While there are many things to fear within the walls of a Russian prison, yoga doesn’t instantly spring to mind. And yet last month, at two separate detention centres in Moscow, Russian authorities suspended kundalini yoga classes over fears that the practice might disrupt the peace. More specifically: a religious scholar and a conservative lawmaker were concerned that yoga could be making inmates gay, and that this could lead to prison riots.
Local newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets cites a letter that Professor Alexander Dvorkin, considered the country's main expert on sectarianism, sent to Senator Elena Mizulina, a member of Russia's upper house of parliament. The letter reportedly declares that “Yoga poses cause uncontrolled sexual arousal, which will lead to homosexuality behind bars.”
Dvorkin has since claimed his words were taken out of context, and accused the journalist who quoted him of a conflict of interest, according to the The Moscow Times, while Mizulina has dismissed the story as "fake news". In any case, Radio Free Europe—a corporation supervised by the U.S. Agency for Global Media—reports that the letter was ultimately issued to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, imploring him to investigate the legality of the yoga classes and warning of unrest across the prison system if the practice continued. A major fear seemed to be that yoga—offered mainly to inmates who were working in catering—would turn prisoners into homosexuals, and that fellow prisoners unwilling to "take slop from the hands of gays" would then incite hunger strikes and riots.
As a result of that letter, classes were suspended. But prison authorities have since decided to resume their prison yoga initiative, citing health benefits as a reason to continue with the therapeutic, if slightly sexy, practice. Valery Maksimenko, deputy head of the Federal Penitentiary Service, told Govorit Moskva that “Classes will remain. We conducted a study, and among those people who practiced yoga, [there was] a sharp reduction in visits to doctors for help. This is a very positive effect… [and] there are prerequisites to extend them to other institutions. Not only in Moscow, but throughout the country.”
Maksimenko went on to label Dvorkin a pseudo-healer and a "strange person," and firmly denounced the claim that yoga causes homosexuality. "This comrade has an archaic view of the world,” he said. “We live in a democratic country, and people can do what they want within the law.”
He also flagged that, in light of the success of the yoga classes, the prisons are now looking to introduce additional classes in qigong: a practice that involves slow movements and coordinated breathing.
"The whole world is doing this, and it's caused no one any harm,” he said. “And it's not going to make anyone gay. But even if it does, we have democracy in our country and everyone has the right to choose their own way.
“There is no article for homosexuality. And to those people who call for it, you need to take a good look at yourself.”
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