21st June 2022
Long days and warm weather are often what comes to mind when we think of the first day of summer. But did you know that 21st of June this year is the eighth annual International Day of Yoga? A commemorative day honouring yoga's ancient roots and universal appeal. Let’s dive into the practice’s origins and why it apparently deserves an official day each year.
You may be wondering how yoga initially got its own internationally-recognized day. On September 27, 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, sharing his views on the power of yoga. He stated that yoga is all about a sense of unity in the mind, body, and spirit, and that it should not be seen as a form of exercise but rather a way “to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world, and nature." A record 177 nations endorsed the proposal to make 21st of June International Day of Yoga and in 2015, the first was celebrated.
Looking Back to Yoga’s Roots
Yoga is different from other forms of movement because of its history, traditions, and cultural significance. The type of yoga that we see most commonly in Western countries stems from Hatha Yoga, which focuses on physical postures (think downward dog, tree pose, or even a head stand). This school of yoga was originally described in the 14th century, but it was revived in the early 1900s by Krishnamacharya, one of the first teachers to link movement and breath.
Krishnamacharya helped spread yoga around the world through his students, some of whom founded the styles of yoga that are most popular today (e.g., Astanga, Iyengar). Although Krishnamacharya popularised the physical aspect of yoga, he was first a student of the ancient yogic teachings, and learned about the more classical paths including Karma (yoga of service), Jnana (yoga of knowledge) and Bhakti (yoga of devotion). These traditional paths are not always present in a yoga studio, but they are essential to thinking beyond yoga as a physical practice.
Why it Matters
International Day of Yoga seeks to raise awareness about the practice and its many potential benefits. But, if you ask any yoga practitioner as to why the day is important, one would end up with an endless list of unique reasons. Here are three of the key ideas as to why International Day of Yoga matters:
1. Yoga’s Roots
Yoga dates back over 5,000 years. Sacred texts like the Vedas and Upanishads explain how the practice of yoga can do this. For example, they state that practising yoga means living one’s truth, letting go of attachments and serving others. These are core values embedded in yogic practices. In many Western societies, yoga has become highly commercialised, which can sometimes cause the greater intent of yoga to get lost. Having a day dedicated to yoga allows to reflect on the ancient traditions coming from India and South Asia, whilst giving gratitude to a practice that has transcended time and space.
Yoga is for everybody. No really, every body. There are over 300 million yoga practitioners around the world, representing many body types, genders, income levels, and races. For many years, the wellness industry in the West has been dominated by images of flexible, white women, giving the impression that doing yoga means balancing in contorted postures. Although there is still a long way to go, yoga has diversified to correct this misunderstanding, truly showing that yoga is for everyone. Take Jessamyn Stanley as an example, a body-positive, black, queer woman, who has authored two highly acclaimed wellness books, and has created an accessible yoga community offering classes for everyone. People from all backgrounds need self-care, and celebrating International Day of Yoga is meant to allow for that.
3. Skill in Action
According to the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text from the first Millennium BCE, yoga is skill in action. Again, this emphasises that yoga is more than physical postures, but also a means to do good. Yoga instructor and social justice advocate, Michelle Cassandra Johnson has been exploring how yoga can be a tool in the global movement to foster a just world. For Michelle, skill in action means living the fundamental principles of yoga, like non-violence, off of the yoga mat. According to the teachings of yoga, it becomes possible to liberate not just oneself, but the collective. Yoga encourages us to deepen our relationships peers, the community and the planet. Through yoga, practitioners are meant to develop a new sense of awareness with how they interact with external forces.
In many ways, the practice of yoga looks quite different than it did thousands of years ago, but the desire to yoke the body, mind and spirit has remained. Just as there is an infinite number of reasons to celebrate International Day of Yoga, there is also an endless number of potential benefits that can arise from this practice. An increased sense of calm, a more positive outlook on life, and a deeper understanding of the world around are just some ways that consistent practice can change one’s life for the better.
On the International Day of Yoga people are invited to spend some time caring for themselves. Maybe that means sitting in silence for five minutes, following an asana practice, or meditating on what one is grateful for. Consider following Tejal Patel, Susanna Barkataki, and Hala Khouri on Instagram or YouTube for accessible resources and practices you can practice anywhere. Celebrating International Day of Yoga allows to recall just how powerful this practice is, and how incorporating yoga in one’s life can contribute to a greater sense of inner peace and peace around you.
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