India uses yoga diplomacy to assert rising global influence

Emily Schmall
Associated Press
Diplomats of various countries perform yoga to mark International Yoga Day in New Delhi, India.

New Delhi – If China has panda diplomacy, India has yoga.

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, the fifth annual International Yoga Day, Modi practiced various yoga “asanas” alongside an estimated 40,000 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 hourlong practice.

Most of India’s 191 embassies and consulates worldwide organized yoga sessions to commemorate the day, according to the foreign ministry.

The ministry shared photos of yoga flash mobs on the streets of Kiev, colorful 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.

Diplomats of various countries perform yoga to mark International Yoga Day in New Delhi.

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 U.N. a “clever move.”

“Yoga is a product which you can sell everywhere in the world,” Lindner said, adding that 4 million people were participating in International Yoga Day events in Germany.

Modi has also used yoga to bolster his image at home.

Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a resounding victory in India’s recently concluded weekslong 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.

Modi last year released a 2-minute video showing him practicing yoga on his lawn at the prime minister’s residence. Some online commentators used the opportunity to compare Modi with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Many shared pictures of Nehru doing a headstand, an advanced yoga posture. Of the benefits, Nehru wrote in his autobiography, “The slightly comic position increased my good humor and made me a little more tolerant of life’s vagaries.”

Associated Press writer Mariya Amrayeva contributed to this report.