International Yoga Day: Some Reflections


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Yoga lovers all over the world celebrated International Yoga Day on 21 June. I participated in a Yoga event in Boston, organized by an India-based organization. The participants came from different communities. I will focus more on this particular event later.

Last year, the UN declared 21 June as International Yoga Day. The Yoga lovers all over the world rejoiced at the UN declaration.

Let me briefly analyze what I understand by the term Yoga. The term has two aspects: narrow and broad. This is a simplistic categorization as I know Yoga is a much more deep term. A person with Yogic bent of mind, or rather a person who is true Yogi, can better define Yoga. In the narrow sense, as understood by most people, Yoga is equivalent to Asanas and similar body exercises that are reinvigorating. Asanas are different from body exercises in gym such as lifting weights or rising high on bars. Asanas usually do not need props. One can do it on an open space; one does not need to go to gym. The point is, for Asana, there are no special requirements. One should have a healthy body – that is most important requirement. I would say it is the cheapest, and at the same time priceless, exercise that keeps body and mind active and peaceful. The healing power of Asana is indeed great. One of the pioneers of Yoga in India, B. K. S. Iyengar who as a young boy had been suffering from diseases cured himself by practicing Asanas. World wide, there are various Yoga centers by enterprising professionals, who try to innovate and add one or two new techniques to make it popular, and earn good money.

Yoga developed in ancient India. The founder of Yoga was Patanjali. It is difficult to exactly trace his time period, but it would be fair to say that Patanjali was before Chirst, perhaps much before Christ. His book, Yoga Sutra is considered one of the major books on Yoga. One of my friends gifted me this book, when I was a college student in India. I read the hymns and tried to fathom their depth, but it was difficult for me that time to understand them.

Patanjali’s definition of Yoga is indeed a broad one. He says, “Yoga chitta vritti nirodha”. The literal meaning of the hymn is: to control the movements of mind is Yoga. This definition may seem too simplistic for the uninitiated, but too profound who understand the true import of Yoga. This definition has parallels with Gita’s hymn: “karmenye vadhikaraste maa phaleshu kadachana”, and “sthitaprajna”. In the hymn, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, who was bewildered to see cousins on the rival side, “you have right to perform actions, but not to fruits of actions”. Sthitaprajna implies a state of mind – a composure in which the Yogi, the practitioner of Yoga, adopts same posture at good news and bad news, at success and at failure. This is certainly a broad definition as it does not talk about Asana or Pranayam (control of breathing for particular effects) or meditation (concentration of mind on divine or divine thoughts and words or on a particular point). Yoga includes all, and goes further.

Yoga literally means addition or joining of one thing with some other thing. The spiritual connotation of the term is the joining of the individual soul with the universal soul. To put in a different language, it implies the joining of the individual soul with God. Even if we take out the religious interpretation, the term has profound secular meaning. It is by practicing Yoga the individual can widen his or her narrow self, and think broad and universal. Yoga can elevate an individual, whether religious or not, from his or her narrow selfish cocoon to the universal platform. One does not necessarily need to be religious to practice Yoga, whether in the form of Asana or Pranayam or meditation. Yoga is scientific and one can see its result after practicing.

One can know the value of Yoga only by practicing it, not by preaching it. Yoga is certainly an instrument of practice. A person who practices Yoga everyday would be jealous enough to give it up at the insistence of a misguided one who declares it an instrument of a particular religion.

In Hindu tradition, there are many types of Yoga. Yoga in this religious tradition is a means to realize God. In Hindu religion, there are six kinds of Yoga: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Prema Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raj Yoga and Tantra Yoga. In short: Jnana Yoga emphasizes on the means of knowledge and wisdom to realize God. Adi Shankara was one of its key proponents. Bhakti Yoga emphasizes on devotion to realize God. Sri Chaitanya was one of its key proponents. Prema Yoga emphasizes on love to realize God. Mira bai was one of its key proponents. Karma Yoga emphasizes on work as a key means to realize God. Gandhi was one of its key proponents. Raj Yoga emphasizes on Pranayam towards realizing God. Swami Vivekananda on his book Raj Yoga elaborated this Yoga. Tantra Yoga emphasizes on occult practices to realize God. Gorakhnath was one of its key proponents. Sri Aurobindo says it is not necessary that one must practice a particular Yoga or all Yogas to realize God. He suggests one should practice any of these Yogas, or a combination of them that suits a his or her aptitude and constitution.

Sri Aurobindo’s definition of Yoga is: All Life is Yoga. Perhaps this is the broadest definition of Yoga. It seems confusing. How can all life be Yoga? When I was a student at a university in New Delhi, I had a debate with one of my friends on this issue. My friend said: how can it be possible that Yoga will be the guiding principle of life? How can whole life be Yoga? It can not be. We have to do so many things – we have to study, watch TV, have some fun, and also Yoga. So, Yoga is one part of our life activities, not all activities. His argument apparently contradicted Sri Aurobindo’s definition. As a person he has every right to cling to his argument.

A person who has understood Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy understands the true import of his definition. In fact, this definition summarizes his whole philosophy. All Life is Yoga. He simplifies: the human life follows a path of evolution, human being moves towards God, and if not today then tomorrow he will reach God. This is certain, he says. And a person who understands this, and realizes this that he or she is born on earth to realize God, he or she would then adopt a Yogic perspective on life. Whatever he or she does, she would do that from that consciousness. That consciousness entails: I am here on earth to realize God, earth is the playground chosen by God for me, God is the guide, and everything that I do, I do for God. I am studying – I am studying for God. I am playing football – I am playing for God. I am dancing – I am dancing for God. Sri Aurobindo would say when one adopts this approach to life and actions – for him all his or her life, all his actions, will be Yoga. He would grow towards God, and his consciousness becomes God-consciousness. It is a difficult process as there is almost an eternal pull of base elements to obstruct this growth of human being towards God. Hence, Sri Aurobindo says doing Yoga is like walking on the edge of a sword.

We conventionally understand Yoga as doing Asana or Pranayam or meditation. And the International Yoga Day is intended to celebrate and promote these practices, which are enormously helpful for body, vital and mind.

Some people oppose Yoga. I came across a blog, which says that in India there are millions of people who do not get two good meals a day, so what is the fun of doing Yoga or promoting it? His concern for the poor is justified, and I hope the concern is genuine. But, he fails to explain how doing Yoga increases poverty, or contributes to poverty in India. These two issues are unrelated. Did the government of India divert millions or billions of dollars from welfare activities such as poverty eradication to Yoga? If yes, then he has a point. If not, then he is making an argument, when there is actually no argument.

Some people object practicing Yoga and term it religious, particularly Hindu. It is like saying flying in an aeroplane is Christian as Wright brothers made it. This objection simply does not stand rational scrutiny.

If we apply a sheer utilitarian measure (Bentham’s theory that a pleasure can be quantified), Yoga is utilitarian. It makes the functioning of the body better, or even corrects/heals some of its malfunctioning. It brings calm and peace to our mind. If done properly, Pranayam and meditation increase mental power. What is the cost? Almost nothing, if you are not going to a professional Yoga teacher. Where is religion here?

I liked the event. There was a discourse on Yoga. The speaker told about Yoga, and its various advantages. There was group meditation with soothing music in the background that continued for about one hour. At the end of the event, the organizers offered suits and a card with a good message. One of the organizers asked me: how was the event, did I like it, or do I practice Yoga differently? I replied, the event was good, but I was expecting the meditation would be shorter than one hour. I know how it is difficult to meditate for one hour at one stretch. Few participants were dismayed as they came with their mats for doing some guided Asanas, which did not happen.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and an Indian commentator. His areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. He is a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston. His edited book Conflict and Peace in Eurasia was published by Routledge in 2013.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Jun 2015.

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