The central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk has forbidden municipal buildings from hosting yoga classes, or as they’re known in the The Moscow Times, “religious cults.” The city is going so far as to send letters to local studios informing them that their practice of renting out public spaces for classes must come to an end. Some yoga facilities in the area teach at a local stadium, but the city’s head of social and youth policy has been asked to do whatever is necessary to stop the courses in their tracks.
According to The Moscow Times, Russian Presdient Vladimir Putin is shutting down these “cults” in an attempt to move the nation toward widespread adaptation of Russian Orthodox Christianity. A letter to Nizhnevartovsk officials claims that Hatha yoga (a form of yoga focused on breathing and physical exercise) is “inextricably linked to religious practices.” This may sound drastic, since to many of us, yoga is simply seen as a good workout, but it’s important to acknowledge the fact that yoga has existed for many centuries (and in many forms) before it became associated with New Age or secular fitness routines in the United States. Throughout its past, yoga has frequently been seen as a practice of religious devotion and Indian nationalism, though it’s hardly fair or respectful to label either as cult-like. Yoga has always had some form of dedication to spirituality. As Jay Michaelson at The Daily Beast explained:
“‘Yoga’ is a Sanskrit word that basically means ‘spiritual practice.’ Perhaps the most central text in yogic literature, the 4th-century Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sets forth eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, referring not to arms and legs but to a holistic lifestyle of physical and spiritual purification. These begin with ethics and rigorous spiritual discipline (neither of which get much play at secular yoga studios), continue with the well-known yoga poses and breathing exercises, and culminate in four successive stages of meditation…
…The spiritual and physical are not separate in yoga, and the religio-spiritual elements never entirely disappeared. In postwar America, yoga’s fusion of body and soul captivated a new generation of spiritual seekers. The great yoga gurus—Indra Devi, Satchidananda—were spiritual teachers first and foremost. Even the pioneer of “body-based” (mostly secular) yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, was often regarded as a sage.”