President-elect may turn Russia on its head – literally

If this trend continues, the country will soon be standing on its head.

President-elect Dmitri Medvedev has joined the thousands of Russians eager to learn the ancient Indian art of yoga.

“Little by little, I’m mastering yoga,” Medvedev said in an April 2007 interview with Itogi, a weekly magazine.

Yoga, he explained, helped him relax from the stress of work.

“You get enormous experience from working on the realization of the national projects, but the responsibility is huge,” he said. “To prevent headaches, I needed to practice sports more intensively than before.”

Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Zhanna Odintsova, said the president-elect was unavailable for an interview about yoga. But the Trud newspaper reported that Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana, convinced him to take up yoga.

It appears that after one year, Medvedev has made huge progress in developing his yoga skills, having mastered shirshasana, the headstand pose also called also the “king of asanas” because of its positive effect on the entire body.

“I can even stay on my head,” he told the magazine Tainy Zvyozd last month.

There are dozens of different yoga schools, and it is unclear whether the president-elect practices the challenging Iyengar, or Ashtanga, yoga or the more meditative Kundalini yoga.

Prohibited during the Soviet era due to its connection with Hindu religious practices, yoga is becoming more and more popular in Russia. Yoga centers are opening every month in Moscow, and if Medvedev continues the tradition of his predecessors, Russia’s yoga craze is likely to intensify, a White House official said.

“The past two presidents have launched the tennis and judo trends,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “If Dmitri Anatolevich is fond of yoga, we will soon have more yoga schools than India. This is how things work in Russia. If the head of the state has a hobby, it will become the hobby of the nation.”

Boris Yeltsin, a former president, started playing tennis to combat stress and developed the habit of playing three times a week. Under Yeltsin, tennis – which enjoyed little popularity in the Soviet Union – received generous funding.

It was under Yeltsin that Russia began producing a steady stream of world-class men and women’s tennis players. Yeltsin was so fond of tennis that he appointed Shamil Tarpishev, the long-serving Soviet Davis Cup captain, as his personal coach and gave him an office in the Kremlin.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia learned to appreciate martial arts. Putin, a judo black belt who is known among his fellow judo club members for his haraigoshi, or wicked sweeping leg throw, began studying judo at 14. Last year, Putin and Yasuhiro Yamashita, a world judo champion from Japan, made an instructional video together.

During Putin’s time in office, judo has become increasingly popular, and judo competitions and documentaries are frequently shown on television.

“Now the federal television channels show the European and world championships, even if they are usually broadcast very late,” said Roman Karasyov, head of the Association of Amateur and Professional Judo Clubs.

Khatuna Kobiashvili, the publisher of Yoga Journal Russia, estimated that at least 100,000 people regularly practice yoga in Russia. The magazine – published by The Moscow Times’ parent company, Independent Media Sanoma Magazines – sells 55,000 copies a month nationwide, she said. “If we sell this much, this means people are practicing yoga,” Kobiashvili said.

Asked whether he would start taking yoga classes out of respect for the new president, the White House official laughed and said he would think about it. “You need to be very flexible for this kind of sport,” he said, “We’ll see what the future holds for us.”

Medvedev is an avid sportsman and enjoys swimming in addition to yoga, Odintsova, his spokeswoman, said.