Estimates for the number of regular yoga practitioners worldwide range from 30 million to upwards of half a billion, making this one of the most popular activities of the modern age. It’s appropriate then that the United Nations has finally added this ancient Indian tradition to the UNESCO intangible world heritage list.
Yoga will be joining such varied traditions as Belgian beer-making, Cuban rhumba, falconry, Arabic coffee and the bagpipes on the list of activities that contribute to the vital tapestry of human cultural experience. To qualify, each tradition must play a significant role in the heritage and culture of the people who practise it, something that has been true for yoga for at least 5000 years.
As with physical sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, activities that are recognised as contributing to humanity’s intangible heritage receive official backing and protection. In many cases, inclusion on the list has lead to formal protection in law, and new government funding to ensure that ancient traditions are not lost to future generations.
Unlike some activities on the 2017 list, yoga is not shrinking but growing exponentially. The number of Americans practising yoga has skyrocketed from 20 million in 2012 to over 36 million today, and one in ten Americans participated in some form of yoga in the last year. In India, of course, the figures are even more impressive, with some 80% of people having some experience of yoga, which even forms part of the curriculum in many schools.
For each activity that makes it onto the list, there are sadly some which are rejected. French and Mexican cuisine both failed to make the list in past selections. Perhaps less sadly, bull-fighting was stripped from the French government list in 2011 after a vigorous protest by animal-rights campaigners.