Photo curtesy of Ilya Zhuravlev

This morning I found a long-waited for email – an Interview with the prominent and well-respected Russian Yoga Teacher Ilya Zhuravlev, one of the few very experienced and super knowledgeable Yoga Masters that Russia has to offer.

Ilya Zhuravlev has been on the yoga path for about 25 years, starting his journey at the Indian Embassy with a traditional Indian Teacher who taught him the path in the context of the Indian philosophy and ideas of spirituality. Since 2001, Ilya has been to India numerous times and has expanded on the long list of the yoga masters that influenced and inspired him, in the traditions of Dhirendra Brahmachari, Vinyasa Krama yoga of Shri T. Krishnamacharya, and Shivananda yoga, among others.

Ilya Zhuravlel comes from a background of Philosophy Studies and is passionate about connecting Traditional Yogic ideas about the Mind and Consciousness with the newest research in Psychology and Neuroscience. In that sense, we share out passion for philosophy, psychology, and making connection between tradition yoga and science, ancient and modern. And to me, Ilya Zhuravlev’s message is this: develop your mind, and everything else will follow – hence, the title of the interview.

Q: When and how did you first come in contact with yoga? What hooked you?

A: Most of the people comes to yoga to improve their health but in my case I came from the other side – I am MA in Philosophy and studied Indian Philosophy at the University, so after reading ancient scriptures about yoga – Upanishads and Yoga Sutra, I decided to try yoga practically. That time, in the mid 90-s, there were not so many yoga places in Moscow, probably about 4-5 (nowadays there are more than 500 yoga studios in Moscow), but I found yoga classes in the Indian Embassy: they had an Indian teacher who taught traditional yoga (he was from Bangalore Yoga Institute, SVYASA). He taught not only asana, but pranayama, meditation, mantras, philosophy and even explained to us how to cook vegetarian food. I am happy that I started from an authentic approach with him, his name by the way was Shri Jayakumar Swameeshre. He is still teaching in his hometown Mysore, Karnataka. So, I started practicing yoga in Moscow in 1995, and in 2001 I went to India for the first time, continued my studies in Delhi Yoga Institute (Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari lineage), afterwards – in Mysore (Ashtanga Vinyasa), and then in Shivananda Yoga Vedanta ashram in Kerala and so on.

Photo curtesy of Ilya Zhuravlev

Q: According to your experiences and understandings, why do we practice yoga?

A: There are different goals for different people as well as different levels of understanding and practicing yoga. Everyone can get from yoga what he/she needs. Most of the people nowadays practice for the physical aspects of yoga, like for health therapy or for fitness. Some people are interested in yoga as a path of spiritual development – its more rare but also possible, [the more spiritual tradition can be found] not only in India but in some yoga schools in the West. The original goal of the yoga practice (as it was developed in ancient India) is Self-Realization: an experience of the self as an immortal soul who has a physical body only as temporary cloth – this is not a secret, but not all yoga fans are interested to listen about that:-)

Q: Do Russian people practice yoga differently? In your experience traveling and teaching in many places around the world, what would you say the Russians do different when it comes to yoga?

A: From the Soviet time, the Russian society had more economical and political hardships than in the West. People who need to survive in harsh environment develop such qualities as will power [desire to survive no matter what] and tolerance to less comfort and so on. So in 90-s, Russians liked hardcore yoga practice, the yoga students then were ready to work hard and did not care about the comfort of the body. They also have more interest in the spiritual and mystical aspects of yoga: when you suffer in your ordinary life – you think about spirituality more. In that sense, I don’t think that the Maslow Pyramid is the only one working model (the famous psychologist Maslow created a model of people’s needs and goals, and he thought that only when the people satisfied their material needs they would start to think about the spiritual ones). Nowadays, the economical situation in Russia is much better and I see that the new generation of Russian yoga students became more like in the Western – they need yoga  for”fun”. But we can find in Russia also the “medical wing” – people who studied yoga seriously from the medical point of view (therapists) and the “spiritual wing” – people who are attracted by the Indian tradition, spend a lot of time in India, visiting ashrams, studying Sanskrit and the Scriptures, initiated into some lineages of Hinduism etc.

Photo curtesy of Ilya Zhuravlev

Q: Why do you think the Russian perspective on yoga could be especially interesting for Westerners and the Europeans in particular? How could this cultural exchange enrich the international yoga community, in your opinion?

A: I can not say about Russian perspective in general, because as I said, different groups approach yoga differently. However,  there are maybe about 10-12 very experienced and interesting yoga teachers in Russia (and Ukraine), who could easily have had an International fame because of their knowledge and skills. Some of them are medical doctors and have vast experience in yoga therapy, curing people in such cases where ordinary doctors could not help, some teachers developed their unique and deep methods of asana practice, some of them can transmit an Indian tradition and an authentic spirit of yoga to the Western mind because they are European people who went deeply into the Indian spirituality. But most of such teachers are not interested to teach in the West – they are pretty busy in Russia: with a lot of classes and workshops, big training halls that are full of people – so not enough motivation to teach abroad. And also there is a lack of  invitations because the people in the Western yoga scene do not know about them. Also some of them are not fluent in English.

Q: What are in your opinion the future developments in the world of yoga? What trends and new directions do you see the community taking? What are the challenges posed by the modern yoga today?

A: Look at what happened to yoga in the West. There is a “yoga market” with “Instagram yoga stars” who are looking nice on pictures and have millions of followers but in reality not all of them have good teaching skills and deep experience in yoga, probably only skills in gymnastic and an access to a good photographer. This is what I call “yoga show business” level, maybe the most popular one [at the moment]. For some people, this could be the gate to develop an interest for a more authentic yoga, some people will stay at this level their whole life. Actually, the goals of “show business yoga” are very far from the goals of the original yoga, probably even the opposite. This is the irony of the modern life. But there are different levels available – if a person is truly interested – he/she can find something more than pictures of cool girls and boys in asanas. Everything is possible if you really need it. Probably its good to have so many different “yogas” nowadays, because it challenges for mind to find the real one:-)

Photo curtesy of Ilya Zhuravlev

Q: What is your favorite yoga practice these days and why? What do you find particularly valuable out of the yogic toolbox for an every day, stressed out, overworked and over-stimulated modern human being?

A: According to the traditional yogic approach, the practice of the asanas is only a preparation of the body for the practice of pranayama and meditation, so nowadays I spend more time on pranayamas and dhyana than on asanas, also on mantras and gyana yoga (studying yogic scriptures). To my students, I try to give all aspects of yoga which I know and have studied with my Indian teachers – suksma vyyayam (yogic dynamical exercises), asanas, pranayamas, meditation and concentration, mantras and the philosophy. My hatha yoga approach is based on the yoga schools of Dhirendra Brahmachari, Vinyasa Krama yoga of Shri T. Krishnamacharya and also Shivananda yoga. Also I am interested in psychotherapy and transpersonal psychology, and I am a certified hypnotherapist, past life regression therapist (by method of Michael Newton) and I find it very interesting to compare the knowledge about the mind which we can find in the ancient scriptures and the research from modern psychology. So I use some techniques of psychotherapy together with the yogic practices and find it very useful for stress release and for the development of the abilities of our mind.

Final notes:

We’re really grateful for this interview and happy to partner up with Ilya Zhuravlev via his project “Wild Yogi“. We’re also seriously considering of bringing Ilya to the Berlin Yoga Conference 2020 edition, so please let us know if you’re excited about learning from him so that we make this possible.