Yoga in Russia

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When a beer-snorkelling, burger munching expat friend in Moscow suddenly mentioned that he now does yoga, my first reaction was to say: “tell us another one, the next round’s on me.” But he then proceeded to lose weight, stopped drinking beer, and even started being picky and choosy about food. Strangely enough, he actually looked healthy. I presumed that he was living a life of great denial, and had basically gone off his rocker. But then I looked around a room of expats and saw the same thing happening to, well, not a majority, but a growing minority. These people look – dare I say it – happy. I realised that something is going on around here, and I don’t know what it is.

In the 1990s, everybody was far too busy making money to even contemplate taking up yoga. Nowadays, people are even busier chasing after less money, but yet somehow Russia; well Moscow and St. Petersburg at least; has joined the yoga movement. Ironically, in Russia, this is being spearheaded by business people, some of them are foreigners, not by people we stereotyped (perhaps mistakenly) as pot heads. You may be surprised to find that your boss has been practicing yoga for some time, and even more surprised to find out that he or she is not embarrassed in any way about this, and is happy to tell you about it! How big is yoga in Russia? What kind of yoga is practiced here in Russia? Who practices it, and where can you find a teacher?

Selection_075How big is yoga in Russia?

Evgeny Trufanov, the founder of ‘Yoga People’, an umbrella organisation that links different yoga organisations together, counts at least 200 yoga clubs in Moscow alone, and 1,200 ‘yoga spots’, the latter being places such as book shops and restaurants where people can find out about yoga. Yoga places, according to Evgeny are bubbling away in St. Petersburg as well, but not so elsewhere in Russia.

Anita Burger, a Russian yoga teacher who teaches mostly to private students commented: ‘Yoga’s popularity does of course have something to do with it being in fashion at the moment. Articles about yoga, many of which contain specific yoga exercises can be found in many magazines, are everywhere. Russians who travel abroad can’t help becoming acquainted with yoga, and this has all worked to lift people beyond their stereotypes. It is not anything like as popular here as it is in the States for example, where a reported 8% of the population does yoga, but the number of Russians getting into yoga right now is growing exponentially. The majority of my students are people from the world of business, because they have a colossal psychological burden, and many of them never had the time, over the course of many years, to get fit. Suddenly something happens to their health or they just feel that they are capable of more, and this gives them real motivation to take up yoga. In an interesting sign of the way in which things are going here, Russian doctors have now started referring patients to yoga clinics, so yoga appears to be becoming accepted by the Russian establishment.”

Who practices yoga in Russia?

Classifying people who practice yoga is a dangerous as there are so many different types of yoga. Linnea Ahlgren, a highly intelligent Swede who got into yoga as a means of dealing with stress and now teaches yoga in Moscow at the NYM yoga studio (which also has a sister studio Park Yoga by Nym in Gorky Park) and to English and Swedish speaking expats said. “The students are of all shapes and sizes! In the open classes [in yoga schools] you find more young to middle aged people, because the exercises can be quite rigorous, but there are lots of exceptions. The oldest yoga teacher in our practice is 92, and I can’t even do some of her movements! I have private students who are above middle age. When somebody is young and energetic, they have a mind that is running a lot, and they need to focus that energy somewhere, and the easiest way for them to be able to do that is to keep moving. In the same way, somebody coming home from a day in the office, will be in a different mental state. In an individual class it is possible to tailor the teaching accordingly.”

What kind of yoga is practiced in Moscow?

Yoga encompasses a huge variety of practices, all of which strive to ‘yoke together’ the mind and the body, using physical, mental and spiritual practices, which mostly originate from India. Because yoga has developed over thousands of years, and is still developing, it is not necessarily linked with any one Indian school of philosophy or religion, and as such covers a vast array of practices, from meditating on one’s ‘life energy’ as in Kundolina Yoga, for example, to concentrating on physical yoga, as in Hatha Yoga.

Evgeny Trufanov pointed out: “ancient yoga has 8 steps. In India, where yoga has been taught for thousands of years, many teachers do not even start with physical side of yoga until the student has mastered the first two levels; the ‘Yama’ and ‘Niyama’ levels, which are concerned with ethics.” The kind of yoga taught in the west, and Moscow is in this sense part of the west, falls more on the Hatha yoga side rather than the meditation side, although there are successful schools and teachers who specialise in the more spiritual side in Moscow. There are, however, exceptions, and the type of yoga that Linnea Ahlgren teaches; Jivamukti Yoga (Jiva = individual soul, mukti = liberation) is one of them, as she seeks to combine both the physical and the spiritual. “The founders of the method that I teach felt that they want to bring back the spiritual aspects of yoga, many of which have been lost in the west,” she said.

Selection_076Anita Berger commented: “When I started to practice yoga in 2003, there weren’t very many centres around, I was invited to the Iyengar Yoga centre in Moscow, where the yoga methods of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar are taught. This kind of yoga is centred on the physical, Hatha kind of yoga. For a while this was the only kind of yoga I practiced, but I found that this did not give me everything that I needed. There is very little room for mediation under this method, and very little attention is paid to pranayama (breathing). So I continued my studies and studied various other types of yoga including Ayur yoga which concentrates on meditation and has as its goal the ‘synergy of body, energy, mind, intellect and soul through ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and techniques of Yoga combined with contemporary scientific knowledge’, as quoted from the site: http://www.ayuryoga.in .

Who teaches yoga?

If you do decide to take up yoga, how do you find a teacher? Well, the simple answer is – like many things in Russia – by recommendation. Your teacher will hopefully have a yoga qualification, but there is no standard Yoga Board which authorizes courses here, or throughout the world for that matter. Linnea Ahlgren mentioned: “sometimes it is quite difficult to tell how qualified a teacher is, because the courses for teachers can be quite short. Teacher training is a way for yoga studios to make more money, and this can be the focus instead of really preparing the potential teacher to teach in an ethical way; to teach from a place not involving the ego of the teacher, but from a place of service. I graduated from a 300 hour teacher training course, at school called Diva Mucki Yoga.”

Where can you practice?

The big advantage of yoga is that it can be practiced more or less anywhere, however not all yoga students do their homework and practice for the prescribed 10-20 minutes a day, which makes attending classes all the more important. Linnea Ahlgren mentioned: “I know from practicing yoga that it takes a long time before somebody feels confident that they can do this without a teacher being present. But ideally, students should practice at home, maybe just for 10 minutes before going to work. I would be the happiest teacher in the world if that is what my students did.” So although special equipment is not needed, being able to attend a class once or twice a week, or have regular private lessons is necessary. In Moscow, unlike the situation in some other countries such as Sweden, where you have to sign up for a course, most group classes are open. People drop in when they want to, although dedicated courses such as ‘pre-natal yoga’ are common in Moscow.

Could there be a conflict between yoga and Russian Orthodox Christianity?

As an outsider I am quizzical to know if rapidly spreading yoga practice could one day be outlawed in Russia because it could be a threat to the Russian Orthodox Church. Anita Berger mentioned: “The church, as far as I know, is against meditation, not against yoga. There are many different kinds of meditation, and the kind of mediation which I practice and which is associated with yoga is really a kind of psychotherapy, which is not a threat to any religion. This is nothing to do with attempts to leave the body or make contact with some other being or force, I personally am not an advocate of any of this. I happen to be an Orthodox believer myself and wear a cross all the time.” On the general question of yoga and spirituality Linnea Ahlgren mentioned: “I believe that Russians have a longer tradition of having a relationship with the mysticism of the divine, and there is also a Buddhist influence in Russia. But I believe that the same thing is happening in the west as well, you are allowed now to talk about the divine and the greater meaning of things. But it is important to remember that yoga is not a religion, yoga is a philosophy that proves itself through practice. There are religious elements in the way the yoga teachings are connected to the Hindu texts, but there more important are very practical manuals like the Yoga Sutra which we use all the time.”
When the bombs both real and metaphorical fall, maybe it is time to cast the stereotypes aside and find a little peace – inside? Yoga is a philosophy that proves itself through practice.

Selection_077Kim Waddoup

Why did you get into yoga?

I’m a classic example. I’m not getting any younger, I work hard, sitting in an office in front of a computer all the time. If a pen fell on the floor, I realised that it was an insurmountable challenge bending that far down to pick it up. I understood I needed to get into some form of fitness activity. I was getting fed up, and heard various people talking about yoga, but I dismissed it as being for crazy people, from back in the whacky tobacco days. Nevertheless, I decided to try it, and I’m very happy that I did.

How do you practice yoga?

I’m a very busy person. I don’t have time to go to the classes, so I have a private teacher, and we practice in the privacy of my apartment. In the very first lesson, she said I that I should sit cross-legged on the floor. I said: ‘I can’t’, and if I do, I am not sure that I will be able to get back up!’ I’m not very strict on myself, I don’t roll the mat out and practice yoga on my own. But I have found that I can do the exercises everywhere. For example, there is one exercise to do with how you stand on your feet. So when I am standing in the Metro, I get up onto the balls of my feet, and I can practice there! Yoga has a lot to do with breathing correctly, and this is something I do actively before I go to sleep, it helps me relax.

What benefits have you received from practicing yoga?

Tremendous benefits. Yoga has affected my daily life. I can’t say that it has changed my life, but now I can stretch, I can move. It has certainly made my body much more flexible, if a pen falls on the floor, no problem at all now with picking it up. I’m going to try ‘couple yoga,’ something that is just being introduced into Russia, as a way that two people can enjoy yoga together, not for the erotic, but as a way that you can share something with somebody special. If I had time, I’d go on a yoga seminar somewhere, or go to India for two weeks and just do yoga, and concentrate on my diet as well. You can do so much to the body without using any medicines. The only equipment you need is a mat.

Selection_078Natalia Zaboltina

Why did you get into yoga?

I started going to yoga twice a week at a yoga studio near my house last year in order to learn to ‘quieten my mind.’ Also if you spend too much time at a computer at work or home and can’t take away yourself from the keyboard, yoga is necessary for relaxation and keeping good health. Finding a true yoga teacher, not an aerobics instructor is very important! Proper instruction is what makes it work.

How do you practice yoga?

I am doing Yoga in the Balance Club studio near my house. The studio itself is quite nice, with light spacious rooms. They also have a nice changing room and a shower. A session lasts 1,5 hours, I am taking sessions twice a week. Classes are well taught and consist of basic poses, principles of stretching, movement, breath and posture, yoga philosophy and simple relaxation.

What benefits have you received from practicing yoga?

I can already feel how much it is helping me cope with the everyday stresses of life. I love the feeling you have right after a workout — it is amazing!!! I enjoy Yoga, its benefits extend far beyond the physical. It is good for my mind, body and spirit. It helps me in reducing stress, increase flexibility, strengthen the joints etc. Practicing yoga, I get more energy, improved mood, better sleep and weight control. If you just want to get fit in a daily busy routine life, yoga is a better option for you. Little did I know that it would become a passion. Now I encourage everyone who I know to try it… Take a leap of faith and go for it!

Selection_079Hugh Mc Enaney

Why did you get into yoga?

I first started practicing yoga in 2001 in Ireland by which time I had already met a number of Buddhists and had even lived in a Buddhist community in the south west of Ireland. I loved the practice of Hatha and the focus on the breathing and generally getting back into the moment or the now. We all know the power of the present but seldom stop to appreciate it. After I had learned and attended a number of Hatha sessions, I contacted a super lady in Dublin called Emma Stafford who had learnt and honed her craft in the US many years back. She was running classes in Ashtanga a few times a week and I did my best to attend these as often as time allowed. She, herself, is a cancer survivor and a shining light to everyone she meets with her positivity and her super outlook on life and focusing on the body and what it can do as it is such an incredible instrument.

How do you practice yoga?

In 2003, I met the founder of laughter yoga in Ireland – Dr Madan Kataria – and started practicing this unique type of yoga as well as continuing to attend Ashtanga classes. I trained as a laughologist and started to spread the good word through laughter yoga workshops all over Ireland. When I am asked what exactly laughter yoga is, I simply reply that it is 90% laughter and 10% yoga mainly focussing on the breathing/cantering techniques known as Pranayama.

What benefits have you received from practicing yoga?

As someone who is not a fan of regular exercise and has a crazy typical Moscow schedule, often working 14 hours a day, it is hard to find the time for any type of practice such as meditation or yoga. Only recently, I restarted practicing yoga with my wife at home. I find that I am sleeping better and waking earlier and full of energy. I would love to get more time to practice this amazing craft, which has been around for thousands of years. I know people who have cured many ailments including heart complaints and weight loss and even survived cancer. It may not work miracles but it certainly comes close. The health benefits of some laughter yoga include managing stress and strengthening the immune system which leads to help with migraines, allergies, diabetes, asthma and backache. All of this can be achieved whilst developing the optimism muscle and acting like a typical child, who, research shows, laughs over 100 times a day.