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Thursday, 21 December 2006

Yoga Madness in Crimea, Ukraine

Written by Antonina Okinina
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yogaIt was the end of the June when I packed my knapsack to leave for Crimea, Ukraine. The knapsack was about to burst open because of my sleeping-bag, tent, and a percussion drum (I still don’t understand what evil forces made me pack it).


It was my fiancé who told me we had a chance to get into an annual international conference of ‘YOGA’ magazine. My fiancé is a yoga teacher himself, so it was almost a point of honor for him to widen his experience by attending this conference and practicing with his colleagues. As for me, I was just another yoga amateur, so I could hardly help myself from rolling my eyes when I heard his enthusiastic words of “yoga conference” and “contact with yoga adherents”. My dream was to spend a vacation in solitude practicing yoga away from experienced eyes. Though my dream didn’t come true, I’m now pleased that I’ve had the experience.

After all I’ve seen and experienced in July of 2006, I’d say that Crimea seems to be a giant magnet that steadily draws people who are interested in spiritual and physical practice. Crimea is not only a place of unique beauty; it’s a place of Power. That’s what numerous spiritual pilgrims believe.

For several years, a small cute settlement called Simeiz (“sign” from Greek) has been picked as a location for the ‘YOGA’ magazine conference. In fact, it is a Kaciveli-village (this word probably comes from Turkish or Georgian, it means “wild man”) that was always a place for yoga followers’ sympathy. Both of the settlements are situated on the southern coast of Crimea, separated by the Cat Mountain. (The name for the mountain is really well suited, because it looks exactly like a cat’s silhouette).


The conference involved followers and renowned teachers of the world, but mostly from the post-Soviet area (Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, and Belarus). I’ll never forget Reinharg Gammenthaller, Swiss, an adherent of Dhirenda Brahmachari, who came to Crimea this year and who amused (or shocked, maybe) Crimean inhabitant and holiday-makers with his unusually tattooed body. It was he who called Crimea “a little heaven” because of the combination of sea and mountains. yoga

Slavic instructors at the conference prove their professionalism in yoga by years and years of experience, and often are the winners of World Yoga Championship; in short, they are people with a deep understanding of yoga. Some of the names are Andrey Sidersky (Ukraine), Leonid Gartsenshtein (Moldova), Andrey Lappa (Ukraine).

The formal aspect of the conference took place in lectures and seminars that were notable for the distinct way of teaching that is inherent in Slavic instructors. I suppose this way can be explained as mixing traditional yoga methods with personal, intuitive interpretations, and also introducing some of the other eastern teachings (such as Tai Chi Chuan and Zigong, for example) into yoga practice.mountains

But there was also an informal aspect of the conference that I found to be very amusing in many ways. I’d love to speak about all these things, but it would make the story enormously long, so I’ll decide on the most memorable parts.

The Tent-Camp. During the conference some of the participants rented rooms and houses in Kaciveli and Simeiz, which is not difficult to arrange for $10-50 per day. However, many of the conferees preferred to stay at the tent-camp. The camp is usually set up on the hill’s patch over the sea shore, in Kaciveli. It’s one of the best (well, relatively the best) places on the Kaciveli shore for a camp settlement, so before the conference started –it all had already been taken.


Camping is ascetic, camp residents have to deal with hot sun that makes staying in the tent during the day-time unbearable, with uncomfortable sleep (hills are not the perfect place for sleeping) interrupted by hedgehogs’ and vipers’ scurrying in the night. There are also problems with drinking water and firewood, not to mention the problem with the garbage dump that was spontaneously organized by holidaymakers right near the camp.


Against all the odds, a lot of practicing people found it wonderful to live near the see in these wild conditions. Some of them lived in the camp with their babies; some came only with sleeping bags and spent their nights on shingle beaches. Together, we created some kind of unofficial yoga community, my favorite part of which was tea-time.

Tea-Time. Tea-time was a great daily event; it started at about 8 or 9 p.m. and continued as long as there were at least two people able to stay awake (11p.m. – 2 a.m.). Tea-time required long and thorough preparations because of lack of water and firewood. A campfire was usually put up with cones and mayonnaise and that always made me laugh, because smoke was terribly smelly.

It took a painfully long time to bring the big pot of water to a boil. While waiting, tent-campers gathered around the fire and talked about their experience at the lectures and seminars, their traveling experience in Crimea and other places, their spiritual growth and learning about other ancient teachings, about yoga in real life, the mental practice and philosophy, and a lot of other amusing subjects. It seemed that yoga was everywhere and it was like getting a deeper view of life.

We made tea of Crimean herbage, but after Roman, a Moscow Taikwando coach came to the camp in order to visit the yoga-seminar (“to touch yoga” as he called it) things have changed. He appeared to be a unique tea-fan and he probably bought out all the Moscow teahouses before leaving for Crimea. He declared “tea-madness” and every evening, put great deal of Chinese highest-quality tea in a sooty pot. It was one of the funniest examples of tea and money wasting I’ve ever known, because of the result: the high-quality tea always tasted of cones and mayonnaise.

Yoga on the Seashore. seaOne of the much-loved Kaciveli features is long shoreline. The beaches nearest to Kaciveli are civil ones; though they are vastly occupied by holidaymakers. Yogis and yoginis preferred the remote end of the shoreline: huge plates crashing into the sea. The plates are convenient for individual practicing, so from dawn till dusk you could find yoga adherents frozen in intricate asanas. An interesting detail, while practicing along the shore, they usually stay completely unclothed. Beachfront atmosphere in Kaciveli is very liberated (unlike Simeiz), and a great part of holidaymakers are nudes. Now it’s even hard to figure out if it were the yogis who made it so liberate or if it was Kaciveli that influenced yogis in this bareness question.

Full Moon Party. It was huge blood-red moon that rose upon the Kaciveli shore and made us grab our percussion drums (that’s when my time came) and arrange a full moon party. Unpretentious and calm, it was a party with drum playing and guttural vocals on the beach. It’s hard to say anything more.

crimeaAcross Crimea. The formal part of the conference usually lasts one week. But many of yoga adherents, especially tent inhabitants, stay in Crimea much longer. After conference is over, they leave Kaciveli and go to the Crimean Mountains not only for traveling, but also for practicing in the wilderness (well, place of Power after all). I liked the idea and joined a small group that was heading to the cave-towns of Eski-Kermen, where we visited mountain monasteries and performed some yoga and Zigong practice. Afterwards, my companion and I left the group to explore the Grand Canyon of Crimea.

The Canyon. The Grand Canyon of Crimea is something like a huge tectonic crack through which the mountain river Auzun-Uzen bears its waters. The narrow part of the canyon is about 3 km long, so you could walk right through it just for a day. Actually, to do that you’ll have to climb cliffs or walk waist-deep in the freezing water. And while doing that, you’ll be under the threat of slipping into the flows of Auzun-Yzen and under the threat on stone-fall and even tree-fall.

The narrowest part of the Grand Canyon of Crimea is about 2 meters, while the deepest point is above 300 meters. It means that even during a summer day, straight sunlight shines only from late morning until early evening. After 9 p.m. I found that electric torch was out of use because it lit only the darkness I was drowned in. Theoretically, I was standing in the open place, so I couldn’t believe that there was any difference in sight with open or closed eyes– the darkness was perfect.

It’s time to say that the Grand Canyon of Crimea is like two-faced Janus: one face at night, another in the daytime; one face in arid season and opposite then the weather is wet and rainy. I haven’t seen the canyon in autumn or spring, but those who’d been there and seen it assured me that the flow grows really strong and furious and the “crack” becomes impassable. Still, there are a lot of stories of those who put their fortunes to the test and some of them were drowned by the fierce waters of Auzun-Yzen.


There was an old oak-tree with a huge hollow in it at the eastern end of the canyon where most of the tourists started their hiking route. The tradition was to put letters inside it (because of this the tree was called “mail-oak”). No wonder that most of letters were wishes of coming back alive.

But let’s concentrate on things you’d see as a prudent tourist traveling in the dry season. The first thing that amused me was that the length of “horrible” Auzun-Yzen was parched (by the way, it’s only several meters wide). I was walking on the reddish river’s bottom covered with small and giant dents – the evidence of the mighty spring flow. Sometimes dents were full with stagnant water. Numerous lizards were scattering away from my feet. canyon

The other unexpected thing was the amount of tourist groups. Apparently, four years ago it was hard to meet anyone in the canyon- now it stays crowded from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summertime. There is also an open-air snack bar, but again, only in summer. There you can find a small range of dishes of Tatar cuisine and, of course, homemade Crimea wine (it’s worth tasting). The meals were cooked, served and sold by four Tatars from the nearest village – Sokolinoe (“Falcon’s”). Those four people served the whole enormous crowd and it was painful to look into their exhausted eyes. One Tatar woman told me that they had no time to walk home after work- so they always spent their nights in the canyon, in the open-air - a nervous experience.

People who visit the Grand Canyon of Crimea desire not only to enjoy the scenery but also to try the “baths of youth”: giant dents in the bottom of the canyon where the Auzun-Yzen runs even in summer. The Auzun-Yzen is supplied not only by rain water and water from melted snow, but by lots of underground springs. In summer, they become the only source of water and the river looks a little strange – like a broken curve.


The baths flow is supplied by underground springs and is very calm but very cold. The temperature in the baths never grows higher than 9-11° C which means that normal human beings can’t stand bathing there more than several seconds. I made myself dive for ten seconds and when I got out of the water, I felt like my limbs were broken – I could hardly feel them!

The first wish you naturally have in the “bath” is to scream, so during the daytime in the summer the canyon is full of screams. The biggest and the most popular “bath of youth” can be found near the snack bar. Tourists waiting for their turn to dive into three-meter-deep dent usually muster up their courage by drinking homemade wine. As for me, I ignored the popular “bath” and saved my wine for the night (oh, and it didn’t help me, by the way). I went deeper to the further part of the Great canyon and had a quiet, private bath. Without witnesses and without a swimsuit – ah, complete unity with nature!


viewThen it struck me that I’d heard the view from the top of the canyon was thrilling. Neither I nor my companion knew which paths that would lead us to the top. In short, we had to perform free 200-meter climbing all along the cliff to see the scenery and take photos. I wouldn’t recommend you to do the same – it’s better to find someone who knows the path, which is also not an easy task, but safer.

The first experience of walking through the canyon wasn’t really carefree because of the boulder that fell right in front of me when I was passing through the deserted part of the canyon. I ran back in panic and decided to put off the trip.

It was time to look for a place to sleep. We found a tourist stand near the spring and pitched a tent. It was hardly over 8 p.m. but we were already in our sleeping bags. After hiking and climbing, I felt awfully tired but I couldn’t sleep because of the sounds. The sounds of the canyon are also amusing. It’s hard to say where they come from. It seems they are reverberated dozens of times in the narrow “crack” of the canyon, so it’s like they come from everywhere.


In the quiet of the night the spring sounded tremendous, as if it was all around the tent. The draft was coming through the canyon, making the trees crunch. But the most awful sound was the sound of the little stones falling from the cliffs onto our tent. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad if I didn’t see the huge piece of rock (our tent was a meter away from it) that came off some time ago. The night was a nail biting experience. However, when I woke up, I was glad I experienced it and happy to be alive.


The Grand Canyon of Crimea is a place that may scare some, but not enough to prevent them from coming back. As soon as I get the chance, I will visit again.

©Antonina Okinina

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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