MUMBAI, India – The soldiers in Kashmir are squatting on mats and arching their backs. In the parks of Mumbai, retirees reach toward the sky, or cover their eyes in a form of meditation. In New Delhi, one of the city’s main parks erupts every morning with the guffaws of believers in “laughing yoga,” who say forced laughter can give way to inner peace.
Yoga has a long history in India, reaching back for thousands of years. Ancient temples show long-dead royalty in yoga poses. Tales of yogis who can rise into the air, or go long stretches without breathing, or cure terminal illnesses, are still told here.
But yoga long ago went mainstream, with ancient practices melding with techniques that have changed and evolved as teachers have taken them back and forth between India and the West.
There are no reliable estimates of how many people regularly practice yoga in India, though the number is certainly in the millions. Especially in the mornings, parks across the country fill with clusters of practitioners and teachers, or with people going through poses on their own.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made clear it wants the first International Yoga Day, held on Sunday, to be taken seriously. Modi will address tens of thousands of people who will gather at a central New Delhi park for a group yoga session. Many government officials, meanwhile, have told employees that they need to join in the celebrations somehow.
And in a country where the austerity of Mohandas Gandhi long ago gave way to modern consumerism, plenty of companies are joining in. Yatra.com, a popular travel website, is launching a series of special yoga travel packages.
Although it’s viewed mostly as a form of physical exercise in the West, yoga carries religious associations in India. Muslim groups have objected to a sequence called “sun salutation,” which they interpret as sun worship, and some have refused to participate in yoga. Indian authorities said that the salutations would not be part of Sunday’s celebrations.
As many as 192 countries will mark International Yoga Day. Events will stretch from the Federated States of Micronesia in the of Pacific Ocean to the far south of Samoa; from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
Even though the celebrations remain mired in religious controversy in India, 47 nations that are members of the Organization of Islamic Countries have given it their approval. India’s government has been trying hard to separate the exercise from religion.
In Afghanistan, an event will be held in the Indian Consulate, while in Burkina Faso, the venue is a municipal hall.
In Spain, celebrations will take place in multiple places in Madrid and Barcelona; in South Africa, yoga enthusiasts can join demonstrations in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg. In Australia, the high commissioner to India, Patrick Suckling, said the celebration is an affirmation of the universal acceptance of yoga as a practice for mental and physical well-being.
Participants will gather at San Francisco’s Marina Green and in New Orleans, people will perform 108 sun salutations. In New York, Times Square is the place to be.
In Washington, D.C., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduced a resolution in Congress commemorating Yoga Day.
“As a longtime yoga practitioner myself, I experienced firsthand the positive impacts of yoga on my own life,” Gabbard said this week.