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A man is on trial in Russia — for talking about yoga

Yoga is popular around the world. But it might have to get less popular in Russia now. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

Dmitry Ugai sat cross-legged on the floor. Behind him were paper flowers and a couple of house plants. He wore a brown cable-knit sweater and spoke into a microphone that kept shorting out. He was addressing a small audience at a health and wellness festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, about yoga.

“In a sense, we can say that yoga merges with religion,” Ugai told conference goers. “And in fact it’s been that way since the beginning, because the root word of ‘yoga,’ which means ‘connection,’ carries the same meaning as the Latin words ‘religare’ or ‘religion,’ that is, a person who goes the way of yoga communicates with God.”

Ugai, who spoke generally about the spiritual aspects of yoga, often looked at the floor as he spoke. He stuttered occasionally. He brought up famous Russian authors Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky in his speech. He didn’t appear to be attempting to convince anyone to abandon their current religious beliefs to join some sort of advanced yoga cult, but that’s now how the Russian authorities saw it.

Forty minutes into the talk, which Ugai described on a Russian blog as a primer on “yoga philosophy and ethics,” police entered the room to arrest him.

“There were about six or seven police officers,” he wrote.

While some approached him, others started poking around the rest of the festival, “checking documents and looking for the organizers, who were nervous,” he wrote.

“Pretty rudely, they asked me to come with them,” he continued. “At first, being rude and pushy, they wanted to take me away without my jacket. They were counting on intimidating me, so I couldn’t get a grip on myself.”

A lawyer who happened to be at the festival helped to diffuse the situation slightly, Ugai wrote, but he couldn’t stop police from taking him into custody.

Once at the police station, Ugai said detectives attempted to get him to sign a confession for engaging in “illegal missionary work.”

“It was the height of absurdity,” he wrote, adding that he did not sign on the advice of his lawyer — the same one he met by chance at the festival. He was later released, but now has to stand trial on Monday.

The prosecution will argue that Ugai violated what’s known as the “Yarovaya laws,” the Moscow Times reports. Named after their chief legislative sponsor Irina Yarovaya, the laws were passed last summer in an effort to curb Islamic militant activity in Russia’s North Caucasus territories.

What they’re really doing however, is making it practically illegal to speak publicly about anything pertaining to spirituality or religion unless you’ve registered with authorities as a representative of an approved missionary group.

Since the laws have passed, officials have invoked the law to bizarrely crack down on seemingly benign situations. In August, for example, a Hare Krishna devotee nearly went to jail when he was arrested after talking to two people on a street corner about his faith, the Moscow Times reports.

The newspaper added that last month, police ordered employees of the Salvation Army to burn dozens of Bibles because they weren’t labeled properly.

Ugai’s situation, however, might be the most random because he wasn’t proselytizing about a religion, but an activity.

“I am concerned about the complete arbitrariness of this law, which can lead to the persecution of my many fellow citizens who practice yoga and study Indian philosophy,” Ugai wrote in his blog. “There are signs that there’s a campaign unfolding against an entire culture . . . The level of delusion is clearly off the charts.”