India’s Yoga Diplomacy
How Narendra Modi has been utilizing the country’s ancient practice as a soft power tool
Today, over two billion people around the world practice some form of yoga. That is significantly higher than any other modality of physical activity or sport, covering around 25% of humankind both in Eastern and Western hemispheres.
Since 2015, June 21 is globally recognized as International Day of Yoga, when huge groups of practitioners are used to gather and participate in massive events with hours-long virtual and in-person sessions highlighting the benefits of yoga for anyone’s body and mind. The date has very little to do with the ancient Indian traditional practice though.
It was symbolically selected due to the Summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, which is known to be the longest day of the year. There is a belief that Shiva, one of the main gods of Hinduism and supposedly the first yogi ever, began sharing the knowledge of yoga on the second full moon after Summer solstice.
Very few people know, however, that the International Day of Yoga is a direct result of a successful lobby effort by Indian authorities within the structures of the United Nations. In September 2014, during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very first year in power, he gave an enthusiastic speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proposing the adoption of an official date for the worldwide promotion of yoga.
In the following months, informal consultations convened by Indian delegates took place and a draft resolution was later publicized in December 2014. 177 other UN Member States ended up supporting the initiative, which was formally adopted without a vote. The first International Day of Yoga was then observed on June 21, 2015.
Yoga is an ancient physical, mental, spiritual, and philosophical practice spontaneously originated in India over five thousand years ago. It has no religious background nor has had any institutionalized backing from any organization or governmental entity. One of India’s most notorious and popular cultural exports is unquestionably associated with positive concepts such as peace, personal fulfillment, health, consciousness, harmony, relaxation, balance, self-improvement, and fitness.
Capitalizing on the growing popularity of the practice in many countries, Modi saw a clear opportunity to advance his nationalistic agenda on the global stage, while also strengthening ties with other countries and elevating India’s profile, culture and positive image abroad. Urging the world to embrace yoga, in other words, is the same as asking the international community to pay more attention to India and its current and potential contributions to the world.
By praising India’s roots, history and disseminated wisdom, Narendra Modi is attempting to showcase the country’s remarkable socioeconomic development over the past decades, promising economic prospects for the new decade, and the obvious impact of India’s demographics — the country will very likely surpass China in population size by 2024. Establishing a date to revitalize yoga within the world’s main multilateral organization is a political statement marking this nation’s rising place in the international scenario.
This foreign policy move reflects India’s domestic political trends. In November 2014, India has established the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy), with the purpose of developing education, research, and propagation of indigenous alternative medicine systems in India. In the past few years, since the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power, its budget has more than doubled.
Most of India’s embassies and consulates around the world are now used to organize yoga sessions to commemorate June 21, much evidencing the Ministry of External Affairs orchestrated initiative. Military personnel, police officers and other civil servants have been encouraged to practice yoga daily as a compulsory exercise to improve mind and body control.
Furthermore, Narendra Modi himself, as chief of State, has turned himself into an actual and virtual poster boy of yoga: protocols and classes are made available in video format on the internet in official governmental channels using Modi’s 3D avatar as an instructor (see below). By implementing a highly “patriotic” agenda, on the other hand, Modi has been pushing for the promotion of anything that could be deemed as genuinely Indian, even if this means favoring Hindu-nationalism and vilifying the enormous Muslim population.
If until 2019 the International Day of Yoga was all about public events and mass participation, 2020 saw a major indoor and isolationist turn. Due to the social distancing measures and lockdowns that came into force in almost all countries, Modi tried to emphasize the multidimensional solutions that yoga could bring to the problems and challenging times imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among other words, India’s Prime Minister had claimed the practice helps strengthening anyone’s immune system. He had also highlighted that yoga stimulates empathy, emotional and psychological stability while also providing a valuable alternative for societies to focus more on preventive health care. Broadly, there is no doubt that yoga represents the pursuit of pleasantness in life as well as the intention of achieving improvement from within.
Just like every human being is an expression of his or her inner experience, other countries should naturally hope that India’s recent nationalistic impetus is essentially guided by tolerance, respect to minorities and diplomatic dialogue rather than divisiveness, conflict, and belligerence.