24 year old, recently married Muslim man named Tabrez Ansari was tied to a pole and beaten to death with sticks by an angry mob who forced him to chant, “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (Victory to Shri Ram. Victory to Hanuman. Shri Ram and Hanuman are Hindu gods, heroes of the epic Ramayana). Meanwhile in the Western yoga world, many people may have sung these very same words in Kirtans in celebration of yoga, just the day before. It is this irony that is so very disturbing. Imagine if Trump declared an International Children’s Day and the world celebrated it while ignoring the situation of migrant children in concentration camps on the border?
International Day of Yoga was Narendra Modi’s idea and he is praised for spreading Indian values in the world. But what are the values he is spreading? Where are the famed yogic ideals of non-violence and religious tolerance? I believe that the spiritual essence of the yoga tradition has always been in defiance of the oppressive structures of an Indian society shaped by multiple waves of colonization and political oppression. Yoga has always been a beacon pointing to the freedom of our inherent nature. The lamp of Yoga was kept lit in the darkest political times by women such as Akka Mahadevi and Mirabai, by Dalits such as Kanappa, and by promoters of religious tolerance like Kabir and Guru Nanak. Modi and the BJP are twisting the true meaning of yoga to suit their own oppressive Hindu nationalist agenda. This is an old story that goes back to the beginning of the known history of yoga.
Yoga internationally has become a word with so much sheen and gloss. What is allowed to hide beneath that shimmer and shine?
This is why I don’t and I won’t celebrate International Yoga Day. Appropriation can happen from multiple concentrations of power and that is what is important to consider when thinking about what is and what isn’t appropriation. There always has to be a locus of power and when power is concentrated in one area it is sucked from another. It is that power imbalance which makes something appropriation. I am as concerned with Hindu nationalist appropriation of yoga as I am with Western white supremacist capitalist appropriations of yoga. One does not “trump” the other. In fact, both Western and Indian appropriations of yoga validate each other in a dangerous feedback loop.
Remember what yoga really truly is about…it is about liberation (moksha). Oppression is the opposite of liberation. Don’t allow oppression to hide behind the glamour of Yoga. Remember that every day is about our collective liberation. Every day is Yoga Day.