By Sharon Simonson
SAN FRANCISCO—Vivekanand T Choudhry arrived early June 21 at Marina Green Park in San Francisco for International Yoga Day. It was a milestone for the 38-year-old Silicon Valley resident and Bihar, India, native.
Something in him changed when he heard Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden speech to the United Nations in September and Modi’s call for the global embrace of yoga as a force for good, Choudhry says. He has dabbled in yoga for many years. His wife, grandfather and father-in-law are dedicated to it. But he has never been able to practice consistently, until now.
Though he started in earnest a mere 10 days earlier, he admits with a laugh, his life’s trajectory has changed, he insists. “(Yoga) was not a priority; now it is,” he says.
Approximately 2,000 Bay Area yogis left warm Sunday-morning beds to face brisk San Francisco sea breezes and fog for the first-ever world event. Organizers hoped as many as 5,000 would down-dog in unison on the long stretch of bumpy grass bordering the bay. But with Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, lots of port-a-potties and even the occasional car alarm, nearly everyone who did come seemed dedicated, loving and intensely interested.
More than an hour before programming started, a hundred people—most bundled in woolen hats, blankets and hoodies—already waited quietly on mats in front of the event stage. “Thank you for coming early,” an organizer told the group, a hint of irony in his voice as volunteers scurried about completing last-minute tasks.
Yoga is not about exercise, Modi admonished in his U.N. speech. “It should be a means to be connected with the world and with nature, and it should bring a change in our lifestyle and create awareness in us,” he said.
A hope for that authenticity drew Yogi Janaki Nath to San Francisco to see if the gathering met its promise. The Brazilian immigrated to the United States in 1985 for a Berkeley professor and romantic love. She has taught yoga since 1994 but does not charge for her lessons. “Yoga has become commercial and competitive. Competition divides, and the nature of business is divisive,” she said.
Mostly, she wanted a new sense of community to come from the day. “Even though this is not the real yoga, it is a beginning,” she said. “We are integrating a little bit. It is a start for so many people here, I think.”
For Shashikant Jadhav—in San Francisco visiting two sons and a daughter-in-law, all engineers with advanced business degrees—the day was all about learning, as every day is. The 65-year-old Bombay resident is working toward a doctoral degree in yoga in India. He returns home and to his studies in August. He began practicing yoga 10 years ago. He had no expectations for the day other than to take what he found useful and to forget the rest. “I am very excited to see the way Modi is going,” he said. “This message should be taken throughout the world.”
Beyond the spiritual, yoga is pragmatic, he observed. “People don’t have money to pay their medical bills. But if you practice yoga, you will become healthy. And when your health is good, you can concentrate on other things.”
In the final minutes before the program starts, newborn yogi Choudhry takes time to look around, leaving his mat and car keys behind to mark his location. After a gust of wind lifts and spins the mat, casting the keys into thick clover and grass, a neighboring yogi retrieves both and replaces them in their original positions. “Trusting soul,” an onlooker observes. “It’s O.K.,” the neighbor yogi replies.