You don’t expect to see world leaders getting down on all fours to perform yoga in public, let alone in a mass yoga class that draws observers from Guinness World Records.
But India’s Narendra Modi did just that when he launched International Yoga Day on Rajpath, the central Delhi mall that represents the nerve center of power in India.
“Who would have thought that we would turn Rajpath into Yog-path [Yoga Road],” Modi asked the assembled yoga enthusiasts.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma was among the participants who stretched out in a carpet of yoga mats numbering anywhere from 35,000 to 37,000.
On a day intended to project India’s “soft power,” school children, yoga instructors and government employees gathered before dawn eager to extol the virtues of India’s ancient passport to harmony and inner peace. Home Affairs Ministry employee Urmisha Nandi called yoga India’s “hidden treasure.”
“It’s very healthy and helpful also because we are nearing the age of 40s, and at this age we need it badly,” she said with a laugh.
Looking out at the sea of yoga mats — made, by the way, in China — Modi said that yoga was more than physical fitness. The prime minister, who has been under attack by the opposition for “usurping” yoga to highlight himself, insisted that today’s occasion was a program for “human welfare, stress-free living, and a message of love, peace and harmony.
“There is a great misconception that yoga is about physical flexibility,” Modi said. “If that were so, circus performers would be yogis. Bending your body and being flexible is not yoga.”
Just as the asanas, or poses, are but a small part of the entire concept, Modi said “the full journey of yoga is very long … We are making an attempt to begin it today.”
Modi enthralled on-lookers when he took up position on a teal blue mat at the head of columns of participants who stretched for a mile to India Gate in neat rows along the covered road and two adjoining lawns.
In marathon preparations, nothing was left to chance. The Hindustan Times reported that when a wind storm scattered nearly all of the yoga mats Saturday morning, the army was called in “to avert a last-minute disaster.”
Modi, dressed in white, mopped his brow with a scarf in the tri-colors of the Indian flag in the early morning heat. He joined the program following instructions in English and Hindi. Giant screens projected images of the instructors leading the drill of breathing and balancing. “This asana helps in treating back aches,” a female instructor intoned.
Throughout the 35-minutes exercise, Modi’s moves looked nimble and his face relaxed.
Modi came to office vowing to propel India onto the world stage. Jahan Zeb, a Muslim, said he’d done that with International Yoga Day, and made India “proud.” Other Muslims said by showcasing yoga, Modi was showcasing Hinduism – the majority religion in India. But Zeb brushed aside that criticism and said he had come for the physical fitness and to broaden his mind.
“Some Muslims believe that life is completely governed by religion. Whereas the Koran says, ‘one should learn and expand their knowledge,’ ” Zeb says.
A commemorative coin and a new Indian stamp helped mark the first International Yoga Day, celebrated from Ankor Wat to Time Square.