Downward Bear

Russian City Bans Yoga, Calling It a Cult

Is yoga a spiritual practice or physical exercise? Depends on who you ask. But some Russians believe it's a cult and, taking the lead of Vladimir Putin’s revanchist movement, have outlawed it.

07.02.15 9:15 AM ET

The history of yoga is more tangled than the lotus position. This week, it’s taken yet another bizarre twist, as one Russian city has just banned the practice because it has “an occult character.”

American yoga practitioners—over 8 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2012 report—are probably laughing in their Lululemons, but in fact, the spiritual and physical aspects of yoga have been vying for supremacy for over a century. And the battle has only intensified of late.

“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.

At the most refined levels of meditation, the yogi cultivates Samadhi, an intense concentration and absorption of the mind. Buddhists cultivate these states as aids to meditation (as it happens, I am a teacher of this particular form of practice), but for Hindu yogis, they are seen as ecstatic union with the Divine. And indeed, Samadhi is a deeply profound experience.

It’s not, however, the same as washboard abs. Neither is ishvara pranidhana, the surrender to God (part of step two). What happened?

Around the turn of the 20th century—as described by Mark Singleton, Stephanie Syman, and other historians—yoga encountered the West, both in America and in an anti-colonial resistance to Great Britain. In the United States, Americans grew fascinated with Indian contortionists on the one hand (thanks in large part to the spread of photography) and with the new trend of gymnastics on the other. This had the effect of enlarging the importance of postures, twists, and bends, and diminishing that of rigorous diet, study of sacred scriptures, and mystical states.

It also changed yoga postures to accord with then-contemporary understandings of physical exercise. Yoga poses as we know them today owe as much to the YMCA as to Patanjali—and indeed, even Patanjali’s priority over other Hindu sacred texts was, in part, a result of these evolutions.

In India, meanwhile, yoga became known as an indigenous form of physical exercise. The British had deemed Indians weak, and suitable for domination. Yoga-as-exercise was one response: Here was a distinctively Indian form of physicality far superior to that found in the West. Yoga was a source of Indian nationalist pride in the shadow of colonialism.

Thus, what was once one-eighth (or, with breathing exercises, one-quarter) of a rigorous spiritual discipline became, in India and the West, a kind of oriental exercise. (“Oriental” meaning the “East” as seen through a Western prism: exotic, mysterious, and “Other.”)

But 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.

Yet since the 1970s, in particular, the physical dimensions of yoga have predominated, much to the chagrin of spiritual yoga practitioners. Even where spirituality remains a focus, it is often a universalized New Age spirituality, rather than the rigorous discipline advocated in the sutras. Other times, it’s just an exercise routine.

For example, in 2009, Michelle Obama included yoga in the White House Easter Egg hunt celebrations, saying, “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.”

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That’s a far cry from Hindu religious discipline, and it’s how the vast majority of Americans encounter yoga today: as fun exercise, part of healthy living.

And that’s why yoga’s opponents look ridiculous, whether they’re Russian officials banning it from the town of Nizhnevartovsk or evangelicals suing a California school district to keep it out of public school. To most American yoga practitioners, that’s like getting offended by sit-ups.

Who’s right? Well, it depends on how you look at it. The Russians and the evangelicals are clearly correct that yoga originated as part of a Hindu spiritual discipline. (The word “Hindu,” by the way, is itself a relatively recent, Western-originated term.) On the other hand, any Hindu specificity has long been drained out of secular yoga, just as any Buddhist specificity has been drained out of the secular mindfulness taught in the offices of Twitter.

In India, meanwhile, yoga’s history has twisted yet again.

Under the nationalist leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, yoga has become—as it was a century ago—an activity of Indian patriotism. Hilariously, as reported by The New York Times, Modi’s penchant for yoga has made it a mandatory practice among Indian bureaucrats, many of whom have spent decades behind desks, and look like it.

And just 10 days ago, on June 21, Modi joined over 35,000 participants in the largest yoga session in history (yes, officially documented as a world record), part of “International Yoga Day,” a U.N.-sanctioned event which included observance around the world.

The backlash has already set in. Modi’s yoga is spiritual and universalist—Yoga Day is “the beginning of a new age through which we will achieve greater heights of peace,” he said—but also particularist. Sanskrit chants are included—and not just “Om” either. Muslims have argued that the Sun Salutation violates their religion. Hindu Nationalists have incorporated yoga into their military drills.

The net result is a yoga that looks a lot like Indian yoga did 100 years ago: a religiously-inflected, nationalistically-oriented blend of wellness and spirituality.

It’s not known whether the ban in Nizhnevartovsk is a direct response to these trends. Given the close ties between U.S. evangelicals and Russian conservatives, their inspiration may have been American, rather than Indian. Either way, this is part of the widespread revanchist movement in Russia, led by President Putin, which seeks to return to conservative values, including an ultra-conservative version of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Yoga-as-occult is a small part of that.

Still, the Russian yoga paroxysm is not entirely unwarranted. There are at least four meanings of the word “yoga”: an ancient Hindu spiritual discipline, a Victorian-influenced health regime, a New Age spiritual-physical activity, and an Indian nationalist exercise. At least three of those might offend a conservative Christian, whether in Siberia or San Diego.

Most of all, this controversy reflects the limitations of Western categories like “spiritual” and “physical” to understand non-Western phenomena, and the remarkable semiotic drift that yoga has enjoyed over the last 150 years. As with meditation, it is remarkable that an ascetic practice of a 4th-century Hindu sage is now taught at Crunch.

Even if not in Nizhnevartovsk.