What can be controversial about stretching and doing breathing exercises? Plenty, it seems, as India's preparations for Yoga Day are marred by an unlikely row over the government's enthusiasm for the ancient discipline.
Every morning, before the temperatures in India's capital begin to soar, groups of people armed with rolled up mats and bedsheets descend on Delhi's lush Lodi Gardens. Against a backdrop of majestic 15th century Muslim tombs and towering trees, they stretch, breathe, laugh and meditate in outdoor yoga classes.
"It's a healthy way to start the day. I feel light and energetic. I've never had to take any medicines," said R.P. Goel, a gray-haired grocery store owner who's been doing yoga daily for the past eight years. Next to him, Deepika Lakhvani mopped the sweat from her brow as she bent to grab her ankles. "I only began yoga about a month ago. But I already notice a difference," the 26-year-old teacher said. "I feel calmer, less stressed, more centered."
De-stressing is what yoga, India's famous cultural export, is largely associated with. But the ancient discipline, believed to be between 3,000 and 6,000 years old, has ended up doing just the opposite in recent weeks.
At the instance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the United Nations agreed to adopt Yoga Day on June 21. The event is seen as a personal triumph for Modi, who practices yoga himself, and has made it a mission to get Indians stretching ever since he came to power last year. In one of his first cabinet expansions last year, he appointed India's first minister for traditional medicines and yoga.
In recent months, the government has prodded the country's famously out-of-shape police officers and bureaucrats to roll out yoga mats and sign up for sessions across the country. Photos of several ministers straining to touch their toes and arch their backs to shape up for Yoga Day have gone viral on social media.
On Sunday, June 21, Modi is to address a yoga gathering of over 35,000 people near Delhi's India Gate.
Bowing to the sun sparks debate
But the preparations have sparked criticism with some Muslim leaders saying the government is using yoga to whip up Hindu pride and promote the Hindu religion that the majority of Indians practice. The controversy centered on the yoga pose known as "Surya Namaskar" - the sun salutation - which some say is contrary to Islamic beliefs because it means genuflecting to the sun.
"Muslims only bow to Allah. That is a well-known fact," said Imam Umer Ilyasi, head of the New Delhi-based All India Imam Organization. He said he also found it objectionable to chant the word "Om," a sound sacred in Hinduism, and Sanskrit mantras during yoga.
"Yoga is a matter of pride for India," Ilyasi said. "But you should connect it to health and exercise - not to religion."
The reaction from some Muslims ignited an equally strong response from firebrand members of Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A BJP legislator and Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath said that those opposing the sun salutation should either leave the country or "drown in the sea."
So why all the fuss about what is essentially, at least in the West, a popular way of keeping fit? Analysts say the yoga tensions reflect a broader unease about the Modi government's commitment to India's secular roots.
"This whole debate is actually overblown. But people are wary because the yoga initiative comes from the BJP," said Gurpreet Mahajan, a political analyst at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It's important to understand the context. Many worry about the BJP's proximity to a spectrum of groups eager to talk about Hinduism in all its grandeur," argued Mahajan, an expert on multiculturalism.
That includes hardline outfits like the Hindu right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that started Modi on his political career. The group says it wants to resurrect India's past glory, a concept that includes a mix of history and Hindu myth. The RSS last year passed a resolution calling for yoga to be made compulsory in schools and universities.
From a ban on beef consumption in some states, remarks about how Muslims should not be allowed to vote, campaigns to rewrite school textbooks to elevate Hindu achievements, forced religious conversions and even a refusal to include protein-rich eggs in a pilot project for poor children, provocative statements and actions by groups linked to the BJP have in past months served to leave religious minorities feeling marginalized, say experts.
"There have been several attempts to create an atmosphere of cultural majoritarianism," Mahajan noted.
'Yoga belongs to every Indian'
But for now, yoga, it seems, won't be a part of it. The backlash against Yoga Day has forced the government to drop the sun salutation and the chanting of "Om" from the June 21 program. It has been quick to point out that participation in the yoga day is not mandatory and insists that yoga is a secular activity.
"Yoga belongs to every Indian," stressed BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli. "It's part of our civilizational heritage." He pointed out that 47 Muslim countries had co-sponsored International Yoga Day. "That shows that there is absolutely no religious angle to this," he said.
At the outdoor yoga class in Delhi's Lodi Gardens, questions about yoga's politicization were met with plenty of headshaking. The general view was that yoga is a philosophy or spiritual science that transcends religion.
"How does it matter whether you say "Om" or "Allah" or "Waheguru" when you're doing exercises and breathing aimed at bringing about a greater inner balance?" Rohit Singh, a 51-year-old Sikh businessman, said as he raised his arms to the sky. "Yoga is universal."