Shripad Yesso Naik has become India's first minister for yoga, with plans to reclaim the practice as "India's gift to the West"
India’s new minister for yoga has called on his countrymen to reclaim yoga from the West, criticising Indians for ignoring their heritage.
Shripad Yesso Naik was appointed last month with a mission to preserve the traditional medicines and practices of Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, herbal medicines of Unani and Siddha, and homoeopathy.
“There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form,” said Mr Naik, a former tourism minister. “We’re trying to establish to the world that it’s ours.”
His appointment by Narenda Modi, the prime minister, a vegetarian who credits daily yoga for his mental and physical agility, marks a wish to reclaim the multibillion-dollar industry as inherently Indian.
A 2012 study estimated that 20.4 million Americans practise yoga, a 29 per cent increase from 2008, and practitioners of yoga in the US spend more than $10.3 billion a year on classes.
Indian officials plan to reintroduce yoga into all facets of civic life, including more than 600,000 schools, thousands of hospitals and police training centres.
They are also spearheading efforts to promote India’s most famous export, with Mr Modi proposing a “geographical indication” at the UN for yoga – a trade protection normally given to region-specific goods such as Parmesan cheese or Champagne. The UN will consider the proposal on December 10.
“It’s a way of medicine that belongs to India,” Mr Naik told a local TV station. “After the British came to India, they suppressed Indian medicine and tried to foist Western medicine on us – that’s why traditional medicine could not be promoted.”
He added that he practises yoga every day “which was probably why I got the job,” and that promoting Ayurvedic medicine was “a high priority” of the government.
“We will do whatever it takes to make India a healthy India in the days ahead,” he said, praising the preventive qualities of yoga and Ayurveda.
Indian promotion of yoga is not new – in 2010 a board member of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) exhorted Hindus to “take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.” But it is certainly something that has been embraced with gusto by the government of Mr Modi, who became prime minister in May.
Mr Modi has started a “Make in India” campaign to attract foreign investors – especially those from the wellness industry, which is worth an estimated $8 billion globally. Mr Modi said the country had missed the opportunity to market yoga and herbal medicine worldwide.
The 64-year-old, who as a young man wandered the Himalayas on a spiritual quest, says Ayurvedic remedies should be seen as complementary to modern medicine. “Formerly health was a part of life. But today we have outsourced health. We consult one doctor and then the other,” he said.
Mr Modi said his routine of rising at 5am to practise yoga and deep breathing was responsible for his capacity to work long hours.
“I am equally energetic from morning till night,” he said. “I guess the secret behind it is yoga and breathing exercises. Whenever I feel tired, I just practice deep breathing and that refreshes me again.”