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Tens of thousands of Indians have taken part in yoga sessions across India to mark the first ever International Yoga Day. 

Participants' in Sunday's events included military officials, bureaucrats, politicians, students and diplomats.

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, who is an enthusiastic practitioner of yoga, himself led one such session in the heart of New Delhi.

"There will be no part of the world that will be untouched by yoga today. Yoga is an everyday part of life," he was quoted as saying by NDTV news channel.

The central government had drawn up extensive plans to promote yoga on June 21. Modi had set up a new ministry AYUSH for yoga last year.

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

However, Modi's government has also faced criticism for supposedly turning yoga into a public-relations exercise.

"I, or anyone else, or Congress party leaders and country's citizens practise yoga at their homes and parks," Ajay Kumar, a Congress politician, said.

"The chances are that some Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] leaders have taken this yoga day as a marketing and advertising tool."

'Cultural nationalism'

Ajaz Ashraf, a novelist and columnist, told Al Jazeera that "what the [Indian] opposition is talking about is essentially politicisation of yoga".

"Apart from fact of the commodification, in India it's wedded to the idea of cultural nationalism in a certain sense," he said.

"Yoga has undergone through a process of secularisation over the decades and now what are you doing is linking it with particular culture and party. And that's a big problem."

Afghans and foreigners attend yoga classes a day before International Yoga Day at the Indian embassy in Kabul [AP]

In his maiden address to the UN General Assembly, Modi proposed the idea for a day dedicated to the ancient Indian discipline, prompting the UN to proclaim June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.

While people in 650 districts across the nation stretch it out, yoga enthusiasts in 192 other countries are also expected to join in the celebrations, including in Britain where mats will be rolled out along the banks of the River Thames.

Hundreds gathered in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, to honour the ancient practice, while more than 2,000 yoga enthusiasts struck a pose in Taiwan's capital, Taipei.

Similar events took place in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.

Sushma Swaraj, India's foreign minister, who travelled to the UN headquarters in New York for International Yoga Day's launch in Times Square, has called the craft "the soft power of India" that can foster world peace.

While scores of enthusiasts struck a pose in Times Square, she repeatedly said that yoga has no link to any religion, describing it as "the science of integrating body, mind and soul".

"At a time when ethnic conflicts and extremist violence are threatening to destabilise societies, yoga can serve as the perfect antidote to ...  move us on the path of harmony and peace," Swaraj said.

However, Ashraf, the Indian commentator, told Al Jazeera: "Repeatedly we are told yoga is good for health, and here is a government which undertook a 20 percent cut in its health allocation in the last financial year. 

"Twenty percent is a huge cut given that one-third of the world's poor live in India."

"I don't think celebrating yoga on such a scale is going to help anyone apart from the gurus because it opens a wide market for them."

Source: Al Jazeera And AFP