Tens of thousands of people stood on one leg, hands stretched toward the sky in unison, in India’s capital Sunday to celebrate the first international yoga day, part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to promote the country’s traditions.
“There will be no part of the world that will be untouched by yoga today,” Mr. Modi said before taking his place on a yoga mat in front of a group of government officials, police, school children and others in the heart of New Delhi.
Since his election last year, Mr. Modi, a politician with roots in Hindu nationalism, has looked to long-standing Indian customs to inject more patriotism into domestic politics and give a boost to the country’s cultural diplomacy abroad as he seeks to raise India’s global profile.
On Sunday, 35,000 people took part in the public yoga demonstration as the sun rose over central Delhi. In December, the United Nations declared international yoga day at India’s urging: Mr. Modi used his first speech at the U.N. in September to call for it.
India’s government said its diplomatic missions had organized yoga-day festivities in 191 countries.
“Our aim is to keep the tradition,” said Ishwara N. Acharya, director of the Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy in New Delhi, a research center that studies the effect of yoga, breathing and meditation on the human body.
Nowhere has this been clearer than in the premier’s emphasis on traditional healing. The government has doubled spending on yoga and traditional Ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy.
A hefty portion of the budget increase is going to build teaching hospitals that will seek to treat everything from diabetes to malaria with traditional remedies and yoga research centers. Mr. Acharya said he hopes money will “revive the ancient practices for the world.”
Such parallel health systems aren’t uncommon in Asia. In China and South Korea, traditional medicine exists alongside modern health care.
Yoga is at the forefront of Mr. Modi’s efforts. The practice is more than just a trendy exercise in India, where it is viewed by many as a way to promote health that is rooted in ancient Hindu scriptures.
Yoga is a “low-cost almost no-cost option” to improve public health, said Bidyut Sarkar, a senior research scientist at the Public Health Foundation of India. For example, Mr. Sarkar said, his research shows yoga’s pranayama breathing can help people quit smoking.
Critics say that Mr. Modi’s promotion of yoga is part of a Hindu religious agenda. “Ultimately Mr. Modi equates Indian tradition with Hindu tradition,” said Achyut Yagnik, a historian and a human-rights activist.
Some Muslim leaders have accused Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to impose Hindu religious practices on others, saying that the way yoga is practiced–some chants and postures–can be against Islamic beliefs.
“There are other forms of exercise the government can promote. This is an attempt to impose Hindu values,” said Abdul Rahim Quraishi, spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on Thursday. “Why don’t they build playgrounds instead?”
The government has dismissed the complaints, saying that participation in yoga day is voluntary and noting that some yoga practices more closely associated with Hinduism, such as chanting “om” and bowing to the sun, weren’t part of the group activity.
In Delhi, Mr. Modi rose from sitting cross-legged in the lotus position at the end of Sunday’s celebrations and walked toward a group of school children. He asked: “Who here fell asleep?” during the total-relaxation pose at the end of the yoga session.
Some raised their hands but Afsa Parveen, 12 years old, didn’t. She said she knew not to, just like Mr. Modi told those who had dozed off. “He is the best teacher,” she said. (The Wall Street Journal)