Large crowds of Indians stretched and contorted themselves Sunday morning in mass public events across the country to commemorate the first International Day of Yoga.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi led an estimated 35,000 people -- in what organizers billed as the largest yoga demonstration ever -- on Rajpath, a ceremonal boulevard in New Delhi, the capital.
“We are not only celebrating a day, but we are training the human mind to begin a new era of peace,” said Modi, who has called yoga an integral part of Indian heritage.
Modi proposed the event last fall at the U.N. General Assembly, and his year-old administration held yoga demonstrations events around the globe Sunday through its more than 190 diplomatic missions, including in China, Indonesia and the United States.
More than 300 students assembled at the indoor hall of Mumbai University, where an instructor's hands moved like a music conductor’s throughout a 40-minute session and his assistants monitored each row of practitioners meticulously.
The protocol started with breathing exercises and then moved toward twisting and turning of the body. Every volunteer was in synchrony with the other, as if in an army parade.
Time and again, the instructor shouted, “Do not force yourself!” during arduous poses.
Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, had been deluged with rain the previous two days, bringing public transport to a standstill and making some main roads resemble the canals of Venice. But by Sunday morning, volunteers poured into the pleasantly lit university hall, where the floor had been covered with blue matting.
Student Dadasaheb Nulake said he had never done yoga before, but preparatory sessions for yoga day convinced him to continue further.
“I got to know of this event from my teachers at the college,” he said. “I thought it was worth a try. I am glad I did it.”
Modi’s government was criticized by some for its handling of the event, which included sending thousands of civil servants to practice sessions in order to ensure good turnout at Sunday’s demonstrations. Some Muslim leaders said they did not want to be forced to participate in yoga activities because they catered to India’s large Hindu majority.
Modi in New Delhi called the yoga events “a program for the benefit of mankind.” The 64-year-old prime minister, said to be an ardent yoga practitioner, was not expected to participate in the session on Sunday morning, but surprised many by joining the crowd in carrying out 21 pre-approved “asanas,” or exercises.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.