Although India’s second spike of COVID-19 has been dominating news headlines, it is the country’s ancient mind-body practice of yoga that is top of mind for some. Health and wellness experts around the world are gearing up to observe the seventh annual International Yoga Day (IYD), recognized by a United Nations resolution co-sponsored by a record 177 nations. The celebration comes at a time that anxiety and psychological suffering are soaring. In the U.S., more than 42 percent of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, an increase from 11 percent the previous year. Physical isolation and fear of the COVID-19 infection are thought to have contributed to these numbers, and yoga and meditation have emerged as possible panaceas.
“A lot of people misunderstand yoga as a physical exercise, but yoga is for peace, harmony, wellness and health,” said Vipin Kumar, executive director of India House, one of the event sponsors. “That is what we are celebrating.” First proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a General Assembly address in 2014, IYD is now observed worldwide to recognize the many benefits of practicing yoga. The UN has appropriately chosen “Yoga for well-being” as this year’s event theme, focusing on the role the practice can play in fighting social isolation and depression. In Houston, the city’s Consulate General of India in partnership with a number of organizations is marking the occasion with outdoor events on Sunday, June 20 and on Monday, June 21, both free and open to the public.
Sunday’s IYD event takes place at Buffalo Bayou Park while Monday’s, which will also be livestreamed, is outdoors at India House. Both events take place 6-8 p.m. and will include booths with food vendors and ayurvedic related organizations as well as a formal presentation with an address by the Consulate General of India, Houston. Top yoga teachers from Houston, including Shekhar Agarwal, VishwarupaNanjundappa, Nancy Martch, Robert Boustany, Mark Ram and SaumilManek will both perform complicated poses and lead the public in a standard 55-minute yoga practice.
This year’s event also includes a specific focus on galvanizing youth. Hindus of Greater Houston and Young Hindus of Greater Houston are encouraging youth to submit pictures of Yogasana along with a personalized message about what yoga means to them. Judges will then select certain submissions to be published in prominent local newspapers.
“We want a lot of involvement from youth so we can spread the word about yoga as much as we can,” said Anjali Madhusudan Aggarwal, an HGH intern who will start college at the University of Houston in the fall. Aggarwal has been practicing yoga with her family since she was 10 years old, and she said it has helped her find mental clarity and physical fitness. “I feel less burdened in my mind,” she said.
Data shows that more people have been turning to yoga over the past decade. Nearly 37 million U.S. adults practice yoga, and that number has only gone up during the coronavirus pandemic. According to ResearchAndMarkets.com, yoga equipment sales grew 154 percent in 2020, as people began taking virtual yoga classes from home. And MindBody, a software company that provides business management tools for the wellness industry, reported that yoga is the most popular virtual class booked on their platform, with an average of nearly 22,000 yoga bookings per day.
“Yoga has helped me stay mentally positive during the pandemic,” said SaumilManek, a registered yoga teacher and one of the lead organizers for Houston’s IYD events. “When you’re happy, you’re not living in dis-ease.”Hiba Haroon, a yoga teacher and practitioner who plans to attend IYD this year, said her yoga practice deepened significantly during the pandemic. “My practice caught me in all that I was feeling and experiencing during the pandemic,” she said. “In my teaching, I prioritized breathwork and restorative shapes, especially because cortisol levels were at an all-time high and it was wreaking havoc on people’s immunity, sleep, and overall well-being.”
Manek, who is also emcee for Sunday’s event, said that while there is no way to know how many people will show up to the events, he hopes to see at least 500. Two years ago, the event took place at Midtown Park and drew about 1,200 people. Last year’s event took place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic and, according to organizers, more than 50,000 people watched online.In addition to the events taking place in Houston, the Woodlands is hosting its own virtual event on Saturday, June 19. That event will focus on how yoga can help boost immunity. Dr. Neeta Shukla, an anesthesiologist and a yoga teacher who has helped spearhead the IYD events in the Woodlands for the past five years, said yoga works at the cellular level to assist with immunity.
“Yoga has the master key to unlock your inner potential and your inner energy,” said Dr. Shukla.“It is the best preventive medicine for individual health, happiness and to lead a disease-free life.” For more information about upcoming IYD events in Texas, visit yogadayoftexas.org
(Pooja Salhotra, 27, is a freelance writer from Houston. She has been practicing yoga for almost a decade and is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance. She teaches online powerful flow yoga classes through her own platform, Pooja’s Yoga, as well as for BIG Power Yoga.) Photo Caption: Pictured here are Houston yoga teachers who participated in International Day of Yoga in 2019.