International Yoga Day 2017: Can yoga's popularity be counted as India's soft power?

India exports petroleum products, automobiles, and jewelry, among other things. India also exports Bollywood, traditions, food and pluralistic culture, and while they may be intangible, they have value as soft power. Soft power, unlike hard power, is the ability to attract and co-opt without coercion, which is why it may come as a surprise that yoga too, is heralded as having the potential to wield soft power.

Yoga is positioned as India's "gift to the world", packaged as a means to achieve equality of the mind with the outside world, as well as equality between people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a people's movement, highlighting that it could be practised by atheists and believers and focused on how it is inexpensive. "At zero budget, nowhere in the world is one assured of health — but that is what yoga gives you. Even the poorest of the poor can do this at ease and keep themselves healthy."

 International Yoga Day 2017: Can yogas popularity be counted as Indias soft power?

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Much time and effort was spent trying to define yoga's potential. "Yoga serves as a reminder of the potential for men and women to live in harmony with each other, as well as with nature, at a time when violent forces are threatening to destabilise society. Yoga is an important antidote to such negativity — to move us on the path of peace," said Sushma Swaraj. It is considered as being imperative enough to even warrant the creation of an entire ministry that caters to it. One also cannot deny how much money can be made out of yoga as a business; it is a $30 billion industry in the US alone.

These efforts were given legitimacy when the United Nations passed a resolution adopted by the General Assembly to declare 21 June the International Day of Yoga, and this resolution won the support of 177 member states. People from 192 countries in 251 cities participated in this world-wide phenomenon.

However, it may not be accurate to say that yoga's popularity stems only from the push given to it by the current government; yoga has caught the attention of people living in other countries, and more specifically the West, because of globalisation of culture, the apparent benefits, and exposure to it because of the migration of Indian diaspora. It is also considered attractive by foreign tourists who visit India, some of whom solely do so to go on yoga retreats and to live at yoga centers.

What cannot be denied is that there has also been a change in the way that yoga is perceived worldwide. While some may think of yoga with suspicion as a 'Hindu ritual performed by sages', this is not true of the majority. Yoga is seen as a way to achieve nirvana amidst the pressures of a capitalist life. "The rigours of the typical sedentary white collar job, staring at computer and phone screens, transiting between airports and hotel rooms, have given birth to a ‘wellness’ industry that attempts to save modern man from the pitfalls modern life. And yoga takes centre stage in the plethora of wellness solutions that help rejuvenate, resuscitate and reflect on the present, even as attention spans attenuate," wrote Vivan Sharan for Global Policy Journal.

Of note, is how yoga has penetrated Chinese culture. Yoga was the spearhead of Modi's soft power push in the country, and as of May 2017, there were 10,800 yoga schools there with people reportedly paying the equivalent of Rs 3,000 every month for training.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

But the support for yoga as one of India's biggest exports is not unequivocal. Critics of this strategy have cited the cost of this move, as well as homogenisation of a culture that is portrayed as being "Indian".

For a fitness regime that is touted as being cost-free and one that even the poorest of the poor can practice, the celebrations of International Yoga Day are not cost-effective. More than Rs 32 crore was spent on the organisation of the first Yoga Day, AYUSH minister Shripad Naik told the Lok Sabha. "The total funds earmarked or spent by the AYUSH Ministry and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) were Rs 828.43 lakh for publicity through DAVP, DD and AIR, Rs 758.53 lakh on arrangements for mass yoga demonstration at Rajpath and Rs 182.8 lakh for the international conference on yoga at Vigyan Bhavan," he said.

Rs 34.80 lakh was spent on the production of films and booklets to disseminate information on common yoga protocol. The Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy (CCRYN) and Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga assisted government institutions and NGOs financially and incurred costs of Rs 670 lakh.

There is also the argument that by declaring a day dedicated to this and making it a part of school curricula, the government has politicised it. Some yogics themselves have said that celebrating it on one particular day goes against the principle of consistency, which is integral to yoga. They mention that yoga is a state of being which must not be celebrated at all, let alone nationalise. Another section of critics also warned against the divisive nature of such a decision. They said that extremist right-wing Hindu groups may attempt to reclaim it and try to impose exclusivity on it. The decision also received flak from some Indian minority groups, who said that certain aspects of yoga go against their faith.

What remains to be known is how much of an impact yoga is having and how much of an influence India is able to actually wield through its spread, as many social scientists have asked.

Updated Date: Jun 21, 2017 07:38:31 IST