June 21, 2015 is the first United Nations International Day of Yoga.
To celebrate this historic occasion, I traveled to Rishikesh, India, in early March to the International Yoga Festival to interview swamis and yoginis on the banks of the Ganges River. Rishikesh is considered the birthplace of yoga, located in the Himalayas. It is where the Beatles went to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
There were over 1,000 people from 60 countries participating in the International Yoga Festival. It was an ideal opportunity to experience the full spectrum of the growing global yoga community.
Following the trip to India, I interviewed a wide-range of Western yoga teachers and practitioners. Through these interviews in India and beyond, I gained a birdseye view of the emerging yoga phenomena. Here are 12 reasons why yoga is spreading around the world:
1. Yoga is ancient: Yes, we all know yoga is thousands of years old. This fact became more real for me when I visited Vashistha's cave outside of Rishikesh. Vashistha lived thousands of years ago and was the guru of Lord Ram. The cave has been and still is revered by swamis who practice yoga meditation and perform daily rituals at the cave. (Where I grew up in rural Indiana, we had nothing remotely like this sacred cave.)
2. Yoga is a science: In Rishikesh, I met Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, a PhD graduate from Stanford University who left academia to join the monastic order. Sadhvi, along with other teachers, talked about yoga being a science. This means that there are methods and techniques that led to specific results - ultimately to Samadhi, or oneness with God/Cosmic Consciousness. Sadhvi said yoga is free of dogma and that people of any religion or culture can and do practice yoga and look to their own direct experience of how yoga benefits them.
3. Yoga was intentionally introduced to the West: When I interviewed the filmmakers of AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, they talked about how a line of Himalayan masters planned years in advance to send Paramahansa Yogananda to the West to introduce Kriya Yoga. Yogananda came to Boston in 1920 and his first talk was "The Science of Religion." Yoga arrived when people in the West were starting to explore quantum physics. Prior to this time, Western people did not have a language to understand the energy and consciousness aspects of yoga.
There is a scene in the film AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda where Yogananda as a baby is being blessed by his guru's guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. Lahiri says, "the message of yoga will encircle the globe and aid in assisting in the brotherhood of man."
4. Modern science is validating the benefits of yoga: Yogananda talked about reprogramming the wiring of the brain and mind decades before scientists began discussing neuroplasticity. In the film AWAKE: The Life of Yogananda, a Harvard- and MIT-trained physicist-physician, Dr. Goel, describes how yoga opens a person's individual consciousness to a larger universal field of consciousness. She also talked about the positive benefits of these practices for physical, mental and emotional well-being.
5. Modern life is driving people to ancient yoga: I heard numerous yoga practitioners from the U.S, China, Kazakhstan, Uruguay, Mexico and many other countries say they started doing yoga to find relief from the stress of modern life and/or physical ailments. The "pursuit of happiness" through consumerism (known in psychology as the hedonic treadmill) is leaving many people feeling isolated, disconnected and stressed out.
6. You do yoga, yoga does you: Several yoga teachers and students talked about the transformation they experienced by practicing yoga. Over time, people found that their entire way of being began to shift as they tapped into a deeper part of themselves. Swamis called this deeper essence our true Self, our soul, which is part of a larger universal consciousness.
Richard Miller, who is a psychologist and yoga teacher for over 45 years, told me yoga helps people go into non-dual states of consciousness where we experience our connectedness with all of life. By being able to go in and out of dual and non-dual states, we gain access to intuition and wisdom to guide our day-to-day lives.
7. Yoga can help clarify life purpose: Many people said yoga helped them clarify their life purpose. Instead of identifying with a title or role, they identified more with a deeper essence and then looked at how they could serve people around them. One of the most unusual and inspiring stories I heard in Rishikesh was from Krzysztof Stec who was born in communist Poland. Krzysztof was introduced to yoga at the age of 15 by his uncle who was a Benedictine monk in a remote monastery. Krzysztof then found his life unfolding in an unplanned way where he was led to different people doing research on the scientific benefits of yoga. Krzysztof went on to do advanced degrees in physical education where he combined yoga practice. Krzysztof, like many other people I met, has a passion for helping people.
8. Yoga goes far beyond the mat; yoga is a way of life: Hatha yoga (the physical asanas) offers the doorway for many people into yoga. The deeper practices of yoga goes far beyond the mat. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras provide an 8-fold path that leads to God realization. The first two paths are Yama and Niyamas - yoga's 10 ethical guidelines and foundation to all yogic thought which guide people on how to relate with oneself and with others. Asanas, or physical postures, are the third step which creates the foundation for the higher steps, including meditation, that eventually take people into samadhi.
When talking with Vandana Shiva, a leading scientist and social entrepreneur in India, she said yoga should not be put on the mat as yoga is a way of life. She said when we practice the true yoga we know we are connected with everything, so we relate to the environment, our food and other people with compassion and care for we know they are part of ourSelves.
9. Yoga is a catalyst for change: Yoga is being used in schools, prisons and a wide-range of social settings to help alleviate suffering. In Rishikesh, I met Sharon and Sandra Marotta, a mother and daughter who created Ashram for Autism, a non-profit organization that helps families and schools with autistic children through yoga. Sharon said that the children respond to simple breathing exercises that helps them to slow down and ground themselves. I later learned that research from Columbia University supports Sharon's experiences as they are finding that yoga programs help children between the ages of 6 and 11 to improve their academic performance.
10. Yoga is helping people heal: There were numerous stories of yoga helping people heal from physical, mental and emotional ailments. I met Tommy Rosen who is a yoga teacher and founder of Recovery 2.0 - a program helping people move beyond addiction by using yoga to build upon 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. I interviewed Brad Willis, or Bhava Ram, who is a former NBC war correspondent who healed himself of a broken back and stage 4 cancer in large part through yoga.
11. Yoga is helping military veterans and National Football League players: I interviewed Susan Lynch, a veteran from the first Persian Gulf War who healed herself of PTSD in large part through yoga. As a yoga teacher Susan founded There And Back Again, a non-profit helping veterans suffering from PTSD. Also, Keith Mitchell is a former NFL all-pro linebacker who healed himself after injuries ended his professional football career. Keith is now working with the University of Rochester and Congressman Ryan to assist veterans and NFL players through yoga and other alternative health care programs.
12. Yoga is spreading rapidly around the world: Spending time practicing with over 1,000 people from 60 countries was proof enough to me that yoga is spreading around the world. One of the most telling interviews was with Mohan Bhandari, a yoga teacher from India who went to China in 2003 to teach a class for a week. Twelve years later, Mohan is one of China's leading yoga teachers with over 50 franchises. He has trained over 10,000 teachers in China and says yoga is the fifth most sought after job among young people.
These interviews provided a wide-angle view into the roots of yoga, its deeper essence and how it is helping to transform lives on individual and societal levels around the world. Being able to produce The Yoga Day Summit was a true gift and it is a joy to offer the 8 hours of videos free to the world. Please join us on June 21st as we celebrate the bigger story of yoga - www.yogadaysummit.com. Perhaps yoga will change your life too!