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Yoga can spur 10% growth and bolster nation, India guru says

Baba Ramdev, who says his foundation earns 20 billion rupees (S$418 million) a year selling traditional products, will help Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday set a world record for the most people doing yoga in one place.

[NEW DELHI] To one of India's most famous gurus, yoga isn't just about postures, exercise and meditation: It can also boost economic growth and bolster national pride.

Baba Ramdev, who says his foundation earns 20 billion rupees (S$418 million) a year selling traditional products, will help Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday set a world record for the most people doing yoga in one place. The event will mark the first United Nations-backed International Day of Yoga.

"The previous government hadn't given much importance to yoga," Mr Ramdev, known for his orange robes and thick black beard, said by phone this week. "Modi garnered support from 177 countries, including 47 Muslim nations. Because of yoga, India's esteem has increased."

Mr Modi is showcasing the event as one of national prestige: Some 35,000 people will perform yoga in the center of India's capital. Similar gatherings will take place across the globe, including one at the United Nations in New York City led by Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who has called yoga "the soft power of India."

"India speaks and the whole world listens," Mr Swaraj told reporters this month. "The 21st of June to be declared as the International Day of Yoga is a clear-cut example of that."

In some ways, India is pushing to reclaim an ancient practice that has been turned into a lucrative market in the West. Yoga pants are increasingly supplanting jeans as the suburban apparel of choice in the US, hurting retailers like Levi's and J Crew, Barclays Plc analysts wrote in February.

India's "wellness" sector, which includes naturopathy, yoga and ayurveda, accounted for less than 2 per cent of the global US$2 trillion industry, according to a 2013 report. The domestic industry is dominated by small businesses that produce pain balms, health foods and massage therapies.

Mr Ramdev's powerful following is one reason Mr Modi is giving him a platform. The guru says more than one billion people across the globe watch his television programs, which are broadcast to far-flung villages in the nation of 1.2 billion people.

He uses that media presence to sell everything from shaving cream to cow urine tablets to herbal remedies for infertility, cancer and hair loss. He says all the profits from his sales of ayurvedic medicines go to charity, including camps to provide free yoga to the masses.

He said using yoga to cure diseases like asthma and hepatitis would save as much as 10 trillion rupees a year in costs on medicine - or roughly 80 per cent of the total pharmaceutical market in Asia, Africa and Australia. Productivity gains from yoga can also boost economic growth to 10 per cent a year, he said, up from about 7.3 per cent now.

Mr Ramdev is no stranger to controversy. He said yoga can help "stop wrong sexual practices" like homosexuality, espousing a common view in the mostly Hindu nation. An Indian court in 2013 upheld a law passed in the 1800s that criminalizes gay sex in a setback for homosexual rights.

"Homosexuality can be cured through yoga," Mr Ramdev said. "This will return a man towards natural sexual behavior." The notion that homosexuality is a curable illness has been discredited around the globe for decades.

The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, with the World Health Organization following suit in the 1990s. The Indian Psychiatric Society said last year that there's no scientific evidence to substantiate the belief that homosexuality is a disease or mental disorder, the Times of India reported.

For the most part, Mr Modi's administration has steered clear of controversy in pushing Yoga Day, emphasising that it's about health instead of religion. That has minimised criticism apart from a smattering of minority Muslim groups and opponents who see it as a waste of resources.

Even so, the projection of Mr Ramdev on Yoga Day reflects the political shift since Mr Modi's "somewhat right-wing Hindu-based" Bharatiya Janata Party took power last year, said SL Rao, chairman of the Institute of Social and Economic Change in Bengaluru. He called Ramdev's views on homosexuality "stupid," while also acknowledging his importance to yoga in India.

"Which other yoga teacher is so well known?" he said.