When PM Narendra Modi suggested to the United Nations (UN) that we should celebrate an International Day of Yoga, a record number of UN Member States accepted the proposition and passed a resolution without even a vote. Last year 192 nations celebrated this day on June 21. The Universal acceptance of this proposition indicates that the representatives of the different nations had either experienced yoga, heard about yoga or read about its benefits and thus there was no need to discuss or debate or vote on yoga. Therefore, we cannot forget the stalwarts in the field of yoga in the last century who relentlessly worked to make this unknown subject known across the globe – because of which this proposition could be universally adopted.
One of the greatest contributors to the ‘universalisation’ of yoga has been Yogacharya BKS Iyengar who taught yoga for 82 years of his life. He started yoga to overcome ill-health and having a first-hand experience of human suffering, he started on a mission to help the others who suffered. Human suffering knows no nationality or religion or socio economic stature. Sufferings can be physical, mental, emotional or intellectual. Yoga can be a means for overcoming or withstanding it so that we progress stoically in this journey of life. In his own words, “Yoga cures what need not be endured and endures what cannot be cured.”
2500 years ago, Sage Patanjali who codified the system of yoga into Yoga sutras, clearly stated in the 30th sutra of the first chapter that the major obstacles in our life are disease, dullness which is physical in nature; doubt, negligence, idleness lack of moderation which are mental obstacles; living under illusions which is an intellectual limitation, and inability to hold on to what has been achieved and a scattered and oscillating mind which has intellectual as well as spiritual limitations. Yoga is a means to free all of these.
This path to yoga is eight fold. The first two are yama and niyama [moral and social discipline] teach us the art of living our lives. The next two are asana [moulding the body into various positions], pranayama [regulation of the life force] which are experimental sciences; while the next three pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are experiential philosophies which cannot even be expressed, while Samadhi is a state of eternal bliss. Thus, of these 8 aspects, the only two that can be done by an individual [as the rest are experiential] are asanas and pranayama. That is the reason, the world often associates yoga with asana and pranayama. And, it is only through these asanas and pranayama that you can experience the other aspects of yoga – ultimately letting one experience divine bliss. How far we progress in the path would depend upon the intensity of our practices.
The asanas and pranayama are performed by the human embodiment which includes the musculo-skeletal body, the organic body comprising of the various physiological systems- the mind, the breath, the senses and the consciousness. Thus, their practice affects all these systems of the practitioner and good health, freedom from suffering, the removal of ease from the dis-ease are all the effects of yogic practices.
A lot of concern is often laid on whether yoga is really universal but these issues are baseless and more due to the figment of imagination. Human suffering is universal and the means – the asanas and pranayama- are done by the human embodiment – which also does not differentiate between nationalities, religion or socio economic conditions. In fact, it is so overwhelming when the practice of yoga strengthens one’s faith in one’s own religion. One of the most touching episode for the writer was at a workshop in Amman which was attended by mostly Arab men and women. At the end of the session, while the rest of the group was collecting yoga mats, Suleima asked for a mat to be kept aside. All were perplexed. It was time for namaz and she prayed on the mat.
When Guruji Iyengar first started teaching public classes in UK in the 1960s, the Inner London Education authority asked for yoga to be introduced in their curriculum. But, there was a condition – there should be no reference to spirituality or religion. Guruji Iyengar respected their condition. He started teaching them asanas on the so-called physical plane, not referring to the Sanskrit names of the asanas or quoting the sutras. Over a period of time, the practice of asanas started transforming the individuals and they wanted to know more, where and how they originated, the philosophy and today, the Sanskrit names of the asanas, the integration of Patanjali’s philosophy has become an integral part of all Iyengar Yoga students and teachers. The point is to begin and the practice transforms. Be it China or the USA; be it Israel or Iran, be it Malaysia or Philippines, be it man or woman, rich or poor, Spanish or English or Hindi speaking – Yoga sees no difference and we all practice together. The point is that yoga is associated with flexibility – not merely of the body but the mind too – which makes us accept and respect all living being on this earth. This is not enforced, but happens.
So Yoga, in a way, has united the world, even if it is small representations from the member countries for just a day of celebrations. With time and the increase in awareness of yoga, more people are bound to join this practice. So, yoga which originates from the Sanskrit yuj which means to yoke, join, unite has the ability and the celebration of the yoga day is reflective of this word. Sage Patañjali had used the term sarvabhauma indicating that yoga is for one and all. It is universal.