WASHINGTON: If yoga is the practice of quieting the mind, as Patanjali, chronicler of the spiritual quest said, its practitioners couldn’t have picked a better place than New York City’s Times’ Square to put the aphorism to test.
Some 16,000 yoga aficionados turned up at what is arguably the world’s glitziest – if not busiest – crossroads to stretch America’s acceptance of the great Indian export, amid continued misgivings in conservative circles about its religious content.
The hum of Om rose above the everyday wailing of police sirens and honking of rude taxis as New Yorkers ushered in summer solstice with open-air yogabhyas from sunrise to sundown on the longest day of the year.
It wasn’t exactly a flash mob. What began as a three-person exercise a decade ago has now grown into a thousands-strong annual event that celebrates ”mind over madness.” The organizers, led by Times Square Alliance, say it is a pushback against the hectic lifestyle in the world’s most vibrant city.
It is also the world’s most diverse and multicultural city that embraces universal values with such ease that no one raised a peep about the iconic square being shut down to traffic for the yoga gig. Curious foreign tourists milled around to see thousands of Americans stretch to instructions from professional teachers, the entire spectacle flanked by anachronistic eateries such as McDonald’s and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, with neon signs of Spiderman and Buzz Lightyear flashing down. Coming on the heels of the Obama White House also encouraging yoga with its annual Yoga Garden event during Easter, the growing acceptance and popularity of the ancient Indian practice is marred only by occasional bouts of pique by conservatives who think it is fronting for Hinduism sneaking into America through the back door.
In California, there is an ongoing court case against a school district that established a yoga program with a $ 500,000 grant from the K Pattabhi Jois Foundation, aimed at helping elementary schools students focus on studies, keep calm, and contain aggressive behavior.
But some parents have gone to court, maintaining that the program has a religious connection and violates the line between church and state. Attorneys for the parents have charged that students have been made ”spiritual guinea pigs” and were encouraged to greet each other with ”Namaste, a religiously laden Hinduism greeting.”
Court proceedings last month included testimony from an Indiana University professor of religious study who agreed that the yoga program was filled with religious elements and can serve as an introduction to Hinduism, and a live demonstration in court by the instructor of the poses she taught, during which she maintained there was no religious content to what she taught. It also turned out the that judge hearing the case himself practiced Bikram yoga, which he likened to simple stretching exercises.
“If you think there’s something spiritual about what I do, that’s news to me,” he told the attorneys, as they argued about terms such as yama and niyama, samadhi and samskruthi. No such doubts attended the enthusiasts at Times Square, which on Friday became Yoga’s Om Sweet Om.