Russian Yoga Teacher Acquitted of Proselytism Charges

January 30, 2017
Man practicing yoga

Earlier this month, a St. Petersburg court dropped charges accusing a yoga instructor of illegal missionary activity. Critics of Russia’s crackdown on proselytism see the case as an example of the law’s ambiguity and ineffectiveness.

44-year-old Russian computer programmer Dmitry Ugay was arrested at the St. Petersburg “Vedalife” festival on October 22, 2016. Ugay was 40 minutes into a presentation on the spiritual principles behind the practice of yoga when police apprehended him on stage.  

Ugay was transported to a local police station and told to sign a confession on a blank page. After refusing to confess, he was released.

Ugay was arrested under new legislation intended to ward against radicalization and religious extremism in the North Caucasus of Russia. The Yarovaya law, named for its author Irina Yarovaya, prohibits any individuals from proselytizing outside of registered houses of worship or approved missionary organizations. Recently, the law was invoked against the Salvation Army for failing to label Bibles as religious literature. 36 Bibles were confiscated and destroyed, and the Salvation Army was charged a fine, The Guardian reported.

In his presentation, Ugay told his audience that “in a way…yoga merges with religion.” He continued, “And in fact it’s been that way since the beginning, because the root of ‘yoga,’ which means ‘connection,’ carries the same meaning as the Latin words ‘religare’ or ‘religion,’ that is, a person who goes the way of yoga communicates with God.”

Ugay identifies as a practitioner of Hinduism, but asserted that his presentation at the festival drew on “publications that are used in all universities where they study Indian philosophy.”

“I did not name a single religious organisation in the speech, nor did I use a single religious book, and did not name a single religious figure apart from Christ and Buddha,” Ugay said.

In a blog post, Ugay wrote that his arrest highlights “the complete arbitrariness of this law, which can lead to the persecution of my many fellow citizens who practice yoga and study Indian philosophy.”

The St. Petersburg court that acquitted Ugay ruled that the case was closed “due to the absence of any administrative offense,” The Moscow Times reported. Still, critics of the law worry that experiences like Ugay’s will become increasingly common under the new legislation.

Calling the law an “outrageous provision to free speech, privacy, [and] freedom of conscience,” Human Rights Watch’s Tanya Lokshina called for further evaluation of enforcers’ “compliance with basic human rights protections.”  

The practice of yoga is extremely popular in Russia. In 2007, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev garnered a devoted following after announcing, “Little by little, I’m mastering yoga.”

In July of 2015, the Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk attempted to ban the practice of yoga altogether, citing its rising popularity as a sign of its potential to “spread new religious cults and movements.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Yoga. Photo by Oleg Klementiev, Flickr Creative Commons.