As the sun dipped below the Mediterranean on the longest day of the year, more than 300 people in Tel Aviv’s HaTachana compound reached towards the sky in a sun salutation for the second annual International Day of Yoga.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lobbied the United Nations to recognize June 21 as International Yoga Day, garnering the support of 177 nations. Last year’s inaugural event in Tel Aviv attracted more than 2,000 people over the course of the day.
“The idea is to convey a message of unity and harmony,” said Indian deputy ambassador Dr Anju Kumar, as different yoga classes took place in the Tachana compound. “In this stressful life, yoga brings you together, creating an internal union. It creates a peaceful relationship between yourself and the world at large.”
Kumar noted that yoga can be especially useful in a stressful place like Israel. “We are surrounded by internal and external conflicts,” she said. “But if you’re not peaceful inside, you cannot contribute to the peace outside.”
The Embassy of India, the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, and the Israeli Yoga Teacher’s Association hosted the 2016 event at the Tachana. Dozens more were at the Tel Aviv Port marking the occasion.
“Yoga Day” featured an evening program with options to try different kinds of yoga, including yoga for children, AcroYoga (acrobatic couples’ yoga), and Iyengar yoga.
The highlight of the evening was a class with Prasad Rangnekar, the founder of the Yogaprasad Institute in Mumbai, who teaches around the world.
Rangnekar led hundreds of people through a special series designed by the Indian government. The class was timed to coincide with similar classes following the same set of “asanas” or movements around the world.
The Indian embassy also organized events in Jerusalem and Rosh Hanikra, and visited a number of local schools to teach about yoga practices.
Kumar dismissed the notion running through some college campuses that practicing yoga amounted to “cultural appropriation,” or to co-opting someone else’s culture in an insensitive manner. Last fall, the University of Ottawa canceled a beginner’s yoga class for disabled students, citing “cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”
“Yoga is an ancient tradition from India, but it is universally applicable to everyone’s needs,” said Kumar.
In an early morning yoga session in Chandigarh, India,on Tuesday featuring the same set of movements that people practiced in Tel Aviv and around the world, PM Modi also tried to separate yoga from Hinduism, telling the audience of 30,000 that yoga is “not a religious activity” but rather “the science of this world.”
Kumar said that International Yoga Day was trying to promote the yogic value of “vasudhair kutumbkam,” that the whole world is a single family, and therefore should reduce conflicts and wars.
“Yoga is the most essential thing that we humans need,” said the yoga teacher Rangnekar, who is visiting Israel for the eighth time, as Israel is on his regular circuit of international teaching opportunities. “Peace and harmony are the essence of yoga.”
The event in Tel Aviv attracted plenty of young and flexible regular yoga practitioners, but also a fair number of older people, first-time yogis, and people both religious and secular. It took a while for the crowd to get settled into the rhythm of breathing, because, after all, this is Israel, and a free t-shirt will always trump a sacred chant to open the practice.
But there’s something about breathing in unison with 300 strangers. There’s something about being surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes on their mats, settling into the same positions as people around the world, in China and Afghanistan and India and England and the United States. There’s something about stretching up to the sky and watching the sun set over the sea on the longest day of the year. For just a moment, it helps quiet the frenzy and brings a moment of peace. Namaste.
Did you miss International Yoga Day?
Try this breathing practice at home, which is especially useful for hot summer days as it is called “Pranayama Sheetali” or Cooling Breath
1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes
2. Slow down your breath
3. Curl your tongue so it makes a roll
4. Breathe in through your mouth (almost like your tongue is a straw), and exhale through your nose
5. Repeat for 5-10 breaths