Torsos heaved. Arms flailed. Heads pivoted. Modi joins world Yoga day

Bending and twisting their body through a variety of poses, thousands of volunteers took part in International Yoga Day in the heart of Delhi.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, centre, led a mass yoga session along with other Indian yoga practitioners to mark  International Yoga Day on Rajpath in New Delhi on June 21, 2015. Prakash Singh/AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // Dressed in white and with a strip of cloth bearing the colours of the Indian flag around his neck, prime minister Narendra Modi surprised 37,000 volunteers when he participated in a mass yoga demonstration yesterday.

It was India’s central event of International Yoga Day, which was observed in more than 190 countries.

Participants of the 35-minute session had expected Mr Modi to deliver an inauguration speech only at the event on Raj Path, a wide avenue running through the heart of Delhi.

“Who would have thought that Raj Path would become Yoga Path?” Mr Modi said in his speech, delivered before the event started at 7am.

Amid tight security, the volunteers – drawn from schools and universities, the army, NGOs, and the civil service – followed instructions in Hindi and English, bending and twisting their body through a variety of poses.

The volunteers wore blue-and-red track trousers and white t-shirts with the International Yoga Day logo emblazoned on them. They performed their exercises on red mats, which in turn lay upon green matting that had been unrolled upon the tarmac.

Among the participants was Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi. “Yoga is a good thing. Everybody should do it,” he said.

Dharma Rai, a 27-year-old medical technician who is a member of Patanjali Yogpeeth, a yoga institute with branches across the country, said that she had been chosen for the event by her head trainer in her hometown of Haridwar.

A spry and experienced hand at yoga, Ms Rai said with a giggle that the seven main “asanas” – or positions – that the volunteer performed on Raj Path were “basic ones”.

“We learned them at the very beginning, when we first started learning yoga,” she said.

“But it was still a lot of fun to do,” Ms Rai said, as she and others in her group walked back to buses parked on an adjacent road. “Yoga brought a lot of peace to my life. I’m glad the prime minister is trying to spread its message.”

Stationed at Raj Path since 11pm the previous night, Jat Nilam, a constable of the Central Reserve Police Force, watched the proceedings and admitted that she had never done yoga before.

“I didn’t realise there was so much interest in this activity,” Ms Nilam said. “But it looks easy, doesn’t it? Our police training was much more difficult than this. Can you get fit just by doing these simple exercises?”

Rahul Mandal, a middle-aged businessman who had brought along his young daughter, wanted to be allowed closer to watch the yoga event.

Ms Nilam, however, kept them behind the police barricade, more than a hundred metres away from the nearest yoga volunteer.

“If they really want to promote it, this is not the way,” Mr Mandal said. “They should want people to come closer, to be inspired. If they can do it for [the military parades] on Republic Day, why couldn’t they have done it for this?”

Mr Mandal agreed grudgingly, however, that the event otherwise seemed to be very well organised.

“They even have first aid booths and water stations,” he said, pointing along the sides of the long, rectangular mass of people.

On a large grassy median near where Mr Mandal was standing, another instructor was conducting his own, informal Yoga Day event, with roughly 40 students who had wandered up and joined in.

Torsos heaved and fell. Arms flailed about. Heads pivoted from side to side.

“That’s the way, that’s the way,” the instructor called. “Do this every day. It’ll be good for you.”

A couple of kilometres away, in the relative quiet of Lodhi Gardens, a large public park set around 15th century royal tombs, Archana Phadnis led a short class of her own. Wearing a lime green T-shirt and black tights, she called out instructions in both Hindi and English.

Her wards, a mixed assembly of old and young people, stretched for more than 15 minutes. Then Ms Phadnis took them through the Surya Namaskar, a traditional salutation of the sun that incorporates 12 stretches and movements into a cycle of exercise.

“I conduct this class every Sunday,” Ms Phadnis said. “Anyone who is here is welcome to take part, since we need no equipment for it.”

Usually, she gets more than 20 participants.

“Today, I had almost 80,” she said. “I don’t know whether it was because of all this hype surrounding Yoga Day.”

Under a tree in another part of Lodhi Gardens, Vikram Ranjith, a 41-year-old sales executive, had rolled out his mat and was powering through asanas on his own. His only company was his iPod.

“I listen to some spiritual chanting when I do my yoga,” said Mr Ranjith, who has been doing yoga for two decades.

“I started it as exercise, but now it is something more,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’m happy with all this glamour around Yoga Day. Yoga should be something personal. It shouldn’t just be people doing mass exercise.”