Modi flanked by Richard Gere and UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi at the UN yoga event on June 21, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

UNITED NATIONS: Praising yoga as “truly universal,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi practiced it Wednesday with a multinational crowd at the United Nations, performing backbends and corpse poses as he kicked off the public portion of his US visit by calmly flexing India’s cultural reach.

With a checkerboard of made-in-India yoga mats covering the UN headquarters’ spacious north lawn, Modi stopped and bowed at a statue of the assassinated Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. Then, in brief remarks, Modi turned to the topic at hand, portraying yoga as an all-ages, portable practice accessible to all faiths and cultures.

People queue up to enter the UN headquarters in New York for the yoga event. Image Credit: AFP

“When we do yoga, we feel physically fit, mentally calm and emotionally content. But it is not just about doing exercise on a mat,” Modi said. “Yoga is a way of life.”

Then the leader of the world’s most populous nation took his spot on a mat amid the throng of hundreds. Over the next 35 minutes, he joined in breathing exercises, meditation, backbends and other poses ranging from cobra to corpse as a cloud-filtered sun glinted off the adjacent East River and the flags of the world body’s member nations rippled in the breeze.

Image Credit: AP

The event honoured the International Day of Yoga, which Modi persuaded the UN to designate in 2014 as an annual observance. This year’s version set a Guinness World Record, announced on-scene, for most nationalities — 135 — at a yoga lesson and drew actor Richard Gere, New York Mayor Eric Adams, UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, among other dignitaries.

Modi arrived in New York on Tuesday for a trip that will offer plenty of time to discuss global tensions. But starting out by highlighting an ancient pursuit of inner tranquility is a savvy and symbolic choice for a premier who has made yoga a personal practice and a diplomatic tool.

Modi casts himself as an ascetic who adheres to his religion’s strictures on vegetarianism and yoga. He has posted social media videos over the years of himself practicing yoga poses (to say nothing of providing live visuals of him meditating in a Himalayan mountain cave after national elections in 2019).

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Image Credit: AFP

Modi last visited the UN during the 2021 General Assembly, where he said that “all kinds of questions have been raised about the UN” and its effectiveness on matters including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and terrorism.

He also made a point of staking out his country’s place in the international community, noting that “every sixth person in the world is Indian.” In the years since his speech, India has surpassed China to claim the world’s largest population, at 1.425 billion.

India has long sought a permanent seat on the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful organ. India has been elected to a two-year seat several times, most recently for 2021-22.

Modi with a Guinness World Record official and Ambassador of India to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj, at the UN Headquarters. This year’s version set a Guinness World Record, announced on-scene, for most nationalities — 135 — at a yoga lesson. Image Credit: ANI

During his remarks Wednesday, he noted India’s role as a major contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions.

Modi was to head to Washington later Wednesday for a three-day visit that includes an Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden, an address to a joint meeting of Congress, a White House state dinner and more. Among the plans: a State Department luncheon hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India, and by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The visit comes as both countries are interested in strengthening ties.

The US has been looking to India, also the world’s biggest democracy, as a key partner on matters that include checking China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. India, meanwhile, wants to bolster military and trade connections with the US.