How India's Narendra Modi became the global champion of yoga

Prime Minister flaunted his flexibility at the UN this week - and his interest stretches back four decades

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When India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in a yoga session with people of 135 nationalities outside the UN headquarters in New York this week, it became the most high-profile moment of his campaign to promote the ancient Indian practice worldwide.

Those assembled on the UN lawns, including celebrities such as the actor Richard Gere, went through as many as 11 yoga asanas – or body postures – during the session to mark the International Day of Yoga on June 21.

The day was designated by the UN in 2015 after lobbying by Mr Modi's government.

Mr Modi, 72, has been a strong proponent of the ancient discipline combining physical, mental and spiritual practices, which originated in India thousands of years ago.

While many high-profile teachers and practitioners have promoted yoga in the West over the past decades, Mr Modi's efforts have helped to raise awareness of the practice around the world.

From Cabinet ministers and bureaucrats to visiting diplomats, he is known to encourage all those he comes into contact with to take up yoga and practise it every day.

Modi's yoga passion

Mr Modi’s passion for yoga began in 1983 when he met Hongasandra Rama Rao Nagendra, who runs a yoga institute in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru.

The Prime Minister was not active in politics at that time, but was associated with the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

“We have a university and a campus. When he came here, he was fascinated as we have combined modern scientific research and yoga,” Mr Nagendra, who is now Mr Modi's personal yoga consultant, told The National.

“He learnt yoga here."

After Mr Modi became became the chief minister of Gujarat state in 2001, "he would invite us to train him and his ministers every year", Mr Nagendra said.

"He is brilliant and does not need spoon-feeding. He has developed the habit.”

Mr Nagendra said Mr Modi practises for more than an hour each day in a routine that incorporates all four main streams of yoga — karma yoga, which involves the active aspect of mind; bhakti yoga for the emotional aspect; raja yoga for mind and body control; and gyana yoga for the knowledge aspect.

He also practises "avartan dhyan", or cyclic meditation, conceptualised by Mr Nagendra’s institute, which helps deep relaxation of the body and mind.

“He practises every day from morning 6am to 7.30am. That is what brings energy, brilliance, creativity and fantastic memory to him,” Mr Nagendra said.

“There is a secret in our ancient scripture on how to completely reduce stress levels and give deep rest to the system. We translated that into a programme called cyclic meditation. It gives deep rest to the system and brings sleep hours down and improves health,” he said.

Stretching India's influence

After coming to power in 2014, Mr Modi adopted the promotion of yoga as a soft power component in his government’s foreign policy.

He introduced a proposal to raise awareness of the benefits of yoga across the world at the UN General Assembly that year. It was endorsed by 177 nations.

The first International Day of Yoga was observed the following year, an occasion Mr Modi marks with great enthusiasm.

Starting with a mass yoga event in New Delhi with nearly 36,000 people, the celebrations have grown bigger every year under Mr Modi’s guidance.

In 2018, he posted a two-minute video on Twitter that showed him doing yoga poses in a garden. In 2020, with people forced to stay indoors by the Covid pandemic, he encouraged people to practise yoga at home with their families, and launched an online yoga competition.

A year later, as the pandemic continued to ravage the world and particularly India, Mr Modi launched a yoga app in collaboration with the World Health Organisation.

“Yoga is a ray of hope amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as the enthusiasm for yoga has only increased over the last two years," the Prime Minister said. "We all have seen that in such difficult times, yoga became a great medium of self-confidence."

Mr Nagendra said the Indian leader has changed the concept of yoga.

“Like the industrial revolution, the yoga revolution has come to life. The vision of yoga has changed in the world after 2014.

“Earlier, the idea was that yoga was for those people who would go to the Himalayas for deep meditation. There was a contribution from other yoga gurus too, but after 2014, yoga has been brought down to the ground for everybody,” he said.

Updated: June 23, 2023, 6:02 PM