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Russian Yoga Ban Leaves Officials In Awkward Pose

The yoga hall in Nizhnevartovsk

The yoga hall in Nizhnevartovsk

When rumors began swirling that authorities in the central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk intended to ban yoga, practitioners of the ancient Indian discipline thought it was a prank.

It soon turned out Nizhnevartovsk officials were dead serious.

Several yoga studios received letters from city authorities asking them to stop holding classes in municipal buildings in an effort to "prevent the spread of new religious cults and movements."

Private studios started to receive the warnings, too.

"It really stunned me, to put it mildly," says Inga Pimenova, an instructor at Nizhnevartovsk's Ingara School.

The apparent ban took Nizhnevartovsk by surprise, especially since yoga is officially recognized as a sport in Russia and has its own national federation.

In December, Russia became one of the 177 co-sponsors of a resolution to the UN General Assembly to make June 21 International Yoga Day.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev himself is known to be an enthusiast.

Up until the letters, Nizhnevartovsk authorities had actually sponsored yoga classes in state-run premises.

"How can you prohibit people from being healthy? This is absurd," asks Yelena Kolchanova, another yoga teacher who runs the city's Ganesh House of Yoga. "They'd better ban eating sausages."

The leaked letter (click to enlarge)

The leaked letter (click to enlarge)

The yoga controversy started in late June, when a leaked letter from Nizhnevartovsk's department for social and youth affairs referring to the "occult" character of yoga appeared on the Internet.

The letter instructed the city's culture, sports, and education department to "take measures to stop the practice of yoga in municipal institutions."

It described yoga as "inseparably connected to religious practices" and called on city officials to curb the spread of practices "of a destructive religious nature."

"Occult means invoking higher forces," says Pimenova. "We don't invoke any higher forces. Yoga is a science, a science of the body."

News of the Nizhnevartovsk yoga ban spread like wildfire across Russia and beyond, prompting critics to heap scorn on Nizhnevartovsk authorities.

Mayor Alla Badina swiftly recalled the letters and pledged to punish the officials guilty of sending out "incorrect information."

Irina Rybina, the acting head of Nizhnevartovsk's department for social and youth affairs and the author of the leaked letter, is also playing down the scandal.

"People may be seeing what they want to see in this information," she told RFE/RL. "The motives to send the letter were good; it was for prevention."

Local authorities have scheduled consultations on July 7 to determine whether yoga classes should be permitted in municipal buildings.

With the danger of a shutdown now behind them, yoga teachers joke that the incident may actually play in their favor.

"I thank our administration for promoting yoga," laughs Yelena Kolchanova. "People are now showing an interest in yoga, asking what it is and what the noise is all about."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​