UN Celebrates International Day of Yoga

Each year on June 21, the United Nations sponsors the International Day of Yoga, a celebration of the ancient science of yoga and its many benefits to humanity. In acknowledgement of the day, organizations around the world hold events that bring together yoga practitioners and interested newcomers from all age groups, religious affiliations, and ethnic backgrounds. This year the program at the UN Headquarters in New York included a yoga session on the North Lawn and a meditation session at the Church Center for the UN called Yoga, Peace, Unity and Healing: Sharing Collective Meditation in Stillness.

The program also included the panel discussion Conversation with Yoga Masters on Yoga for Peace, with World Goodwill in attendance. Hosted by the Permanent Mission of India and moderated by media producer Mitchell J. Rabin, the panel represented a broad range of yoga masters, each with a personal story about how yoga can be used to address societal challenges. Mr. Rabin emphasized that yoga—which provides a methodical approach to well-being on the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual levels—can act as an agent for peace in the world.   

The first speaker, Dr. H. R. Nagendra, founder and chancellor at Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana University, discussed the scientific research that underpins the therapeutic results attributed to the practice of yoga. He asserted that one can use asanas, the postures most commonly associated with yoga, to quiet the mind. He also highlighted the positive effects of performing good deeds in the world, or karma yoga.

Eric Bowman, author and peace activist, explained how he turned to yoga in an effort to counteract the harmful conditioning of the violence that he experienced during his youth in inner city Baltimore. Through yoga and meditation, he learned to connect with nature and his inner self; this connection gave him the strength to move away from the criminality that surrounded him. “To me, yoga means a new walk of life,” he said in a video.

Yoga teacher, author, and environmentalist Lila Lolling holds that yoga is a means for healing the separative forces within ourselves and, by extension, the environment of our planet. Convinced of yoga’s restorative powers after using the practice to manage her own epileptic seizures, Ms. Lolling started the Deaf Yoga Foundation, an organization that offers yoga to the under-served deaf community. “Peace happens one person at a time,” she says.

According to the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is skill in action, says Srinivasan, a leader at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre. This precept, the basis of karma yoga, suggests that if we can apply our yoga practice to our life, we will find that solutions for peace in our world are seeded within ourselves. “There is no difference between yoga and peace,” Srinivasan concludes.

John Bennett, a U.S. military veteran suffering from debilitating service-related trauma, began his yoga practice after seeing the documentary film, Almost Sunrise. In the film, two veterans use holistic treatments to cope with “moral injury,” the guilt and shame that result from violating one’s code of ethics in the line of duty. A physical therapist by training, Mr. Bennett found that yoga and meditation helped to reduce his more severe symptoms. Today, through the Veterans Yoga Project, he reaches out to other veterans who still suffer. “Yoga can help anyone,” he claims.

In the final presentation, Madhusudan Balasubramanian, founder of the film company Mystics, showed how he uses virtual reality (VR) technology in film-making to give the viewer a first-hand experience of his protagonist’s world view, calling into question the belief of separateness and exploring the depth of human consciousness. One of India’s pioneering film-makers, Mr. Balasubramanian says that VR technology leads people to yoga; like yoga, it blurs the lines between the material and the spiritual worlds. “Which is real?” he asks.  

Questions like this lie at the heart of yoga and provide the basis for spiritual inquiry. The International Day of Yoga not only encourages such inquiry but offers masters and students alike a forum for meeting like-minded seekers on the spiritual journey.