Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga along with thousands of Indians on Rajpath in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga along with thousands of Indians on Rajpath in New Delhi, India, June 21, 2015.

NEW DELHI - Millions of people participated in yoga sessions across India Sunday to mark the first-ever International Yoga Day. The spotlight turned on a mega-event in New Delhi joined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded the initiative to mark such a day and who says yoga can start a “new era of peace.”

Sporting white Yoga Day T-shirts, thousands of school children, top leaders, officials and others bent and stretched for 35 minutes early Sunday on bright pink mats at Rajpath, a colonial-era boulevard in the heart of New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, surprised many by stretching out on his yoga mat after extolling the ancient Indian art as not just an exercise to improve flexibility, but a path for mankind’s inner development. Modi — a yoga practitioner for many years — said the day would mark a new era of peace.

Message of harmony

The Indian leader said this was a program for the benefit of mankind, for a tension-free world and to spread the message of harmony.

New Delhi’s mega yoga session was the highlight of events — big and small — being held in almost every country to observe World Yoga Day.

The United Nations agreed to observe the day after 177 countries co-sponsored Prime Minister Modi’s call last September to hold such a day.

Across India, tens of thousands of Indians, young and old, turned out to participate in yoga drills held in schools, neighborhood parks and city streets. That included events organized by the armed forces on ships and remote mountains.

World Guinness Record

But the spotlight remained on the New Delhi event, where India aimed to break the World Guinness Record on two counts: for the the largest yoga class at a single venue and for the largest number of nationalities taking part in such a class. Indian officials say more than 35,000 people participated in Sunday’s event at Rajpath.

Although Modi linked yoga to peace and harmony, and hoped it would foster a “culture of inclusiveness, of fraternity and one global family,” his initiative has created some divisions.

People turned out early on Sunday to take a part i
People turned out early on Sunday to take a part in a yoga session to mark World Yoga Day in the business hub of Gurgaon, one of hundreds of such events held through India, June 21, 2015. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)

Muslim groups' objections

Prominent Muslim groups in the country have refused to participate in the event after raising objections because yoga includes chants and Hindu prayers, with which Sunday’s yoga session got under way.

Abdul Rahim Qureshi, assistant secretary-general of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said the promotion of yoga was yet another effort by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), which he said had an agenda to impose Hindu culture and Hindu civilization on other minorities.

The RSS is the ideological affiliate of Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The government, however, has dismissed suggestions that yoga is linked to any religion.

World Yoga Day did generate loads of enthusiasm in a country where recent years have witnessed a huge revival of the ancient practice with the mushrooming of hundreds of yoga institutes. Yoga is already popular in many Western countries.

Many believe Prime Minister Modi has championed the World Yoga Day in a bid to reclaim India’s heritage. Some scholars say the ancient tradition goes back 5000 years.