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Russian Prisons Reportedly Suspend Yoga After Claims It Makes Inmates Gay

A gym break in Russia's central region of Mordovia.

Many might see yoga as a calming escape from the pressures of modern life. But some believe it’s a dangerous, homosexuality-inducing practice that could cause hunger strikes and prison riots.

A spirited debate erupted after the introduction of yoga classes at two Moscow prisons prompted a lawmaker to make Russian officials aware of a theologian's conclusions on the matter.

Yoga "provokes uncontrollable sexual arousal that can lead to homosexuality," read the findings included in a letter sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office by Yelena Mizulina, a member of the Federal Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

According to the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which described the letter as an appeal to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to investigate the legality of the initiative, it warned of unrest across the prison system if the practice of offering yoga classes spread.

'Slop From The Hands Of Gays'

The reasoning, according to the newspaper, which had obtained a copy of the letter, was that because yoga classes were offered mainly to inmates working in catering, fellow prisoners unwilling to "take slop from the hands of gays" could unleash hunger strikes and riots.

Classes had been suspended, the paper reported in its April 5 article.

A wave of comments followed from readers shocked by claims made about yoga, and their apparent endorsement from a lawmaker.

"This is some monstrosity, a caricature," one social media user wrote.

"I'd rather they focused on real problems in the country," wrote another.

Twitter user Calibr posted a picture of Mizulina and quoted the claim that yoga provokes uncontrollable sexual arousal. "Arousal should be controlled by the state," he wrote sarcastically.

But on April 8, Mizulina fought back. She had forwarded conclusions made by Aleksandr Dvorkin, a well-known theologian specializing in the study of religious sects, to the Prosecutor-General's Office.

But she denied that she had called for a ban on yoga classes, and called on Russia's media watchdog to declare the Moskovsky Komsomolets report "fake news."

"This is a typical example of the spreading of fake news. My letter to the prosecutor-general contained no demands for 'a ban on yoga classes in prisons,'" TASS quoted her as saying. "Why did the accompanying letter provoke such hysteria? There's no term for this but deliberate manipulation."

Since 2013, the Russian government has waged a campaign to limit society's exposure to homosexuality, and officials have criticized what they often refer to as "nontraditional relationships."

In 2013, the country introduced legislation banning gay "propaganda," with the goal of shielding children "from information promoting the denial of traditional family values." Rights groups have criticized the law as homophobic and discriminatory.

Yoga classes were introduced in Moscow prisons in 2018 as a pilot scheme following the advice of rights activists, and the deputy head of Russia's penitentiary service, Valery Maksimenko, said the results have been very promising.

In an interview with the radio station Govorit Moskva on April 7, following news of Mizulina's letter, he said an assessment conducted by the prison service found that inmates who participated in yoga classes were far less likely to turn to the doctor for help. "This is a very positive effect," he said, promising that the classes would be reinstated in the near future.

Calling Dvorkin a pseudo-healer and a "strange person," Maksimenko ridiculed the conclusion that yoga causes homosexuality. "This comrade has an archaic view of the world. We live in a democratic country, and people can do what they want within the law," Maksimenko said.

Due to the success of the pilot scheme, the prisons offering yoga now plan to introduce additional classes in qigong, a practice that involves slow movements and coordinated breathing aimed at controlling energy flow. "The whole world is doing this, and it's caused no one any harm. And it's not going to make anyone gay," Maksimenko said.

Dvorkin and Mizulina are yet to make their views on that clear.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.