Indian MP pushes compulsory yoga in schools

An MP in India is lobbying for a law that will make yoga compulsory in the country's junior schools, where he says it will help with discipline, fitness and dealing with "computer-related stress".

Satpal Maharaj, 59, from the ruling Congress party, said a recent trip to China had inspired him to push for the law, which would take yoga into India's 217,000 junior schools where children begin their education at around five.

"We saw school children practicing Tai Chi Chuan (martial art) with great discipline in China and I thought, 'We gave yoga to the world but we are ignoring it in India and we must bring it into our schools'," Maharaj told AFP.

Yoga, which in the Sanskrit language means "union" or "integration", involves the practice of numerous physical postures called asanas and is usually combined with long meditation sessions.

Indian scholars believe yoga dates back 5,000 years, based on archaelogical evidence of poses found inscribed on stones and references to Yogic teachings in the ancient Hindu scriptures of knowledge, known as the Vedas.

Maharaj, who represents the constituency of Garhwal in the Himalayan foothills, said yoga could help schoolchildren and teachers to deal with age-old problems as well as contemporary ailments.

"Western diseases like computer-related stress have come to India, and yoga at an young age will help reduce these ailments - and besides, it will also encourage children to attend class," he said.

The draft law, called the Compulsory Teaching of Yoga in Educational Institutions Act, states "our modern education is missing out on yoga education and is, therefore, incomplete without it".

Maharaj said he was sure of cross-party support for his project in parliament once business resumes there.

Both houses of India's parliament are at a standstill because of protests led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over a multi-billion-dollar telecom fraud that has embroiled the government.

"We must not think of education only in terms of school examinations," said Prakash Javadekar, a BJP parliamentarian who backs Maharaj's project.

"Essential skills for quality life are good habits, discipline, nutrition and physical exercise in various formats," he told AFP.

The proposal could run into objections from Indian Muslims, the country's largest religious minority, however, though Maharaj argues that yoga should not be seen as Hindu in origin.

The BJP, which governed India for five years until 2004, faced severe opposition after it tried to blend poems purportedly rooted in religious Hindu scriptures into school textbooks.

The draft law, however, stipulates that yoga would not be imposed on "minority institutions" - an euphemism for exclusive schools for Muslims.

The project would lead to annual expense of one billion rupees (220,000 dollars) and a one-time similar amount for its introduction, according to the bill, a copy of which is with AFP.

Yoga is one of India's most famous exports to the world and its popularity is being fanned by celebrity gurus and television shows.

Millions practice the postures in classes or in private in the West, but often without the religious rituals that originated in India.

In its motherland, yoga is also seen as rising in popularity as clubs and associations sprout up across the country alongside private and state-funded provincial and national centres to train yoga teachers.

"Until recently the new generation ignored yoga as religious mumbo jumbo, but times are changing," Indian Yoga Federation Secretary Niren Mazumdar told AFP.

India's top yoga guru Baba Ramdev draws Bollywood celebrities, politicians and sports stars - as well as tens of thousands of people mainly from the the affluent middle class - to workshops in various Indian cities.

To protect its traditional knowledge from being stolen or copyrighted by overseas practitioners, the country has also begun videotaping up to 1,500 yoga postures as part of a national database.

It has also found innovative uses for yoga, including helping troops in insurgency-hit Kashmir to relax and reforming inmates in Delhi's notorious Tihar Jail.

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