Escaping Persecution: The Journey from Russia to Ananda
Having been born in Russia in 1941, persecution and the fear of persecution were realities in my life for many years. When my family applied for permission to emigrate to the United States in 1979 and were refused, we became “refuseniks,” a persecuted group. Those who applied to leave Russia were considered to have betrayed the country. Our situation became even more precarious when I became a yoga teacher at a time when teaching yoga was punishable by imprisonment.
Anti-Semitism and violations of human rights
Being Jewish, I became aware of persecution at a young age. Anti-Semitism and violations of human rights were widespread in Russia until the late 1980s. While attending a teachers college in the 1960s I found a job as a junior editor on a journal published by the Communist Party. I was fired after a few months when it became known that I was Jewish. After completing my studies for a Master’s degree in Psychology at Moscow University in 1972, I found work as a psychologist at a research institute. Two years later I was fired due to opposition to having Jews on staff.
In the mid-1970s, there was a great need for psychologists in many areas, but each time I applied for a job I was turned down. During the sixteen years between 1972 and 1988, when my family received permission to emigrate to the United States, I was able to find work as a psychologist for a total of only four years.
A prayer for a spiritual teacher
In the first decades of Soviet power, the government destroyed churches and persecuted priests and other religious people. Many people had to hide their religious affiliations. Nonetheless, as a university student, I was already consciously seeking God. I felt strongly that a spiritual power existed. I tried to “talk” to God by asking for help or thanking Him for everything I had, and even for what I didn’t have. In those moments I sometimes experienced great love and joy and I felt that God really “heard” me.
At the same time, I saw around me a lot of injustice and people suffering from a lack of understanding and love. I had many questions: If God is all-powerful, why did people have to suffer so much? Intuitively I felt I needed a spiritual teacher to answer my questions and to teach me how to experience God. I prayed that God help me find a spiritual teacher.
Teaching hatha yoga as a “health class”
In 1968, when I was 27 years old, I suffered from severe asthma was often confined to bed. My mother had learned about yoga from her hairdresser, who told her that yoga was good for one’s health. At my mother’s request, her hairdresser agreed to take me to her next yoga class.
From the very first class I felt that the path of yoga was mine, even though the teacher taught none of the spiritual aspects of yoga, only hatha yoga. Under the influence of these classes I changed my diet, fasted once a week, and gradually became a vegetarian. I became stronger physically and emotionally. A year later many of my health problems had disappeared.
The teacher, who had discovered yoga while traveling in India as a journalist, often gave us articles about yoga which he had translated. Reading this literature increased my desire to go deeper into the yoga science, especially the spiritual aspects.
My yoga teacher is arrested
However, in circulating information about yoga, the teacher took a great risk. Yoga was considered foreign propaganda because it taught that true freedom was spiritual, not political. Teaching yoga was strictly prohibited and yoga teachers were persecuted and often imprisoned. Even the word “yoga” could not be used. There were many articles in the press describing yoga as “dangerous” and depicting instances of people who had been “damaged” by yoga. Since many people were looking for non-traditional ways to improve their heath, the teacher’s solution was to describe his classes as “health classes.”
I had been attending these classes for about two years when three men in dark suits appeared one day and arrested our teacher. Everyone knew that someone from the class had betrayed him by reporting him to the KGB. Witnessing my teacher’s arrest filled me with fear. The students were too afraid to comment or even to look at one another. Later we learned that the teacher had been arrested for distributing the yoga literature he had translated.
I find my spiritual teacher
Two years later, I found a new hatha yoga group with a good teacher with whom I studied for the next five years. This teacher also taught only hatha yoga; I still yearned to study the deeper, spiritual aspects of yoga.
In 1979, while my husband and I attended a farewell party for one of our friends who had received permission to go to America, I met Joseph Berkovich, who would eventually become my spiritual teacher. I told him about my seven years of practicing hatha yoga, and he invited me to his yoga class. Officially Joseph taught only hatha yoga to a small group of students. After I’d studied with him for a while, I explained my interest in the spiritual aspects of yoga and asked him to guide me on the spiritual path.
In private sessions, Joseph began to guide me in the theory and practice of spiritual yoga and to deepen my understanding of the path of Self-realization. From Joseph I learned the Hong Sau and AUM techniques of meditation, and how to use affirmations, visualizations, and healing techniques. He helped me understand the subtle inner world of intuition and how to meditate on the different aspects of God.
Through Joseph I first learned of Paramhansa Yogananda, whom Joseph described as his “spiritual master.” In 1982 Joseph gave me Autobiography of Yogi to read. The book had been translated from English to Russian and typewritten. Books like these were still prohibited and Joseph asked me do not to show it to anyone.
One day Joseph showed me a magazine in English published at the Ananda community in America, in California. He had translated all the articles himself word by word. He said, “You cannot imagine how much joy fills my heart when I read articles in this magazine.” At that time it seemed an impossible dream that I might some day visit Ananda.
The beginning of a long and painful wait
In 1979, my family (my husband, myself, our two daughters, and my father) applied for permission to leave Russia. We were refused permission because my father was a scientist and hydro-geologist who had once worked in the field of diamond mining, which was considered secret work. We were told that because of my father’s knowledge, it would be dangerous to Russia for the rest of us to be allowed to leave the country.
Thus began our long and painful wait. During this period, our life was a mixture of uncertainty and fear of arrest, combined with the will and determination to overcome all difficulties. Because we had applied to leave Russia, my husband and I were now considered “passive dissidents,” and he and I, and my father, were immediately fired from our jobs. I had been working as a psychotherapist in a psychiatric hospital, my husband as a patent engineer, and my father as a professor of hydrogeology in a scientific research institute. From then on, we lived under the surveillance of the KGB.
Teaching yoga “under the table”
After losing our jobs, and at great risk, we had to work “under the table” simply to survive. My husband worked as a translator of technical literature from English to Russian and my father received a small retirement pension. Joseph suggested that I teach yoga in my home and, with his guidance, I put together a two-year yoga program. I selected students only on the recommendation of people I knew and trusted.
My intuition always helped me in choosing students. Once a young man came and told me he wanted to join a yoga group but I felt insincerity in his voice. When I asked how he had learned about me he said it was “irrelevant,” that he just wanted to know yoga. From the way he questioned me about yoga and what I taught, I felt he was a KGB agent. Eventually he left and never came back.
After three months, I was teaching five small yoga groups each week with 5-6 students in a group. I felt a deep fulfillment in being able to help people not only to improve their physical health, but also to achieve inner peace through meditation.
Attempts to entrap and intimidate her
Persecution of yoga teachers continued until the late 1980s, and information about the “bad tricks” of the KGB spread fast among dissidents and those of us who had been refused permission to emigrate. We were advised not to allow a policeman to enter our apartments. To arrest someone a policeman usually came with one or two “helpers.” One of my close friends had recently been arrested for teaching yoga and sent to prison in Siberia for two years.
One evening when I was holding a class in my apartment, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door I saw a policeman with another man, but I did not let them in. The policeman asked whether I was working. Barely controlling my fear, I told him that under the Soviet constitution, as the mother of a small child, I had the right to stay at home. Nonetheless, he insisted that I was obliged to find work and gave me one month to find a job, saying he would return and check.
We applied five more times for permission to leave Russia but were refused each time until 1988 when French president Francois Mitterrand visited Russia and met with Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then head of Russia. Mitterrand presented Gorbachev with a list of 100 Jewish dissidents and “refuseniks” who wanted to leave Russia. Our names were on the list. Senator Edward Kennedy and other activists were also fighting for our right to leave Russia. Finally, at the end of 1988, after nearly 10 years of waiting, we received permission to leave Russia . We will be ever grateful to all the people who helped us.
An impossible dream fulfilled
Upon arriving in America, we became affiliated with an Ananda meditation group on the North Shore of Boston and later with the Ananda Rhode Island Center. Fulfilling an “impossible” dream, in the mid-1990s my daughter and I visited Ananda Village, where I received discipleship initiation and, a few years later, initiation into Kriya Yoga.
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Threads of Fate.
Anna Shapiro has been living in America since 1988. She worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist for 10 years at the Jewish Family Service North of Boston, and also taught yoga for 22 years. Currently she is retired but continues teaching yoga to the elderly. Her book, Threads of Fate, was published in Russian and is not being prepared for publication in English. She lives in Beverly, MA with he husband Mark. She has one daughter and enjoys spending time with her two grandchildren.
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