Shripad Yesso Naik, India’s new yoga minister, dreams of a day when sun salutations and downward-facing dog pose will be as popular in their homeland as they are around the world.
Yes, India now has a minister of yoga — and he and his government want their cultural bliss back.
Indian yogic tradition appears in Hindu texts written thousands of years ago. But the discipline bears scant resemblance to the popular exercise regime that has become a multibillion-dollar industry in the West, home of $90 Lululemon stretch pants and Mommy and Me fitness classes.
In recent weeks, Indian officials have begun efforts to reclaim yoga for the home team, making plans for a broad expansion of the wellness practice into all facets of civic life — including more than 600,000 schools, and thousands of hospitals and police training centers. They are spearheading efforts to promote and protect India’s most famous export, even quietly weighing a “geographical indication” for yoga, a trade protection normally given to region-specific goods such as Champagne from France or oranges from Florida.
“There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form,” Naik said. “We’re trying to establish to the world that it’s ours.”
India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is pushing the effort. The 64-year-old premier rises at 5 a.m. daily for yoga stretches and deep breathing, and he credits this regimen with his ability to sleep just a few hours each night.
“I am equally energetic from morning till night,” Modi told fans during a Google Hangout. “I guess the secret behind it is yoga and [breathing exercises]. Whenever I feel tired, I just practice deep breathing and that refreshes me again.”
Modi’s devotion to the practice is so heartfelt that during his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly as prime minister in September, he discussed peace, global development — and International Yoga Day.
This disappointed some of his followers, who had hoped that he would use the grand occasion to say something more significant; also, there already was a World Yoga Day. But more than 130 countries have signed on to Modi’s proposal, which the U.N. General Assembly is set to consider Dec. 10.
Although yoga has been a part of India’s heritage for centuries and Westerners flock to the country’s ashrams for enlightenment, it was only in the past two decades or so that yoga became trendy in India, with studios opening and Bollywood celebrities making fitness videos.
Some of the credit goes to Baba Ramdev, the saffron-robed guru who popularized yoga and what he says are its health effects — he claims it can reverse homosexuality and cure cancer and swine flu — on a morning TV program watched by millions. Baba Ramdev also is a close ally of Modi’s.
“The saints and gurus practiced in the Himalayas but never took it to the general public,” Naik said. “Only Baba Ramdev knew how to take it to the people. Now it’s our turn to promote it more vigorously.”
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