By Dr. Paul Jerard, E-RYT 500, YACEP
What was it like to practice or teach Yoga in the former Soviet Union? “If I had said I was practicing Yoga, it would have been like saying I was going to the moon.” – Elena Ulmasbaeva, Director of the Iyengar Yoga Center in Moscow. Much has changed within the many republics that made up the Soviet Union. Yoga is practiced in health clubs, public and private facilities, and outdoor classes can be seen in any place where people gather.
Imagine a country where Yoga was once regarded as illegal Eastern mysticism, and people who practiced it were viewed as quacks and contortionists. This was the prevailing view in the USSR, despite the existence of quasi-legitimate organizations like the Yoga Association of the USSR, founded in 1989, and whose membership once totaled 5,000 brave souls.
In pre-Communist Russia, some credit a painter and aristocrat, named Nicolas Roerich, and his wife, with traveling to India to study Agni or Fire Yoga and bringing back the teachings around 1894. The man was nearly single-handedly responsible for Yoga in the Soviet Bloc; Vasily Brodov, was an intriguing figure. A Moscow native, born in 1912, he was a natural dissident who spent time in the gulags, and on the front lines, in World War II.
Through strokes of luck, he survived and became a lecturer at Moscow State University, writing his thesis on progressive thought in India. He met India’s President in 1964 during his visit to Moscow, and around the same time, met Indian guru, Dhirendra Brahmachari. Deeply inspired, he began studying Yoga and produced a documentary film on Indian gurus in 1970, which the authorities promptly shelved.
Brodov continued to promote Yoga privately and through the system of samizdat (underground self-publishing.) He was a compelling advocate, as he had been wounded on the front lines in World War II and carried long-term effects of his time in the gulag, but had recovered much of his health – thanks to his practice.
A letter was sent to the Central Committee in the early 1970s, from a group of scientists and public figures, requesting that Yoga be legalized, but to no avail. In fact, in 1981, a law was passed forbidding citizens to practice Hatha Yoga, play bridge, or study karate; and as late as 1986, a Soviet citizen was imprisoned for three years for teaching Yoga.
Only with the advent of perestroika, did Yoga become acceptable to mention in open company. Brodov lived to become the first chairman of the Yoga Association of the USSR and the introduction of “health clubs” around the country, featuring Yoga. Asanas were renamed “relaxation and concentration exercises.” Only postures were permitted, under the guise of health; mantras were forbidden with the exception of “om.” Enthusiasts braved police oversight until the collapse of communism entirely in 1991.
Today, no trendy Moscow fitness center would be without a Yoga class, and conservative estimates place the number of students in that city, alone, at 3,500 or more. Yoga books, magazines, and websites, in Russian, are plentiful. Still, there are many Russian practitioners today who remember difficulties and repression of the past, and who can feel truly grateful in the release of a posture.
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