Yoga is currently practiced by millions of people world wide, but not in one Russian city. In a strange twist yoga has been banned for being a cult, less than 2 weeks after we were down dogging in Times Square.
The city of Nizhnevartovsk, with a population of approximately 251,000 inhabitants, fears yoga can cause the proliferation of cults. (No, I am not making this up.)
The Moscow Times reported the owners of Nizhnevartovsk’s two main hatha yoga studios received letters from the government ordering them to cease all yoga classes immediately because yoga can, “spread new religious cults and movements.”
Yoga studios are not the only facilities to receive what effectively amounts to a cease and desist letter. A public stadium where yoga is often practiced has also been targeted.
A letter sent to the heads of physical culture and education departments described yoga as, “inextricably linked to religious practices” and in possession of a, “distinct occult character.”
While yoga’s roots are steeped in centuries of Indian spiritual traditions, yoga as we know it today is more akin to fitness than religion. Thanks largely in part to the proliferation of photography in the early 20th century, Americans became fascinated with Indian Yogis. With little to no understanding of the spiritual aspects of yoga at this time, yoga eventually evolved into a form of exercise with (often, but not always) very little meditation, chanting, or (heaven forbid) Samadhi involved. What we tend to call yoga in America is only two of the eight limbs of yoga.
One can never truly remove all spirituality from yoga, and perhaps this is what officials in Nizhnevartovsk fear. Even the late B.K.S. Iyengar – who had a very secular approach to yoga – was revered as a spiritual leader. Yoga can be responsible for profound personal growth and spiritual awakening, but it doesn’t have to be.
Nizhnevartovsk officials are are correct in that yoga’s roots are in Hindu spiritual traditions, but fail to recognise yoga can – and often is – treated as a secular fitness practice gracing the schedules of gyms around the world.