On June 21, Indian army personnel guarding the Siachen glacier located at a disputed Himalayan border between India and Pakistan commemorated International Yoga Day. The event, led by Sadhguru, a prominent Indian yogi, entailed 250 soldiers gathering at daybreak to seek their inner peace via yoga.
Despite freezing temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius, the soldiers got atop their yoga mats to perform pranayama, gentle asanas and meditation, which are all exercises that are currently part of their daily routine to fend against various diseases such as high altitude sickness, hypoxia, pulmonary odema and the psychological stresses that can be caused by isolation and fatigue.
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On a typical day, the Siachen region is far from peaceful. The glacier is a contended area between Pakistan and India. Intermittent wars have been fought in the region since 1984, and the site remains the highest battleground in the world at over 20,000 feet. Although a cease-fire agreement was established in 2003, both countries still persist with permanent military presences.
In fact, the move of practicing yoga at Siachen is not as innocent as it seems. GlacierHub spoke to professor Joseph Alter from the University of Pittsburgh, who has extensively studied the role of yoga in religion and politics. On the yoga practice session at Siachen, he said, “This strikes me as a good example of how the performance of yoga is used to make powerful political statements about nationalism and heritage.”
Alter further explained, “The thing about yoga is that it is a global phenomenon, but also a phenomenon that many people have come to regard as standing for the pure essence of Indian cultural heritage.” India is a largely Hindu country, and yoga has been frequently associated with Indian identity despite the participation of people of other religions including Muslims. As Pakistan has a Muslim majority, the act of performing yoga at a disputed zone could serve to accentuate the contrast between the two countries in the region, with yoga more widely associated with India.
Over the years, India has been working to promote yoga and its cultural significance across the world. In fact, the idea of an International Yoga Day was first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front of the United Nations General Assembly in 2014. As of 2013, the Hindu Times estimated the presence of over 200 million yoga practitioners worldwide, with over 16 million in the United States alone.
Having religious origins, yoga is meditative and seeks to help people connect with their spiritual core. However, contemporary non-religious practitioners view it as more physical. “Yoga has been made use of in various institutionalized settings to promote single-minded, single-point focus, and to help people who are otherwise agitated to relax,” Alter continued. “Besides the army, it is used in prisons, schools, and by corporations to manage employees for team work and greater productivity.”
The theme for International Yoga Day 2018 was “Yoga for Peace.” When asked whether practicing yoga in the military setting in Siachen could be used to promote peace, Alter indicated it could go both ways.
“It all depends on how energy is channeled, and by whom,” he said. “Yoga is basically harmless, if not also fundamentally good for you in that it both calms and energizes the mind and the body. However, it is very ironic that the performance of yoga by a large group of soldiers is so categorically at odds with the pre-modern prescriptions that say yoga must be practiced alone, in repose and in isolation from society.”
In recent years, armies including the United States have incorporated yoga in their military fitness regimes. It has come to be closely associated with promoting physical fitness and flexibility, skills that also enhance combat readiness.
To have army men performing yoga in the mountains— where many people imagine yogic sages to have gone to retreat from the world— produces a kind of revitalized, muscular, militant yoga, Alter added. After all, the ruggedness of the glacier setting serves to demonstrate the commitment of the soldiers to defending their nation. Such hardiness and strength of a soldier are also emphasized in Indian culture through iconic literature texts such as the Mahabharata.
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Mahabharata, which can be translated as the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty, is an epic of ancient India. Its prominence in Indian culture can be compared to that of Shakespeare in the West. The 200,000 verses describe the fictional Kurukṣetra War, but the text also holds philosophical and religious discussions such as a discussion about the four goals of life.
“Not coincidentally at all, the figure of Sadhguru reinforces an imagined link back through time to the glory days of the Mahabharata,” Alter said. Indian yogi Sadhguru has praised the story and characters of Mahabharat, even encouraging people to “live the story [for] it will become a spiritual process for us.”
Today, modern yoga is no less political than anything else such as language, religion or water rights. Politics comes in to play when the nationalism of cultural heritage comes up against the cultural dynamics of globalization, Alter explained. Millions took part in International Yoga Day celebrations this year from Times Square to Amsterdam, and there remain historical, religious and cultural underpinnings of practicing the sport everywhere.