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When Yoga was Banned in India

Foreign lands and countries associate Hinduism with a handful of its aspects that have come to be recognized as distinguishing features of the religion. Some of these include the Kama Sutra, the Char Dham Yatra, grandiose festivals like Holi, Diwali, the big fat ‘Indian’ wedding, and perhaps the most popular of them, Yoga.


In recent decades, Yoga, has become an international phenomenon. Due to the piqued curiosity of foreigners pertaining to Yoga’s spiritual and health benefits and the wielding of Yoga as soft power by the Indian government, its appeal has increased tenfold. Before we begin to examine the reasons behind the growing international appeal of Yoga, let's go back to the time when Britishers banned the whole practice.


Yoga is an ancient spiritual, physical, and meditative Hindu practice that finds mention in the Rig Veda. This practice aids individuals in achieving a calm state of mind and a healthy state of the body. The practice of yoga consists of asanas, which refer to physical exercises, as well as mantras, that are hymns assisting in meditation and reflection. Yoga’s meditative practices have also been adopted by Buddhist monks for healing and pondering.

For quite a few centuries, the knowledge of Yoga remained limited to the East, mainly to the population of the Indian subcontinent. It was only much later, when foreign travellers and sea-farers reached India, that they discovered Yoga. At first, the British colonizers dismissed Yoga and condemned its teaching amongst the Hindu masses. Instead of considering Yoga as a spiritual practice, they sexualised the whole concept perceiving the asanas to be vile and vulgar.

The yoga pose Gajasana, hand-drawn illustration in Sritattvanidhi, 19th century Mysore Palace manuscript.

One particular subset of Yoga, known as Hatha Yoga, which was prominently practiced by ascetics and sadhus, was denounced by the British. Yoga was misunderstood as a form of Tantric spiritualism and was viewed as an outcome of the backward Dark Ages. To the British, Yoga, along with many other aspects of Hinduism and Indian nationalism became one of the most deeply despised and abhorred practices. As an alternative form of healing and spirituality, Yoga was deemed as unscientific, irrational, and make-believe. The Westerners refused to believe in the meditative powers of Yogis and therefore, placed a ban on the practice of Yoga in India.


It was due to the efforts of several Indian freedom fighters and nationalist leaders that Yoga was revived and its meaning accurately interpreted to foreign masses. Swami Vivekananda, a revered Hindu monk and freedom fighter, pioneered the spread of Yoga to the West. In 1893, when Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he emphasized the importance of Indian traditions and rituals. While the West had always been hesitant to accept Eastern spiritual practices as legitimate, Vivekananda’s speech encouraged them to consider Indian spirituality.

Swami Vivekanada in the Parliament of religions

In his speech, Swami Vivekananda explained how Yoga combines aspects of physical and emotional wellbeing to help people overcome ailments and heal themselves. Interestingly enough, the practical tenets of Yoga were quite similar to the Western principle of humanitarianism. This also increased Yoga’s appeal to foreign countries. India’s founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, too, promoted Yoga through their austere lifestyle.


At present, Yoga has become really popular in Western countries with most countries developing their own subset of Yoga practice. Hot yoga, also referred to as Bikram Yoga, is extremely popular in America and Canada. Several yoga centres have been set up in these countries to promote physical and mental wellness. Moreover, Western countries have also adopted Indian meditative practices into therapy for anxiety, panic disorder and other mental illnesses.


Many foreign travellers have also been intrigued by the spiritual aspect of India. While Western countries are viewed as the epitome of development, they have been corrupted by material wealth and greed. Given this context, many developing or under developing countries, especially India, provide a spiritual escape to foreign populations. Westerners visit India to cleanse their souls and achieve serenity. They lodge on the banks of River Ganga, visit Rishikesh and Haridwar, practice alternative spirituality (Yoga, Ayurveda) and learn more about themselves through meditation and reflection. Due to India’s reputation as a holy land, many believe that adopting Indian meditative practices will truly heal them and open their eyes to a whole new world.


Indian government and various private enterprises have exploited the growing market for Yoga and Indian spirituality. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a staunch supporter and advocate for Yoga and has promoted it on several occasions. In 2014, he declared that 21st June must be celebrated as International Yoga Day.

The Ministry of External Affairs has also widely publicized Yoga’s health benefits and exported Yoga’s principles abroad. Additionally, the Indian government proposed the Fit India campaign, a large part of which included promoting Yoga as a healthy exercise option.

Baba Ramdev, an Indian yogi has also gained widespread publicity in recent years. He has promoted Indian spiritual elements such as Yoga and Ayurveda to Indian and global audiences. In fact, he launched the Patanjali research institute which aims to mine the potential that Yoga and Ayurveda possess. Ramdev’s spiritual aura and Patanjali’s indigenous products have traveled overseas and gained scores of admirers, consumers and practitioners.

Baba Ramdev and Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu at a yoga camp (Source: Government of India)

UNESCO’s recognition of Yoga as an integral cultural practice has also helped it become an international phenomenon. Apart from this, Indian yoga enterprises such as the Art of Living Foundation, Bihar School of Yoga, Parmarth Niketan Ashram have attracted scores of foreign people to Indian yoga centres. Moreover, some of the aforementioned foundations have also set up Yoga centres abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped the Indian government to advertise the health benefits of meditation and breathing. Indian yogis and actors have promoted Yoga through social media platforms. Several Indian yoga centers have held classes on virtual platforms open to the international public.

Foreign masses are increasingly beginning to realize the significance of Yoga not only as an Indian spiritual practice but also as a scientific healing therapy. While Yogic practices have proved to be huge hits with global audiences, foreign practitioners must understand Yoga’s ancient history and roots. Instead of exoticizing and appropriating Yogic culture, foreigners must actively seek to understand where this practice has been derived from.

pratha-prerana -thakur


Prerana Thakur

Pratha Content Writing Intern

1 Comment

Jun 22, 2021

I never knew Yoga was banned in India! How weird! Thanks for this article.

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