Yoga joins Unesco’s world heritage list

Yoga is based on unifying the mind with the body and soul. The benefits of this ancient Indian discipline have now been recognised by Unesco.

Yoga, an ancient Indian discipline, joined the intangible cultural heritage list compiled by Unesco, the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture. The Intergovernmental Committee unanimously took the decision on 1st December during its annual session that took place in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. The 24 members of the Committee adopted the resolution in recognition of yoga’s “influence on Indian society, from health and medicine to education and the arts”.

Why Unesco added yoga to world heritage list

Unesco’s decision highlights how this practice is important for “unifying the mind with the body and soul to allow for greater mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing”. In addition, “it is practised by the young and old without discriminating against gender, class or religion” and “consists of a series of poses, meditation, controlled breathing, word chanting and other techniques designed to help individuals build self-realization, ease any suffering they may be experiencing and allow for a state of liberation”. In 2014 the United Nations proclaimed 21 June as International Yoga Day.

asana yoga
Hatha Yoga, which is the most famous style in western countries, includes a series of asanas and breathing techniques.

An ancient practice

Yoga was officially developed in India and its origins go back to time unmemorable. Its origins can be traced through sacred scriptures that date back to the Archaic Age and look into the totality of a person. As many eminent Orientalists say (including well-known indologist Stefano Piano) “yoga is a synthesis of thousand-year-old research conducted by wisemen and ascetics who found a way to unify their own selves”. The first historical document concerning this practice was outlined by Indian philosopher Patanjali whose life is veiled in mystery. The legend has it that he lived between 500 and 200 a.C. His work, “The yoga aphorisms”, is still considered the reference book of those who perform the discipline. Yoga philosophy is clearly and briefly explained in this book through a series of teachings (in verses called sutra).

The different styles of yoga

The practice of yoga achieved success in western countries for its versatility and multidimensionality. As a matter of fact Indian gurus have developed different styles. The most famous style in western countries is Hatha Yoga, which includes a series of asanas (poses) and breathing techniques. Other styles include Karma Yoga, the yoga of action; Jnana Yoga, wisdom or knowledge yoga; Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion; Raja Yoga, also called Royal yoga for spiritual evolution; Nada Yoga, the yoga based on the repetition of mantra, or sacred syllables.

B. K. S. Iyengar yoga
B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014) is one of the most famous and admired Indian gurus in western countries. In this photo, taken on 28 September 2005, he’s spreading his knowledge during a conference in Colorado (USA).

A perfect synthesis of Indian spirituality

Although globalisation and materialism have changed India, in this great country spirituality can be felt in many aspects of the social and cultural life. Yoga is still considered a synthesis of this spirituality and is taught in many schools (ashram). However, as in the past, the best yogis (including Yogananda, Vivekananda and B. K. S. Iyengar) are trained by a skillful as well as experienced teacher. Experience is the starting point, that’s why yoga is an initiation path: yogis pass on conceptual and practical knowledge to their disciples. And the ultimate aim of yoga practitioners is not having a perfect body, nor being able to perform difficult poses, but reawakening our soul and bringing to life our divine nature. In Swami Hariharananda Giri’s words (1907-2002): “We can feel that our existence is spirit […] Body and mind are forms of the spirit. The spirit that shows itself in the matter continues to be spirit. […] India’s spiritual tradition teaches us how to understand that this spirit lives in us”.

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