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New York City celebrates the 10th International Day of Yoga

by News7

NEW YORK (RNS) — On Thursday, June 20, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered to practice yoga in Times Square — a bustling hub known for anything but the mindfulness and calming silence characteristic of yoga — for a combined observance of summer solstice and the International Day of Yoga.

The location emphasized the theme of this year’s International Day of Yoga practice — “Mind Over Madness” — with a focus on the internal aspects of yoga that can be accessed, even if the physical body is surrounded by chaos. 

“If you can practice in Times Square, if you can do yoga in New York, you can do it anywhere,” said Susan Hu, who taught one of the seven hour-long yoga classes offered Thursday during the 22nd annual Solstice in Times Square event, sponsored in part by the Consulate General of India New York.

“It felt like we were turning this place of Times Square, which is usually full of a lot of passion, a lot of that rajas energy, into a big yoga playground,” said Hu, the lead yoga teacher at New York’s Bhakti Center, a spiritual community affiliated with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Her voice booming across three stages in the crowded Times Square plaza, Hu, more commonly known by her initiated name Brinda Kumari Devi Dasi, led nearly 300 city residents to “connect your body, your breath, your mind,” sharing stories of Lord Shiva, “the first creative being who practiced all 8,400,000 yoga poses.”

Originally from Shanghai, Hu, who grew up atheist and moved to New York in 2012, says that before being introduced to Bhakti Yoga, a devotional form of yoga, she had “always been trying to search for the purpose of my life.” Sharing the ancient wisdom of the yogic philosophy, she believes, is the reason she is on this planet. “It’s not just a physical workout class, but rather it’s a way of helping us to connect with our souls. It teaches (us) how to conduct ourselves in society, how to interrelate with each other, how to deal with our internal world, but also gives us the compass of how to really live our lives.”

Nikita Bhasin, from left, Pooja Tuladhar, Susan Hu (Brinda Kumari Devi Dasi), and Kevin Tobar (Kishor Chandra Das) instructed a yoga session in Times Square on Thursday afternoon, June 20, 2024, in New York. (Photo courtesy Bruno Calvis)

And although the International Day of Yoga only comes around once a year, Hu says everyone, no matter their age, physical fitness level or spiritual leaning, can gain something from a first yoga class.

“Maybe their body feels less achy, and maybe they find a peace of mind for a moment,” she said. “It’s incredible how everywhere around the world, people are celebrating this day that’s dedicated to the practice of yoga.”

Exactly one decade ago, the United Nations proclaimed June 21st to be the International Day of Yoga after a draft resolution was introduced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The UN, which aims to “raise awareness worldwide of the many benefits of practicing yoga,” credits the ancient Indian subcontinent with the birth of yoga and its “unmatched power to deliver healing, inner peace and physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing.” It is estimated that around 300 million people of all races and faiths practice yoga worldwide. 

“On this important day, let us all be inspired by yoga’s timeless values and its call for a more peaceful and harmonious future,” stated UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a recent message.

Dileepkumar Thankappan, spiritually known around the world as Guru Dileep ji, played a key role in the initial effort to bring International Yoga Day to the UN and the Indian government. 

“I came from a interfaith family,” he told RNS. “I believe yoga is a universal teaching and should be beyond culture, language, ethnicity. It’s spiritual culture. Even imams will sing bhajans (devotional songs).” 

Though yoga and meditation continue to grow in the West, many are introduced to yoga as solely a form of physical exercise, popularized by Hot Yoga or Core Power Yoga. For that reason, the International Day of Yoga is, for some, also a celebration of the vast Indian philosophy and a day of recognition for its origins.

Anu Sehgal, an Indian immigrant and the founder of the educational organization The Culture Tree, wants to make sure India is at the forefront of any discussion surrounding yoga in the West. Growing up in an interfaith Hindu and Muslim family in India, Sehgal says she often took her school-sanctioned yoga classes for granted but found comfort in the “universal” values taught in her practice.

“Because yoga originated in India, yoga has been a part of our DNA,” said Sehgal. “There is just so much history that is transmitted to Indians, even Indians that are not born in India, about this ancient science that started in India. I think it prevails in our consciousness and culture at different levels.”

The Culture Tree, along with the Indian Consulate, is hosting an International Day of Yoga event on Sunday aboard the Wavertree: a historic ship at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport that has traveled to India several times since 1885. Sehgal hopes the event, which touches on the UN’s own theme of “Yoga for Self and Society,” will allow for city-dwellers of all ages to learn practical techniques to implement yogic philosophy in daily life. 

“People have to understand yoga is as much about our bodies as about controlling our mind,” said Sehgal. “It is about, you know, the root word yuj, which is uniting and joining and controlling our senses and ultimately our mind. That is the key thing. Once your mind is in control, you can do anything.”

Sehgal will also be attending Friday evening’s International Day of Yoga celebration put on by the UN, which will host India’s top yoga and meditation practitioners, and was attended by Prime Minister Modi last year. The day’s occurrence on the longest day of the year, Sehgal says, is no coincidence.

People practice yoga during an International Yoga Day event at United Nations headquarters in New York, Wednesday, June 21, 2023. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined diplomats and dignitaries at the United Nations for a morning session of yoga, praising it as “truly universal” and “a way of life.” (AP Photo/Jeenah Moon)

“I think today should be a real celebration of life and nature,” she said. “In our busy days, we just forget to appreciate things that have existed for centuries. You take a pause, you celebrate with family, with friends, you do some rituals, you do some prayers. But it’s all about just reminding ourselves that there is so much more to our lives than all the chaos that is happening.”

Nikita Bhasin, a 27-year-old Indian American yoga teacher and mentee of Hu, says she uses yoga in her day-to-day work life at a startup, including an increased “presence” and “awareness” she has as an active listener in a corporate environment. Raised in a religious Hindu household with a yoga instructor mother, Bhasin became a certified teacher at just 17 years old.

“Having this practice and chanting and playing harmonium and learning more about the philosophy has helped me build more confidence to step into my identity,” said Bhasin, who is originally from California but now lives in New York.

Importantly, she says, yoga does not have to be inextricably linked to Hindu religious devotion, something she hopes gets more widely recognized in circles that think otherwise. 

“Yoga is a science, it’s a practice and then, religion is another practice, and you can connect them if you want to, but you also don’t have to,” she said.

Bhasin started teaching at Kala Yoga in Brooklyn just two weeks ago but was invited by her mentor to serve as a demo teacher on one of the Times Square stages. “With all of the screens and all of the signs and all of the loud noises and the honking, and then hundreds of people lying down in “shavasana,” tuning in to their body awareness and divine intuition, it was pretty powerful,” she said, describing the energy of the 90-degree day as “dramatic” and “electric.”

“It’s important to celebrate yoga and have a day to do that, which gives us the space and the attention,” she added. “But for many practitioners, like to me, every day is Yoga Day.”

Source : ReligionNews

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