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Russia’s Age-Old Passion For Yoga

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RUSSIA, August 9, 2013 (Indrus): Yoga was enjoyed by quite a large number of people in Imperial Russia, and this laid the roots for its absorption into Soviet culture. From the end of the 19th Century and right up until the 1920s, when the USSR was formed, Indian philosophy and yoga were popular amongst the artistic and intellectual communities. Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavsky famously incorporated several yogic exercises and psychological techniques from the Buddhist tradition into his Stanislavsky System as a means for developing attention and concentration, and also for achieving “Solitude in Public” on stage, which is in essence Dhyana – full concentration. Another theatre teacher, actor and director, someone who practiced yoga throughout his life and who, in many questions of acting technique, followed behind Stanislavsky, was Mikhail Chekhov (1891-1955).

Right at the beginning of the 20th Century much literature came out on the theme of yoga. The books of American writer William Atkinson, who wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka, were published – works which included: Hatha Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, and The Science of Psychic Healing. Besides Atkinson’s works, other published works included Svami Vivekananda’s book on Raja Yoga, Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, which came out with the Russian title of Patanjali’s Aphorisms, and Bhagavad Gita was also republished. Interestingly, Bhagavad Gita first appeared in Russia under the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). The manuscript was sent to the tsar as a gift from one of the Great Moghuls. Its first translation into Russian (from English and Sanskrit) was published in 1788 by Imperial decree of Catherine the Great and with the endorsement of the Holy Synod (“this book is good for the soul”), with typography by Nikolai Novikov.

Today, the manuscript of the first Bhagavad Gita is kept in Moscow in an archive within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite these materials being available in Russia, people’s understanding of yoga at the beginning of the 20th Century was still incomplete. The practice of individual exercises, breathing techniques and meditation was superficial in character and unlikely to lead to the ultimate aim of yoga – Samadhi.

Then, in 1915, an interesting person appeared in Russia, then on the brink of a Revolution. This man had an indomitable will, he was a mystic and hypnotist, whose knowledge of Eastern philosophy was drawn not just from books, but also from conversation, as he himself liked to say, “from all kinds of different teachers from Asia and the East.” This man was Georgy Ivanovich Gurdjieff – one of the most dissonant philosophers of the 20th Century. In these years he was only starting to work on his groundbreaking book, Fourth Way, which, as he described it “contains elements of teaching from the yogis, Sufis, Tibetan Buddhism and some Shamanic techniques from various different traditions, including Mongol traditions.”

Information about yoga during the dark, harsh, Stalinist times is hard to come by. But yoga was still very much in existence, practiced by a tough core of brave people. These dedicated yogis and yoginis mainly practiced in camps, and yoga was undoubtedly a factor in helping them to survive the inhumane conditions. One of the most well-known examples is philosopher and writer Dmitry Panin, depicted in Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle” in the character of Dmitry Sologdin, who practiced yoga with a singular determination. “Under Stalin he spent seventeen years in labor camps and survived, when death mowed down other unfortunate prisoners in their thousands,” writes Panin’s friend Yuri Glazkov in his book “To the Land of our Fathers.”

From the appearance of the first books on yoga to the founding of the first official yoga schools, the path of popularizing yoga in Russia has been long and windy, but not without its interesting moments. What’s curious is that interest in yoga flared up during the dawn days of the Soviet Union and really took flame during the sunset years of the red empire. It is hard to imagine how and in what direction yoga would have developed in Russia, if it weren’t for the many years during which yoga was practiced behind closed doors, in an atmosphere of danger and secrecy (after all, yoga was an offense for which you could be put in prison), and also the limited access to information about yoga. Perhaps the reason traditional schools are so revered in Russia is the fact that yoga developed and took root during times of hardship.

Much more of this very lengthy and interesting article on the history of yoga in Russia thru the present day available at ‘source.’

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