Modi flexes India’s cultural reach on Yoga Day with backbends and corpse poses on the UN lawn

For the Indian Primer Minister, who arrived Tuesday in New York on a trip that will offer plenty of time to discuss global tensions, highlighting an ancient pursuit of inner tranquility was a symbolic choice

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi practices yoga with hundreds of people at the United Nations headquarters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi practices yoga with hundreds of people at the United Nations headquarters.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

Praising yoga as “a way of life,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed poses ranging from cobra to corpse alongside a multinational crowd Wednesday at the U.N. headquarters as he kicked off the public portion of his U.S. visit.

With a checkerboard of made-in-India yoga mats covering the U.N.’s spacious north lawn, Modi stopped and bowed at a statue of the assassinated Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi before saying in brief remarks that yoga was an all-ages, portable practice accessible to all faiths and cultures.

“It is a very old tradition, but like all ancient Indian traditions, it is also living and dynamic,” Modi said. “Yoga is truly universal.”

While yoga is a means to physical fitness, mental calm and emotional contentment, “it is not just about doing exercise on a mat. Yoga is a way of life,” said the year-old leader of the world’s most populous nation.

For Modi, who arrived Tuesday in New York on a trip that will offer plenty of time to discuss global tensions, highlighting an ancient pursuit of inner tranquility was a savvy and symbolic choice. He has made yoga a personal practice and a diplomatic tool.

Taking his spot on a mat amid the throng of a thousand or more, the 72-year-old Modi participated over the next 35 minutes in breathing exercises, meditation, backbends and other poses — from palm tree to diamond, hare to half-camel, crocodile to stretched-up frog.

The event honored the International Day of Yoga, which Modi persuaded the U.N. to designate in 2014 as an annual observance. This year’s version set a Guinness World Record, announced on-scene, for most nationalities — 135 — at a yoga lesson. It drew actor Richard Gere, singer-actor Mary Millben, New York Mayor Eric Adams, U.N. General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, among other dignitaries. Secretary-General António Guterres, who is at a conference in Paris, sent in a video greeting.

The shouts of demonstrators across the street could be heard during the meditative utterances of “Om.” About 200 Modi supporters and 50 critics rallied, kept apart by barriers and closely watched by New York police.

The pro-Modi group cried out greetings to him and held signs with such messages as “America Welcomes Narendra Modi” and “United We Stand,” accompanied by a photo of the U.S. flag. Opponents yelled, “Modi, go back!” and waved large yellow flags referring to Khalistan, the name of the homeland that Sikh separatists seek to create in India.

First practiced by Hindu sages, yoga has become one of India’s most popular cultural exports. Modi has energetically promoted it as a feel-good way of stretching the country’s influence abroad.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist, presents himself as an ascetic who adheres to his religion’s strictures on vegetarianism and yoga. He has posted social media videos over the years of himself practicing yoga poses and provided live visuals of him meditating in a Himalayan mountain cave after national elections in 2019.

Modi last visited the U.N. during the 2021 General Assembly, where he said that “all kinds of questions have been raised” about the world body’s effectiveness on matters including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and terrorism.

He also made a point of staking out his country’s place on the global stage, noting that “every sixth person in the world is Indian.” Since then, India has surpassed China to claim the world’s largest population, at 1.425 billion, and it is the world’s biggest democracy.

India has long sought a permanent seat on the Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful group. India has been elected to a two-year seat several times, most recently for 2021-22.

The prime minister flew to Washington later Wednesday afternoon and joined first lady Jill Biden for a visit to the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia. President Joe Biden and the first lady also hosted Modi for a private dinner at the White House.

“With this official visit, we are bringing together the world’s oldest and world’s largest democracies. But our relationship isn’t just about governance,” Jill Biden said at the National Science Foundation. “We’re celebrating the families and friendships that span the globe.”

Modi spoke about the emphasis India has placed on education, integrating learning and training. “Our goal is to make this decade a ‘tech decade’ or ‘tech-ade,’” the prime minister said, speaking in Hindi.

Modi will hold formal talks with Biden in the Oval Office on Thursday, take question from reporters, address a joint meeting of Congress and be honored with a White House state dinner. A State Department luncheon will be hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The U.S. has been looking to India as a key partner on matters that include checking China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. India wants to bolster military and trade connections with the United States.

Human rights advocates want Biden to press Modi on human rights issues, both international and within India. Modi has faced criticism over legislation that fast-tracks citizenship for some migrants but excludes Muslims; a rise in violence against Muslims and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists; and the recent conviction of India’s top opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, for mocking Modi’s surname. (Gandhi recently visited the U.S. himself, speaking to journalists, university students and an Indian diaspora group.)

A group of more than 70 lawmakers wrote Biden this week calling on him to raise concerns about the erosion of religious, press and political freedoms when he meets with Modi. Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar on Minnesota have said they will boycott Modi’s address to Congress.

The Indian government defends its record and insists that the nation’s democratic principles remain rock-solid.

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