If China has panda diplomacy, India has yoga, an ancient discipline first practised by Hindu sages thousands of years ago and now one of India’s biggest cultural exports.
India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully lobbied the United Nations to designate June 21 International Yoga Day in his first year in power in 2014.
Since then, just as China under President Xi Jinping has given countries pandas for their zoos in a show of goodwill, Modi has used one of India’s most popular exports to assert his nation’s rising place in the world.
On Friday, at the fifth annual International Yoga Day, Modi practised various yoga “asanas” (or positions) alongside an estimated 30,000 people in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand as members of his cabinet and foreign envoys rolled out their yoga mats in cities around the world.
“Let our motto be yoga for peace, harmony and progress,” Modi said before joining the hour-long practise.
Most of India’s 191 embassies and consulates worldwide organised yoga sessions to commemorate the day, according to the foreign ministry.
The ministry shared photos of yoga flash mobs on the streets of Kiev, colourful yoga mats around Brussels’ Triumphal Arch, sun salutations under the Washington Monument, hundreds in seated prayer pose at Moscow’s Tagansky Park and more than 500 people in identical transparent ponchos and black pants in front of the Yellow Crane Tower in rainy Wuhan, China.
At an event for diplomats in New Delhi featuring India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Israel’s ambassador Ron Malka said Modi’s use of yoga as a tool of diplomacy is “working quite well” to strengthen ties between the two countries.
Walter Lindner, the German ambassador to India, described Modi’s yoga bid at the UN a “clever move”.
“Yoga is a product which you can sell everywhere in the world,” Lindner said, adding that four million people were participating in International Yoga Day events in Germany.
Bolster image at home
Modi has also used yoga to bolster his image at home. Marking the International Yoga Day at an event in Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi, Modi said he aimed to make “yoga an integral part of the lives of poor”.
“We have to take the yoga movement to the next level … Diseases make the poor person poorer. We have to take yoga from the cities to the villages, to the jungles, to the poor and the Adivasis [tribal people],” said Modi.
Footage on domestic media showed military personnel practising yoga poses with trained dog units as well as on an aircraft carrier in Mumbai and in the high-altitude Himalayas in sub-zero temperatures.
— Defence Spokesperson (@SpokespersonMoD) June 21, 2019
Modi last year released a two-minute video showing him practising yoga on his lawn at the prime minister’s residence. This year, he tweeted videos showing an animated version of him performing yoga poses.
Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a resounding victory in India’s recently concluded general elections by promoting a “New India” that pairs rapid economic growth with the trappings of the country’s ancient roots.
After the final day of polling, Modi, who casts himself as a Hindu ascetic who closely follows the religion’s strictures on vegetarianism and yoga, retreated to a Himalayan mountain cave to meditate – with a camera crew in tow.