Exploring the spiritual discipline of Yoga

Last Updated on June 21, 2023 by Shabnam Sengupta

Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that dates back thousands of years. It is a spiritual discipline that focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body as well as humans and nature. Today, it has become a global phenomenon, with millions of people practising it to improve their physical and mental health.

India, as the birthplace of yoga, acted as an usher for the practice and propagated it throughout the world. In 2014, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) declared June 21 as International Yoga Day. In essence, yoga is that colossal tree with its roots in India, but the branches cast a shadow over the whole world. 

Tracing the roots

These roots can be traced back to seals and fossils of Indus Valley Civilisation, ancient Indian texts such as Vedas and Upanishads, Buddhist and Jain traditions, and epics of Mahabharat and Ramayana. However, it does not adhere to any particular religion, belief, or community. People always approached it as a science of inner well-being. Passing through history, Yoga went through multifarious transitions and traditional schools. In modern times, people understand it as a therapy or exercise system for health and fitness. They strive to harmonise themselves, aiming to achieve the highest level of perception and peace.

Expanding the horizon

Yoga first came out of hermitages and ashrams in India to become more accessible to the general population. It sparked an interest among Western intellectuals and spiritual seekers in the early 20th century when Swami Vivekananda introduced the practice to the West during his travels in Europe and the United States. It is said to have started from Vivekananda’s famous speech at Chicago in the Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893. In that speech, he talked about the spiritual aspects of Indian religious traditions. The Indian sage found it to be the best concept to aid his awareness drive of ancient Indian spirituality in the West. 

In 1896, Swami Vivekananda wrote a book titled Raja Yoga which carried his interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It became an instant hit and had a major impact on Western understanding of it. He emphasised yoga’s physical and mental health benefits which found many takers in the foreign land.  

Later on, the travels of other teachers and disciples of Indian gurus in the US and Europe helped populate yoga in the West. In the 1960s, travellers on the hippie trails found themselves in Indian Ashrams and the visit of The Beatles to Rishikesh’s yoga ashram drew greater international attention towards Indian spiritualism and yoga.

Yoga continued to grow throughout the world, amassing millions of practitioners from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The Indian government also recognised its importance as a cultural and spiritual heritage and took steps to promote and preserve the practice. India established institutions such as the Central Yoga Research Institute (which later became Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga) in 1976 and the Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy in 1978 to conduct research, train teachers, and promote its education and awareness in the country.

Yoga and the world

India also promoted yoga on the international stage and hosted events in the country to celebrate the first-ever International Yoga Day in 2015 and the years that followed. The UNGA on December 11, 2014, recognised its importance and passed a resolution to establish June 21, the longest day in the northern hemisphere, as International Yoga Day.

According to the Ministry of Tourism’s data, the number of foreign tourists coming to India for yoga training in four years, from the first International Yoga Day in 2015 to 2018, has increased by 37.4 percent.

In 2016, Harvard Medical School cited a survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, which reported that the number of Americans doing yoga grew by over 50 per cent in four years. It was 20.4 million in 2012 which increased to over 36 million in 2016– a year after the first  International Yoga Day. 

The 2016 report further mentioned that while the majority of yoga practitioners in the US are women  (70 per cent), the number of American men doing yoga went from 4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2016. Also, the number of American adults over 50 doing yoga tripled from 2012 to 14 million in 2016. Future reports only highlight an increase in these numbers. 

Yoga also emerged as an industry in the West.  According to Statista, the US pilates and yoga studio market reached $12.82 billion in value in  2020 and the number of these studios increased from 32,353 in 2017 to 40,582 in 2022. According to Allied Market Research, the global yoga industry is worth $37.46 billion as of 2019 and is projected to be worth $66.23 billion by 2027. 

Yoga of modern times

Yoga’s journey from ancient India to the 21st-century world was made possible by the combined efforts of people throughout history, including traditional teachers, modern practitioners, and the Indian government. The practice has become a symbol of India’s rich cultural heritage that brings health and peace to people. 

Yoga is no longer the practice reserved for hermits,  saints, and sages. It has entered into our daily lives and reoriented itself to suit our modern lifestyle and sociological needs. The discipline not only promotes physical health but also improves mental well-being by reducing stress and anxiety. It enhances spiritual growth and connects mind, body, and spirit. It is a versatile practice that ranges from gentle and restorative to vigorous and dynamic. People of all ages can practise it and it can be adapted to individual needs and preferences as well. That is probably why it is finding a place in so many homes in so many countries.  

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