Yoga unites the world

Nepal rediscovers the soft power of yoga on International Yoga Day

Officials from Nepal Police Academy practice yoga on the occasion of International Yoga Day in Maharajgunj on Wednesday.

It is 21 June, and the world sits cross-legged, palms turned up, eyes shut, and doing breathing exercises.

As people around the world mark 9th International Yoga Day, Nepalis have been reminded of the universal impact of this ancient practice that finds its roots in the Himalaya.

 In 2014 the United Nations proclaimed 21 June as the Day of Yoga and ever since, it has been observed annually as an occasion for advocating yoga to the world at large. This year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to lead the International Day of Yoga at the United Nations on Wednesday. 

 “The study and practice of yoga enables one to understand the secrets of the universe,” says Chinatamani Yogi, a peace activist and founding principal of Hindu VidyaPeeth Schools in Nepal. “It enables us to connect to every other human being by transcending the boundaries of religion, and to all of nature.”

Stripped to its essence, ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit means ‘to unite’. The ultimate aim of the practice is to unify the body, the mind and consciousness. But besides its spiritual antecedent, yoga has long been acclaimed for many health benefits. Coordinated breathing, enhanced cardiovascular health, improved flexibility and balance, stress relief, and psychological stability are just a few in the extensive list. 

 “Numerous randomized controlled studies have shown the efficacy of Yogic practices in management of non-communicable diseases like hypertension, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchial asthma, diabetes, sleep disorders, depression, and obesity,” said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia in a press statement.

 These benefits are nothing new to Nepali ears. Yet today, even as yoga gains followers in the West it remains under-practiced and its appeal diminished for many in the country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the United States, and will be attending a mass yoga event on 21 June.

 The yoga scene in Nepal is growing due to lifestyle changes among urbanites. Nepal was the first country to make yoga a mandatory school subject nationwide in 2020, and despite some problems with implementation it has brought back this ancient practice.

 On Nepal’s National Yoga Day on 15 January 2023, observed each year on the day of Maghe Sankranti, Prime Minister Dahal said, “If we are able to promote yoga education at the school level and take it up to universities, we can produce yoga instructors who will be able to reach far and wide and give Nepal a new identity.”

 At Kathmandu University, initiatives to make this vision a reality are underway. Last year, the University’s School of Arts, in partnership with the School of Medical Sciences, launched a novel undergraduate Bachelor’s in Yogic Science and Wellbeing. 

 It aims to promote and encourage research on yoga, which is historically also tied to Nepali culture and heritage. The focus of the curriculum is on educating, preserving and applying the vast teachings of yoga through the study of its history, theory, and philosophy, and in-depth training in its practice and methodologies. 

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“What lies at the core of yogic studies is a sound understanding of health and the ability to use the knowledge to lead a fulfilling life,” says Ananta Risal, coordinator of the KU program.  “Primarily, health can be defined as having five aspects: physical, mental, spiritual, social, and financial. Study of yogic sciences enables students to connect all these threads and internalize them.”

Priority has also been given to ensuring that students acquire entrepreneurial skills that will allow them to engage in spiritual and income-generating ventures that will ensure them a place in the job market.

On Wednesday, KU is inaugurating its Yoga and Nature Cure Hospital that is designed to  deliver alternative medicine to patients through a combination of yoga and Ayurveda. In the presence of naturopathic and allopathic doctors, care will be dispensed to encourage lifestyle changes for warding off ailments before they even arise.

 “There are 256 known methods of natural therapy in Nepal. The hospital will leverage the traditional knowledge we have about these methods to provide naturopathic treatment to patients, with the aim to avoid the use of medicines by instead using a preventative and non-invasive approach,” Risal explains. 

 The hospital will also serve as a research centre through which the University aims to gather and analyse patient data to devise models for investigating the effects of yoga on general wellbeing and for integrating yoga into mainstream healthcare practice. 

 “As yoga and yogic practices are becoming a global phenomenon, they are being taught and re-taught at surface level without a sound understanding of yogic principles,” cautions Risal. “We have started seeing yoga cults, and those involved have started secluding themselves from society, which goes against the very precept of yoga.”

In the west, the practice of yoga has grown exponentially, but along the way, it has been stripped of its spiritual context. The westernisation of yoga is largely credited to Swami Vivekananda, who in the 1800s preached it as a science of the mind and propagated yogic texts by translating them from Sanskrit to English.  

Often found limited to the practice of asana, yoga in the West is seen as a mere system of exercise inevitably leading to physical fitness.

 “Yoga is more than a physical practice,” clarifies Yogi. “It is a crucial part of serving humanity; it is like a philosophy, like a part of growth that enables one to cultivate a life of service.”

 Thanks to globalisation, the western non-spiritual approach to yoga is now being imported back in the East. Practitioners of yoga today are no longer ascetics but modern individuals who look for a balance of spirituality and practicality. And in some cases the traditions that were once a part of yoga are now being cut off. 

 “There is a widening gap between the traditional yogic knowledge we have and the latest scientific discoveries surrounding health, neuroscience and psychology,” explains Risal. “The study of yogic sciences can erase this divide.”

Nepal, as a cradle of yoga, has done little to leverage its rich position. Many yogic practices that are native to the country are not recognised widely, and the spiritual resources it houses are underutilised.

For example, Nepal has 690 species of plants with medicinal benefits, but many either remain untapped, or are overexploited and exported to manufacturing giants only to be reimported as processed products and medicines with hefty price tags. 

One such place teeming with herbs of Ayurvedic significance is Khaptad in western Nepal, revered as the hermitage of Khaptad Baba (Swami Sachchidananda) who meditated on the scenic mountain top for most of the 20th century.

Risal says that Nepal can capitalise on this heritage and can use the soft power of yoga to make the country a major spiritual hub. He adds, “As we promote yoga, we must remember to put the Nepali context front and centre so that our nuanced practices are not dominated or lost. We must promote both the practice of and science behind.”