Yoga Behind the Iron Curtain

The Untold Story of Underground Yoga During the Communist Regime

By Kristin Barendsen

In the late 1960s, during the height of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, Iveta taught yoga in secret in a borrowed Prague attic. Her kriya yoga classes were invitation only and attracted an underground network of dissidents who were among the first Czechs to explore Eastern practices. But after Soviet tanks occupied the country in August 1968, police officers invaded Iveta’s yoga classes and hauled her into the station for questioning. Seven times she was interrogated.

Once a top ballet dancer, Iveta, now in her 70s, retains the grace and poise of her profession. “They asked who my students were and where I was teaching,” she remembers. While the officers didn’t actually demand that she stop teaching yoga, Iveta says, “they wanted to keep an eye on everybody, know who was doing what.”

Iveta felt she had no choice but to reveal the identities of her students to the officers when they asked. “I was very nervous and scared,” she tells me. “I answered them, but they already knew everything.” In fact, the police knew more than she did about who was in Prague’s yoga scene. Disclosing this information did not necessarily put her students in danger, but it did mean they would be watched more closely. After the seventh interrogation, Iveta stopped teaching.

But when another Prague yoga teacher, Milada Bartonová, was called to the secret police headquarters for questioning, she had a different response. As her colleague Karel Nespor, MD, relates, “When the police officer asked Mrs. Bartonová about her work, she looked at him and said, ‘But yoga is very good; it would be very good for your health. Your spine is far from erect. You should practice yoga!’”

Iveta and Bartoová were only two of the many yoga teachers the regime targeted for surveillance. For five decades, the USSR kept its Central European neighbors—Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia—behind its Iron Curtain, closed off from the rest of the world. Communist ideology forbade all religious and spiritual pursuits, and even though the police focused most of their efforts on eradicating the Catholic Church, they also watched, questioned, and, in a few cases, punished those they found to be part of an underground yoga community. Only now, 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, are their stories emerging.

Hoping to bring them to light, I traveled to six countries and spoke to old-timer yogis about their experiences during the Communist era. These everyday heroes risked their safety and defied authority in order to keep the yoga traditions alive in their countries. They told very human stories of both courage and capitulation under pressure.

Why did the regime feel threatened by something as inherently peaceful as yoga? As Russian Ashtanga teacher Leonid Lanin explains, “The philosophy of the USSR was to shape people who would do their best to serve the USSR. You were not permitted to do something for yourself. The yoga system of self-development makes people free. The Soviet system doesn’t need free people.”

Elena Ulmasbaeva, director of the Iyengar Yoga Center in Moscow, says that during the Communist years, “If I had said I was practicing yoga, it would have been like saying I was going to the moon. Every day in school I heard that we must analyze our behavior according to Lenin. People saw yoga as something from an opposite world—a very strange system of life combined with a very strange religion. We were taught that it was not useful to our good system.”

By definition, those who were involved in yoga were dissidents against the regime, even though most citizens joined the Party because they enjoyed its social benefits or felt pressured to sign the right papers to protect their jobs and families. Party members were rewarded for “informing” on dissidents. No one could trust their neighbors, and this created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Ulmasbaeva and Raya Polasova studied Iyengar-style yoga in the basement of a Moscow flat. The government considered a gathering of more than five people to be dangerous, says Polasova. “They thought that a party was okay, drinking alcohol was okay, but half-naked people standing all together? Oh, no,” she laughs. “About twenty people would come to class each week. We had to enter the house one by one, very carefully. But the neighbors told the militia about us, and one evening the police knocked on our door. We hurried to put our street clothes on, and pretended we were just drinking tea.”

Because these secret groups were few and far between, many studied yoga through books. “These were usually forbidden and always difficult to find,” says Russian Ashtanga teacher Mikhail Konstantinov. “One or two books per year were translated into Russian—and these were mostly scientific research about yoga’s physical aspects.” Even these officially condoned books were often coverless and had been photocopied,” he says, “with the author’s name removed.” The police confiscated yoga books mailed internationally and were known to read yoga-related correspondence.

The KGB called Konstantinov before them for interrogation when they learned that he possessed several yoga books as well as a stick engraved with a Krishna mantra. “I didn’t even know the stick had this mantra,” Konstantinov remembers, a wry smile hiding under his long wiry beard. “The KGB officer asked me why I was reading these books. ‘I’m just interested,’ I said. ‘They are official books.’”

“Maybe you want to leave the USSR for some other country,” said the officer.

“Maybe you want to read them?” I asked.

“I don’t have time.”

The officer told Konstantinov that if he continued practicing yoga he risked being jailed. “The KGB interrogated me twice more after that,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly afraid—I understood it was their job. I was just sad because I was not able to practice freely; I had to keep it a secret.”

According to Konstantinov, in 1981 the USSR passed a law forbidding citizens to practice hatha yoga, study karate, and play bridge. When asked what connects yoga to the card game, he replies, “The Party knows this better than I.” After that law was enacted, he tells me, “All yogis gathered in secret. We practiced in the forest in the summer.”

The situation was similar in countries that the USSR held in its iron fist. In a meeting that seemed straight out of X-Files, a Hungarian yoga scholar who gave his name only as Gabor dictated a fascinating testimony to me in Budapest’s poshest café. He said that in Budapest, “Some students were interrogated by police; some were beaten.... The police forbade my teacher to teach. Our phones were bugged. Sometimes we would say, ‘let’s meet in the square,’ and someone would be watching. Or we would go to the forest to practice yoga and be followed by a jeep or bus. Often a stranger tried to join the group, as a spy.” Even today, like several people I interviewed, Gabor wanted to keep a low profile with the information he divulged.

Polish scholar Krzysztof Stec tells the sobering tale of Leon Cyboran, PhD, a philosopher who had translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra into Polish. He had also studied yogic techniques of mind and body control. Cyboran told Stec that the Polish Secret Service approached him on several occasions and asked him to teach them those techniques. Cyboran refused, so the Secret Service decided he would have an “accident,” Stec says. “Cyboran’s wife was told that he was dead, but by the time she went to identify the body, it was decomposed beyond recognition.” Apparently, the body wasn’t Cyboran’s at all; later, a KGB officer secretly confirmed to one of Cyboran’s students that they had kidnapped him, and were holding him. The fate of Cyboran is unknown.

Under the Radar
Even though yogis were persecuted in the USSR, there was a loophole: the Party was opposed only to yoga’s spiritual aspects. Because the ideal Socialist citizen was healthy and fit, the Party approved of yoga’s physical aspects and allowed asana to exist officially as a fitness activity. Retitled “relaxation and concentration exercises,” yoga postures remained alive in school gyms across the region. Says Karel Nespor, “teaching asanas was okay, but of the mantras, only Om was allowed. The strategy of the police was to keep yoga within certain limits, to keep control over it.”

Thus, yoga was smuggled into the USSR under the guise of a fitness exercise. Yoga groups were called “health groups,” Leonid Lanin says, “which was a code phrase for anything connected to forbidden things.” Police monitored Lanin’s health group, “looking into the windows to see what was going on.” Sometimes the teachers stayed within official boundaries, treating yoga as exercise, but they usually led meditations and discussed philosophy when they thought the police weren’t watching.

While others taught yoga secretly in basements, attics, and forests, one teacher took the opposite tactic. In the early ’70s, the Czechoslovak government invited Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, a yogi from Rajasthan, to lecture in Prague about the system he created, called Yoga in Daily Life (YDL). This opened the door for the Swami to be the first to openly spread an officially recognized yoga system throughout Central Europe, which he did by working with the regime. This system comprises eight progressive levels of asana, pranayama, and meditation, plus the paths of raja, jnana, karma, and bhakti yoga. “My aim was to help people in all of Europe,” recounts the bearded, orange-robed teacher. “People were poor in their inner way of life—broken, frustrated, needing a lot of help. I brought to them the divine message of my master (Paramhans Swami Madhavananda) and spoke about him.”

On Swami Maheshwarananda’s initial visit, the state provided him with security guards and hotel accommodations, but they also laid some ground rules. “They gave me three don’ts,” he says: “Don’t talk about politics; don’t talk about religion, God, or awakening; and don’t take any money or property out of the country.” He followed these guidelines, but he says he did not alter his spiritual message to please the government. “I spoke exactly as I do today,” he says. “I even taught mantras and pranayamas. I spoke openly, but not to provoke emotions in people.”

Occasionally, Swami Maheshwarananda encountered obstacles, like the time he held an unofficial satsang in Prague that drew more than 150 people. “The police arrived and took everyone’s ID and my passport. They told me that the meeting was against the law because it was not announced. They said, ‘Your visa is now valid for two hours. But don’t think we are throwing you out.’” However, the swami was granted another visa shortly thereafter and returned to continue his work.

Other than that, Swami Maheshwarananda had much better luck teaching yoga in the open than others did. He explains why. “I respected the principles of the police, their rules,” he says. Other teachers fought against them and spoke out against them. The police were always very open, clear, good friends. I had confidence in them; they had confidence in me. I would not say they were bad people. We had the same thought—to help poor people. Some of the secret police became my best students and are students even today.” Although some criticize the swami for working with the regime, others see his attitude toward the police as quintessentially yogic.

Yoga in Daily Life (YDL) soon became the most popular yoga system in the region, spreading through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Today YDL comprises about 80 centers, over a thousand teachers, and tens of thousands of followers in Central Europe.

When I discussed YDL with Gabor, he speculated that in Budapest the regime cooperated with Swami Maheshwarananda for its own benefit—to monitor the people involved. As he tells it, “Swami Maheshwarananda found a person with good connections in the Party” and asked permission to teach his system. “The Party said, ‘Yes, if we can control
the people who do this yoga.’ And the business started.”

Gabor remembers another example of the regime collaborating with spiritual teachers. He says that in the ’50s, a Party leader and his wife (a Buddhist woman from Mongolia) founded the Buddhist Mission College in Budapest. Gabor suspects their object was twofold: “They wanted to watch and control the people who studied there, and to use the school to weaken Catholicism. The school was illegal, but legal. Still, it was a very good opportunity for people who wanted to know more about spirituality.”

In another case of the regime supporting yoga, Dr. Olszewsky, a Polish Party leader (and a professor of physical education) started a yoga fitness camp on his parents’ farm to make some money on the side. Young Krzysztof Stec taught yoga at this camp. “Dr. Olszewsky was a powerful protector of yoga—it was good to have him on our side,” Stec says. “Of course we talked philosophy behind his back, but he never found out.” Stec also taught yoga to 65 people at a rehabilitation program attended by 1,300 students. “We were very, very careful not to use the word ‘yoga,’” he emphasizes.

In some countries, the situation was worse than in others. My research uncovered stories of intimidation and interrogation in the former Czechoslovakia and USSR, as well as in Hungary. However, I heard no such stories in Poland and the former Yugoslavia, where discreet practitioners were left alone.

The Curtain Lifts
In 1989, the world changed. Gorbachev’s policies had weakened the USSR’s grip on its neighbors and, largely by accident, left the folds of the Iron Curtain open just enough for angry citizens to storm through. The Berlin Wall crumbled, Hungary opened its border with Austria, and V·clav Havel announced the fall of Communism in Prague. One by one, the countries of Central Europe overthrew their Communist governments, with feeble resistance from Moscow. Finally, citizens could once again speak freely, practice religion, publish books.

1989 was the year Moscow opened the door to yoga. Its Ministry of Health and Sports invited the white-clad, barefooted B. K. S. Iyengar to lead a conference in an Orthodox Church outside Moscow. Word spread fast, and around 400 people attended. “For me,” says student Rimma Kozionova, “the most important thing about the conference was that it was official.” Students and teachers helped cook vegetarian meals for the guru since this kind of food was nearly impossible to find in restaurants.

This event inspired Muscovites to form their own Iyengar study groups. “After the conference,” Kozionova says, “we rented a space in a school for teaching classes.” For props, they improvised. “We used the belts we were wearing, brought blankets from home,” she says, “and sprayed water on the floor to make it sticky.”

Although restrictions on yoga were immediately lifted with the end of the regime, it would take time before yoga was truly accessible to prospective students. Just after the revolution, Vadász Ákos, a teenage yoga enthusiast in Budapest, tried Yoga in Daily Life but wanted a greater physical challenge. So he studied on his own with the best resource he could find—Iyengar’s classic Light on Yoga. “It was torture, because I didn’t know the basic preparations,” he says. “In utthita trikonasana, I tried to force my hand to the floor.” (The book, first published in 1965, doesn’t discuss props.) An injury sidelined Vadász until he met an American teacher who “whispered secrets like ‘lift your kneecap.’ That was a huge teaching.”

Then Vadász met Faeq Biria, a well-known Iyengar teacher based in France. “I decided I would learn from Faeq under any circumstance,” he says. Although they had to raise buckets of florin (Hungarian currency) to do so, Vadász and his girlfriend Örlós Erika attended Biria’s teacher-training course in France. Practicing for eight or nine hours daily during the 2003 heat wave that killed nearly 15,000 French people was agony, Vadász says. “We nearly died of yoga and of heat.” But the two Hungarians were hooked. American classmates gave them yoga mats, as yoga props were still not available in Hungary except through mail order.

When they returned home, Örlós had an idea. “Let’s start a center,” she urged Vadász. “This is a unique moment. The old systems are dying. New systems are starting to come. It’s a vacuum, an empty space. Someone who tries Ashtanga or Iyengar will never go back to Yoga in Daily Life.”

At the time there were no yoga centers in Budapest—yoga was relegated to “stinky, dirty gyms or schools,” Örlós explains. But finding the right meditative environment took months of searching. Finally, Vadász remembers, “after a huge suffering, we found a place in the heart of Budapest and bought it on credit.”

Though a couple for eight years, each lives with their families to save money. But their studio, Sz·rja, is beautifully appointed with Balinese sculptures, a mural of Patanjali and the words of his invocation, and a full complement of imported props. Before the studio’s grand opening, the couple put up billboard-size posters around town. “The first class was a big success—we couldn’t fit everyone in the room!” Vadász tells me. Today, they hold 21 classes per week and attract over 200 regular students. Vadász and Örlós have been willing to risk a lot for their mission to spread yoga in Hungary…and for their hope of making some florin along the way.

Today's Yoga Boom
Other dedicated yoga centers are springing up across Central Europe as the popularity of yoga swells. “I’m surprised at how successful our studio is after just one year,” says Monika Sorkov·, co-owner of the Prague studio Fit Joga. “We didn’t even advertise. But people come from all over the city for the classes, and our courses fill weeks before they start.”

Nava, a New York style Power Yoga studio in Zagreb, Croatia (once part of Yugoslavia), is also a success. Since Nava’s founding two years ago, its roster of regular students has grown to 800, says NYC trained teacher Sonja Rzepski, and many attend class five days a week. “I’ve been astounded by the students’ enthusiasm for yoga,” she says. “It’s a teacher’s dream.” Nava plans to open four franchise studios, in Croatia, Slovania, and Serbia (or, “around the region”) by next summer.

In Moscow, Elena Ulmasbaeva oversees three Iyengar centers that together draw an impressive 3,000 regular students, and Mikhail Konstantinov’s Ashtanga center boasts 500 students. In Poland, Iyengar is all the rage, and Ukraine has a strong Ashtanga and hatha scene led by well-known teachers Andrey Lappa and Andre Sidersky. Meanwhile, Yoga in Daily Life still reigns as the region’s most popular yoga system. But young and new students tend to choose Ashtanga and Power Yoga over YDL, and the influence of YDL is beginning to wane.

Is a great yoga boom arriving? Some say it’s about to hit; some say it’s already here. Now yoga books are plentiful and easy to find. “In the past five years, more yoga books have become available than we had in the past fifty,” observes Hungarian teacher Tˆrˆk Peter. “Yoga is getting into the mainstream.” Ads for yoga appear on billboards and in magazines, a sure sign of its assimilation into the popular culture.

As yoga’s popularity grows, certification standards are evolving. The European Yoga Federation recommends minimum certification requirements, but it’s up to each center to voluntarily follow these guidelines. Most teachers have obtained their country’s official Sport and Fitness Teaching certificate, but this training is considered a formality that doesn’t adequately prepare students. Teachers of specialized styles, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, or Bikram, must study abroad for extended periods to obtain official certification. And because study abroad is expensive for those making a Central European wage, some teachers are not certified even though they may be capable and experienced.

The True Yoga

Throughout the former Eastern Bloc, the questions of how much philosophy teachers should bring to class is part of a regional debate about the nature of “true” yoga. In one corner of the ring is Yoga for Daily Life, a meditative and relaxing practice in which serious students must practice selfless action (karma yoga) and accept Swami Maheshwarananda as their one guru. In the other corner are studios like Nava and Szúrja, which teach more physically challenging styles like Ashtanga and Iyengar, but shy away from discussing spiritual topics in class.

In my interviews, some yogis from each camp thought that the other style was “not yoga.” YDL followers and yoga scholars likened Ashtanga and Iyengar to “gym workouts,” and questioned whether yoga’s spiritual side is being eroded by their popularity. As Krzysztof Stec puts it, “Today, fewer people are interested in the deeper aspects of yoga; more are interested in the physical aspects.” On the other hand, Ashtanga practitioners characterized YDL classes as easy enough to bore students, and this could deter a serious pursuit of yoga. They insisted that both Ashtanga and Iyengar could be a gateway to the spiritual realm if the student chooses to pursue that path. But perhaps the most truly yogic response to this debate is acknowledging that it’s all the same yoga. As YDL nun Sadhvi Anubhav Puri says, “There is enough space for all the styles. Every school of yoga is good.”

Vadász Ákos offers his opinion on why his country needs yoga. “Hungary was spiritual before Communism. Then it was atheist. Now it’s materialistic. Now we have to find our original heart, our identity. Hungarians need spirituality. We’re just starting to find our way.”

Governments in Central Europe no longer discourage yogic activities. And as this region continues to pursue the yogic path, it will discover, challenge, reject, and finally embrace the many different traditions within the vast system of yoga.

Kristin Barendsen writes about yoga, travel, and the arts from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has also covered yoga stories in Eastern Europe, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa.

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