International Yoga Day - Celebration or Agenda?

Posted by Laila Kirkpatrick on

For anyone that says yoga should be apolitical, yoga has been for a long-time VERY political. Modern postural yoga was a response from Indians to reclaim their culture – a means to create physical and spiritual strength for the anti-colonial freedom movement. In 2021, yoga is still being used to push a wider political agenda.

 India—a country that struggled for years with the oppressive rule of British imperialism. Robbed of natural resources and immense wealth, were not long ago treated as second class citizens at best in their own land - only now recovering and emerging from its traumatic past. This incredible country is mind-boggling in its diversity of human experiences with deep divisions of caste and religion. A land that has been oppressed, and within it’s own boundaries has been the oppressor. 

I am a yoga practitioner, I may have been to India, but I am not South Asian. If we are to truly look through a decolonial lens, we need to listen to all the voices of this region -particularly to the ones less heard. Please note all the references I list below with the exception of one, are by South Asian academics and journalists. 

I particularly wanted to share Anusha Lakshmi’s “Choreographing Tolerance: Narendra Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and International Yoga Day”, where she examines the contemporary role and significance of yoga within the discourse of (Hindu) tolerance propagated by the Indian government under the leadership of Narendra Modi. She situates Modi’s deployment of yoga for nationalist purposes as part of a longer history of yoga and somatic nationalism in India. Beginning with an analysis of the 2015 International Yoga Day spectacle led by Modi in the capital city of New Delhi, Lakshmi reflects on how the Indian Prime Minister capitalises on yoga’s physical and ideological flexibility (and its associations with unity, harmony, well-being, and one-ness) to showcase how he – and by extension his Hindu nationalist government – accommodates and tolerates other religions and faiths. Lakshmi argues that Modi’s posturing of yoga as a secular practice is hypocritical to say the least, as it works to obscure his growing Hindu supremacist regime, including his government’s enactment of genocidal and settler-colonial policies and actions that violently marginalise and oppress Muslims in India and Indian-occupied Kashmir. Instead, Modi’s use of yoga to performatively enact political unity is primarily purposed towards maintaining his power.

With the guise of International Yoga Day, Lakshmi shows us the dangerous consequences of yoga as an instrument of Hindutva, a political ideology that assumes the cultural hegemony of Hindu beliefs and practices in Indian society. When in fact India is rich and diverse in cultures, language, and belief systems.

Like many, this is a topic I’m continually learning about, doing my best to listen and to be discerning. And although I would love a day to celebrate yoga, I personally cannot actively and knowingly participate in a political agenda that causes discrimination, oppression, injustice, and harm to others. Nationalism creates separation. It creates a dominating force over a vulnerable group - the enemy of the true goal of yoga. So instead of one annual day, I will celebrate Yoga and all the South Asian cultures that have contributed to it, every day.

If you like me, would like to learn more. I have listed some articles below. 

With love, 



International Yoga Day Controversy: India’s Soft Power or Modi’s Hindu Agenda, by Juhi Ahuja

Sculpting the Saffron Body. Yoga, Hindutva, and the International Marketplace Author(s): Jyoti Puri Publisher:Oxford University Press

Yoga as National Pride: PM Modi's Convenient Asana to Mask Misgovernance

Spectacles of Compassion: Modi and the weaponisation of Yoga, by Sheena Sood

Root to Rise?: Hindutva and the Propaganda of Yoga’s Origins, by Morgan Baker 







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