Jagatguru, the Inspiration Behind International Yoga Day (IYD)

by Abha Gupta, Ph.D. , YSN Editor-in-Chief
(YSN Vol. 4, No. 1 – Jan. 2016)

Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda Maha Raja

On June 21, 2015, the world witnessed an unparalleled event when millions of yoga enthusiasts from around the world celebrated the first International Yoga Day (IYD). Based on the proposal by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the United Nations (UN) declared June 21st as International Yoga Day after the passage of a resolution that was supported by as many as 177 countries, an unprecedented level of support in almost 70 years of the UN history. On the first ever IYD, India set the record for the largest yoga session at a single venue, when 35,985 participants from 84 nationalities were led by Narendra Modi during yoga practice at the New Delhi thoroughfare of Rajpath. On this monumental day, I was fortunate to be at the birthplace of the event, Lisbon, Portugal, where International Yoga Day (IYD), also called World Yoga Day (WYD), the precursor to IYD, began some 14 years ago.

Behind this colossal event stood a modest, humble figure of about 5’ 5”, usually dressed in saffron kurta, and easily noticed by the warm smile, bright eyes, and seemingly inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm, and a pillar of strength for thousands. The Father of WYD, now known worldwide as IYD, is Jagat Guru Amrta Suryananda Maha Raja, lovingly known as “Guruji” by thousands of his followers in and around Portugal. Guruji had met Modi-ji at a conference before Modi-ji became Prime Minister, where they exchanged ideas about proposing an international yoga day to enable people around the world to come together and practice yoga. I met Guruji in the modest office of the Portuguese Yoga Confederation, along with Svamini Chandra Devi, Vice-President of the Confederation, who facilitated our dialog.

Abha Gupta (AG): How did the idea for International Yoga Day come to you when you first began celebrating it in 2002?

Guruji: It all started in 1998 when insights came to me by themselves. These impressions and images came incessantly, and in a powerful manner, about healing the world and stopping the suffering of planet earth. Yoga is the way to heal the planet earth. I felt very small, like a speck of dust, and what could I do?; but the inner vision became stronger and stronger and finally I said, okay. Thirty principles of yoga came to me. The first principle is to practice yoga all over the world. Then the question was which day to choose. As the question was formulating, the answer came like a thunderbolt, a highway, it was the only way possible, “Summer Solstice – June 21st” – the longest day of the year (Northern Hemisphere).” Humanity needs light, and that is the shortest night of the year. Light should be the main focus of all decisions made on planet. There it is. This was the respected date for all cultures. I felt this is the planetary global day. It could not be the anniversary of any person or a religious event; otherwise, other cultures would reject it. It cannot be any other holiday of political event or tradition, belonging to one continent or other. It had to have impersonal seed, so no one could reject this date. It had to be a sign between the cosmos, planet Earth, and a human being. Summer Solstice, Summer Solstice, Summer Solstice!

The next step was to start the commemoration. The manifesto was launched on the 21st of June, 2001. The first commemoration of International Yoga Day (IYD), also known as World Yoga Day (WYD), was in Setubal city in Portugal in 2002. Since then, WYD is alternately commemorated in Lisbon in odd numbered years and in some other city of Portugal during the even numbered years. In 2005, Time Square Alliance commemorated the day in New York. The countries in southern hemisphere did not agree with this day initially, because it is the shortest day of the year for them. I visited Machupicchu, where they have the autumn equinox on June 21st, and the spring equinox on March 21st. For the historians of Government of Peru, the most important day for Incan Civilization is June 21st, because it was their most fixed day for entire year that marks December 21st (winter solstice), as this day determines the other equinox. So they felt this is a very important date, and it did not matter to them, as they already celebrate the biggest day of the year in southern hemisphere as Christmas. So this is how the resistance from the southern hemisphere ended. Historically, this is the only civilization that marks the solstice in the southern hemisphere.

The next step was to convince the traditional lineages of yoga. There was a big summit in Bangalore in 2009 where various lineages were present. The founder of the Art of Living tradition, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar immediately accepted the proposal. One by one, all the other lineages supported the proposal for IYD and signed the paper. Not all signed immediately. In 2009, the World Parliament of Australia signed the document in Melbourne, Sydney. Gradually, all continents signed the document.

AG: Please tell us briefly about your life, the early days, and the turning point in your life towards yoga.

Guruji: I had previous intuitions (as inner voice) when I was 19 and was practicing yoga in Fatima, Portugal. I listened to the inner voice, which is so much more intelligent than mine. I proposed to myself 40 days of fasting every year, mainly water and a liquid diet, in a practice I continue to date. I do not like to speak about myself, because excessive ego is the greatest evil of humanity. Sages hide themselves. I do not want to fall in the trap of popularity, and it is very easy to be seduced by it. It is about yoga, not about me.

AG: Please share with us about your organization, the Portuguese Yoga Confederation (PYC), its structure, support and membership.

Guruji: PYC is spread through five regions of Portugal with tens of thousands of followers. We have 42 main ashrams. Our best yoga teachers with humble profiles are placed in each ashram. Our secret is that we follow the cosmic model. The stars, Mahashakti, and the sun do not ask people to thank them every day. Surya (the sun) is there every day, whether we thank it or not, recognize it or not, remember it or not. It has been there for five billion years and will be there for another five billion years. The guiding principle is to demand from yourself and not others. Do not judge others, judge yourself. See virtues of others and not their flaws. The mirror is the best master that one can have. Look at yourself. Patanjali taught us the way. If you have a flaw, do not feed the flaw, but live with the opposite trait of the flaw, the flaw will go away.

AG: Tell us about your teacher training program in yoga.

Guruji: We have a very comprehensive yoga training program. India knows cosmic knowledge. We must have cosmic vision, a cosmic point of view. We teach Yoga with ‘darshana’ (Indian philosophy), using texts like Samkhya (Kapila) and the Patanjali Yog Sutras. We also use more recent texts, such as Gheranda Samhita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Additionally, we use the very ancient texts based on Shruti and Smritis, including Veda-s, Upanishada-s, Puraana-s, Dharma Shastra, and itihaasa epics, such as Mahabharata, Bhagavada Gita, and Ramayana.

We train yoga teachers in six years, with a total of 6,500 hours of training. If the teacher wants to grow and move on, the next step is to work towards becoming a yoga professor. This requires an additional four years, with 6,000 hours of further rigorous training. In total, it takes ten years to become a yoga professor. If one wants to grow even further, then the next level is that of a “Yoga Master.”  To reach this level, the yoga professor is required to study for four more years, with 9,500 hours. In total, 14 years of training adding up to 22,000 hours of learning from teacher to professor to master level. This is our secret. At the yoga master level, they have to write a book, present at a conference, learn to cook a vegetarian meal – appetizer, main course, dessert, salad, a drink, and tea. They have to learn how to serve the meal at a given time and in a certain sequence. Mainly, the philosophical aspect of training is the most important part at each level. The beginners also have to give a yoga class, provide an asana presentation, and pass a written test in order to complete the program.

Our yoga training program consists of all 14 main disciplines: asana, pranayama, bandha, yoganidra, kriya, nyasa, mudra, dhyana, japa-tala, japa-shesha, manasika, mantra / kirtana, yantra, and puja. It includes the Shastra (Samkhya philosophy, Gheranda Samhita, Bhagavada Gita), the old civilization of the Sindu valley, Patanjali Yoga Sutras, 90 asana, and 40 pranayama. Additionally, it is very important to know about human anatomy and physiology; thus, there is in-depth training in both anatomy and physiology.

AG: Many of the members of your yoga organization have Sanskrit names. How are these names selected?

Guruji: The names simply come to me at the time of initiation. The person triggers the name, which is generated by itself.

AG: Your dream of World Yoga Day has come true in the form of International Yoga Day. What’s your next dream?

Guruji: The Yoga Darshana (the Practical and Theoretical Philosophical System), the very ancient Traditional Yoga of Bharata, maintained, practiced, and taught for thousands of years in India, should be accepted and classified by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Yoga Darshana is a human richness, as it promotes personal, interpersonal, and international peace through ahimsa (non-violence), solidarity, fraternity, complete health, positive emotional states, personal development, and intellectual enlightenment. Yoga helps with understanding the relation between the human being and the planetary surroundings, and respect for the ecology. The complex system of the Yoga Darshana is a very ancient treasure that should never be forgotten by humankind.

AG: Finally, what is your message to yoga practitioners and enthusiasts in the USA?

Guruji: My message to the world is to follow the “cosmic model” approach of giving without any expectations of returns. It is a time-tested model of success. The Sun is always giving. Be kind to Jiva (sentient being); Jiva is Shiva (divine). Hurting others is a two sided arrow; when released, it harms not only others, but also oneself with higher force. Do not focus on flaws in others; instead, look at your own flaws. The mirror is the best master. Practice yoga and understanding will follow.

During the entire interview, as we talked, Jagatguru sat cross-legged on the floor under the statue of ‘Nataraja.’ When he stood up, it was clear he was standing up for humanity as a pillar of strength and humility, leading the world by example.

I stepped out with a sense of amazement as I was soaked in the yoga tradition in a foreign land, thousands of miles away from India, marveling at the quiet efforts of one man to bring about transformation around the world through the power of yoga.