Officials in the central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk in the Tyumen region have banned municipal buildings from hosting yoga classes in an attempt to reduce the spread of religious cults.

At least two of the city’s yoga schools received letters from the authorities. The Aura and Ingara studios, which both rent space at the local sports stadium, were notified by letter that city officials planned to ban yoga classes in public buildings. Both schools teach Hatha yoga, a type of yoga that focusses both on physical exercises and deep breathing. The Ingara yoga studio was trying to prove that its courses were purely health-oriented. “We are gathering documents to prove that we are not some kind of sect,” a teacher said.

The letters were also sent to the relevant government departments. The first, sent by city deputy mayor Sergei Levkin, demanded that the head of social and youth policy for Nizhnevartovsk take all steps necessary to stop yoga lessons from taking place at the stadium. A second letter, sent to the heads of the departments for physical culture and education by the Office for Youth and Social Policy, describes Hatha yoga as having “an occult character” and being “inextricably linked to religious practices”.

However, a local news site has reported that the ban applies solely to yoga lessons for children and was sent only to institutions that offer such activities. According to this report, the city administration stated that yoga is not a sport, but a spiritual activity, and therefore conflicts with a law that educational activities must be secular in character.

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