The yoga of the Ukraine

We’re all fairly familiar with the history of yoga asana, right? How it combined traditional Indian practices with European gymnastics some 125 or so years ago, an effort in part to rally against British colonialism.

So this sounds familiar:

But in 1985, as Pilat tells it, he made a discovery. He was watching a traditional Ukrainian dance called “the hopak,” the dance Americans probably think of as Russian, where men squat and kick their legs to the side.

Traditionally, Hopak was a Cossack victory dance. In the jumps, the men’s legs are out-stretched. They could almost be a kick. Or at least that’s what Pilat saw – a hidden Cossack martial art.

For two years, Pilat says, he developed fighting hopak alone. Then he began to recruit teachers all over Ukraine. In the 20 years since, hopak has become hugely popular. It’s taught in schools as part of physical education. The goal was to create a sport and cultivate national pride.

In a pastel blue middle school gym in the suburbs, 13 boys kneel facing their teacher. Every fighting hopak class starts the same. With a shout, “Glory to Ukraine.”

Then the class prays. And sings a traditional Ukrainian song.

I can’t help thinking about Western yogis seeing ancient drawings or temple carvings and thinking, “That looks like dancing.”

In the case of this Ukrainian martial arts, that notion of rallying against colonialism may go a step further: There is debate about whether it is wrapped up in a far-right nationalist party. At the same time, people say that fighting hopak helped Ukraine develop as a nation.

Again, that sounds sort of familiar.

And, yes, there are hopak studios popping up in places such as Chicago. Some even want it to become an Olympic sport!

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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