How far can India stretch with yoga? A 101 guide to the country’s rising ‘soft power’

While having a military will never go out of fashion, countries like India are starting to realise the value of soft power. Using tools of attraction and seduction instead of force and coercion, forms of soft power like yoga are being used by the Modi administration to change perceptions about India as well as encourage trade and tourism. But at the same time, India still has a lot to learn. 

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, foreign policy quickly became one key area of priority for the Indian government. Engaging with the rest of Asia has been particularly important, with Modi making visits to Bhutan, Nepal and Japan in his first 100 days. Engaging with the wider world beyond Asia has also been critical, but difficult for India as a middle power with limited sway in world affairs. So, in a world where numerous countries are jostling for influence on the global stage, how can India best position itself as a desirable partner of choice? 

For India, this is where soft power comes in. Rather than using tactics of bullying or coercion, soft power is about enticing another country to want what it wants. To do so, soft power involves positioning what India has to offer, such as its culture, in a desirable light. 

Yoga has been one key part of India’s soft power diplomacy since 2014. Despite originating in ancient India, yoga in more recent decades has gained traction as a secularised practice of health and wellbeing in Western countries. Accordingly, India has used the International Day of Yoga since 2015 to showcase yoga as a cultural asset for India to share with the rest of the world. On the other hand, the use of yoga as a symbol of India’s peaceful and harmonious nature has drawn criticism. Due to yoga’s ancient ties to religions such as Hinduism, critics see that yoga is a form of propaganda to justify and celebrate the growing domestic climate of Hindu nationalism under Modi. 

The rising relevance of political yoga. (Source: The Stateman)

So what exactly is soft power? 

Coined by Harvard international relations academic Joseph Nye, ‘soft power’ refers to the “ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion and payment”. If we deconstruct this, soft power is a type of power that contrasts intimidation or force, such as using physical violence or a monetary incentive. It is about changing the other party’s way of thinking by persuading them that your viewpoint is correct.  

According to Nye, there are three types of soft power – political values, culture, and foreign policy.  A country’s political values, such as upholding democracy and respect for human rights, can act as soft power by causing other countries to admire you. Culture, such as a country’s music, art and literature, can also be a form of soft power. Foreign policy is also a type of soft power if other countries see that policy to be legitimate and as having authority on the world stage.

Even before Nye coined the term 'soft power' in the 1990s, soft power had been long used to shape the hearts and minds of audiences across the world. The United States (US) used Hollywood movies to encourage a love for values like freedom and democracy during the Cold War and continued implementing this tactic in the Middle East for the War on Terror. Rather than just using economic coercion, such as sanctions, or the threat of war, soft power is another tool in a country’s foreign policy toolbox. The rise of accessible forms of media in the 21st century, including the internet, television, and social media, have also been powerful forces. No longer do diplomats have to rely on physical copies of movies or television shows to spread a country’s soft power abroad, but such forms of soft power can be accessed now more easily than ever through forces of globalisation.

While soft power has been traditionally associated with major powers such as the US, India also has a lot to bring to the table. Like the US, Indian diplomat Shashi Tharoor in a 2009 Ted Talk advocated for India to use soft power. Tharoor notes that the image of India is one that has changed in the 21st century, where cinema, music, dance, art, yoga and even its IT industry are powerful forms of soft power to shape how other countries perceive the country. 

Yoga as a rising soft power 

While having different types of soft power is a good starting point for Modi, the important part of soft power is how Modi uses it to achieve his preferred outcomes in foreign policy. 

Only a few months after becoming Prime Minister, Modi pitched the International Day of Yoga to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Modi spoke of the importance of yoga as an “invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition”, since it originated in 2700 BC from the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilisation. Over the millennia, the practice of yoga came to be incorporated in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. Modi’s speech reasserted the importance of India reclaiming the practice of yoga from its modern form, where many outside of India associate yoga with posture names such as downward dog and athleisure brands such as Lululemon. 

And it worked. Following Modi’s successful proposal to the UN, the International Day of Yoga has been held every year since 2015. Not only is the International Day of Yoga a chance to celebrate the “Indianness” of yoga, but it shows India’s willingness to share its ancient tradition with the rest of the world. In fact, 192 member states recognised and celebrated the day in 2016. At the same time, the reflective practice of yoga itself is a symbol of India’s desire to be perceived as harmonious and peaceful on the global stage. 

Looking at some other soft powers 

But Indian soft power is not only confined to yoga. Bollywood is one commonly exalted form of soft power, where Tharoor noted in his Ted Talk that the use of songs and dances in Bollywood movies has captured the hearts of audiences across the world, including “Arabs and Africans, of Senagelese and Syrians”.  Even Dharmic religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism are a form of soft power, where Buddhism over the millennia has spread throughout the globe, particularly through the rest of Asia.  

Author of “Indian Foreign Policy and Cultural Values” and International Affairs Expert at the Australia-India Institute Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda says that India’s soft power also stems partly from its pluralistic record in foreign policy. “The country's history of non-interference and maintaining independent, friendly relations with multiple poles engenders trust and respect,” he said.

An example of this is that India maintains close relationships with countries big and small including the US, Russia, Australia, and Bangladesh. Rather than getting involved in the scuffles between major powers, whether that be during the Cold War or now during the era of US-China great power competition, India’s widespread range of relations, similar to what it is doing with the International Day of Yoga, shows its commitment to harmony on the international stage.

The large and widespread nature of the Indian diaspora abroad also can be considered as a soft power. From the prevalence of Indian-born CEOs in global tech companies to the dominance of Indian Americans in spelling bees, the influence and reach of India is a reminder of the value and skills that the Indian diaspora brings to the rest of the world. Closer to home, the tireless efforts of Sikh Australians in providing free vegetarian meals, including during the 2019-2020 bushfires, COVID-19 lockdowns and more recently during this year’s NSW floods, have received press coverage and praise from the wider Australian community. The Sikh Volunteers of Australia were even named 'Australian Human Rights Heroes 2020' by the Australian Human Rights Commission.   

Sikh volunteers in Australia lending a hand through food relief. (Source: Sikh Volunteers India)

The hard truths of soft power 

But there still remains a lot to unpack. Soft power is about influencing rather than coercing the hearts and minds of the world to think a particular way about India. And while it is a powerful way to influence the hearts and minds of the international public, India must work harder to leverage its existing and potential soft power assets. 

India also needs to tread carefully when it comes to how it uses yoga as a power. Even though Modi has officially presented yoga as a secular practice through the International Day of Yoga, the implementation of yoga as a practice with Hindu origins coincides with the climate of increasing Hindu nationalism in India. Images of Modi himself leading Indian participants through a series of asanas (yoga postures) during the inaugural International Day of Yoga in 2015 did little to assuage these fears of yoga being used as a ploy to promote the BJP’s right-wing agenda both domestically and internationally. Rather than resorting to Hindutva propaganda, India must make sure that it continues to spread its soft power through non-coercive means to broaden the horizon.

Going ahead, India continues to grow in influence as the world’s largest democracy and as an Asian tiger this century. To reinforce its influence on the global stage, whether it be to increase support for its foreign policy aims, facilitate trade and tourism, or merely encourage a love for India, we now know soft power is one key tool for the Modi administration in its foreign policy toolbox. But if the country is to truly maximise its soft power, it must tread forward with balance and a broader perspective. 


Afeeya Akhand is a writer and a Master of International Security student at the University of Sydney. She can be contacted at afeeya@saaricollective.com.au