Yoga: how we do it in Russia

Photo: RIA Novosti
Today yoga is a must-activity for every Moscow yuppie. However, this trend took years to settle in Russia, though some progressive intellectuals showed interest in the practice long before the Revolution of 1917. Russian artists and creative people were well familiar with Indian philosophy and yoga already in the late 19th century. In the article about yoga in Russia, Russia Beyond the Headlines writes that theatre director Constantin Stanislavski incorporated several yoga exercises and spiritual techniques into his Stanislavski’s System to stimulate actors' attention and concentration on stage. In the early 20th century, books on yoga begin to appear in Russia, like those by American writer William Atkinson, including his Yoga Series and The Science of Psychic Healing. Among other published books were Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, Yoga Sutras by Patanjali and Bhagavad Gita. Amazing fact: Bhagavad Gita first appeared in Russia under the reign of Ivan the Terrible; its manuscript was sent to the tsar as a gift from one of the Great Moghuls. Today, this manuscript is being kept in Moscow archives of the Foreign Ministry. However, yoga development in Russia was interrupted by the Revolution, and the following Civil War. Though yoga existed in the Stalin era, not that many dared to practice it. Some of the then-yogis were prisoners of numerous labor camps, which spread across the vast country. Russia Beyond the Headlines writes that one of the most well-known inmate-yogis was philosopher and writer Dmitry Panin, who became a character of Solzhenitsyn’s novel In The First Circle, and the famous diva Tatyana Okunevskaya, who told journalists that she had survived in GULAG camps only due to “fresh carrots and yoga”. Okunevskaya practiced yoga every day, and kept up the routine for the rest of her life. At that time there was one brave man who promoted yoga in the repressions-fear-gripped Russia, Boris Smirnov – a surgeon, who was arrested and sent to a camp in the Central Asian city of Ashgabat. In the camp Smirnov studied Sanskrit and in 1939 started his work to translate the Indian epos Mahabharata into Russian. After years of work he translated eight volumes. Stalin died in 1953, and the Khrushchev Thaw brought new hopes for at least some freedom. Then peaceful Brezhnev’s era of stagnation followed and people calmed down, their life settled and they could finally do something for their spiritual growth. It was the beginning of the second birth for Russian yoga. In 1963, Ivan Efremov's Razor's Edge novel was published, where the writer explained the basic principles of yoga in a simple and clear way. At the same time, articles about the therapeutic effect of yoga began to appear in magazines. They were authored by expert in Indian studies Anatoly Zubkov, the first certified teacher of yoga in the USSR, who spent many years in India and met yoga gurus there. They showed him the basics and later Zubkov promoted the activity all across the USSR. In the 1970s, Zubkov wrote a script for the first Soviet documentary about yoga. In the 1970s, the Soviet government invited the iconic yoga mentor Dhirendra Brahmachari to the USSR. Some rumors had it that it was done to apply yoga techniques in cosmonaut training. In the 1980s, first yoga groups appeared, its members practiced mainly in one another’s apartments, but things became legal in the late 1980s, when yoga was a subject for research by scientists who dealt with alternative healing methods. In 1989, the first Conference on Yoga was held in the USSR. After the Soviet Union collapse, yoga, which was officially taboo in the Soviet times, has been welcomed by Russia’s trendy and wealthy. Russians rushed to catch up with the trend for everything Indian. Goa became a top vacation and downshifting spot, while Indian clothes, furniture and food were a must have. In 2010, Russia had its first Yoga Week and guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar visited St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, Irkutsk; Sochi and the site of a new ashram in nearby Black Sea town of Tuapse. At a seminar called "Ethics in Business" at the Ritz-Carlton posh hotel in Moscow, Shankar spoke about Vedic philosophy and the spiritual subtext of corruption. "Corruption begins outside the purview of belongingness,” he said, in response to a question about how to battle corruption. The only way to overcome corruption, he said, was "to reorient people, educate them," adding "the governments, religious bodies, NGO’s, business, all of them have to work together." According to NYT, Shankar's Art of Living Foundation, which was started with the vision of creating a stress-free society, has its Russian headquarters in a Moscow business center. The organization sent instructors to North Ossetia to work with victims of the school hostage-taking in Beslan in 2002, and to Tskhinvali in South Ossetia after the Georgian aggression in 2008, and it has also worked with the Russian military. In 2007, shortly before he became president, Dmitry Medvedev told reporters that he was “mastering yoga,” as the activity helps him deal with the stress of political duties. That immediately led to speculation that yoga would become a national number one sports, as judo has under Vladimir Putin, or tennis under Boris Yeltsin. Though the Russian Orthodox Church regards some forms of yoga as dangerous sects, yoga studios began to appear in Moscow and finally could have been found in almost every health club or gym. Today, more and more Russians get involved with this Indian practice of physical and spiritual self-discipline as well as a lifestyle linked to it. There are at now at least 100,000 people who practice yoga regularly in Moscow and St Petersburg alone, according to the Russian version of Yoga Journal. Source: Voice Of Russia

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