India, with the exception of Goa, isn’t the most popular tourist destination among Russians. However, some people choose to visit the country for something other than its beaches. I’ve met a few of those mavericks in Moscow, and I’m here to tell their stories.
When not in India, dance as the Indians do
Late spring and summer are incredible in Moscow, so everyone tries to get out and enjoy the weather as much as possible. It’s in a gorgeous lilac garden that I ran into a group of young women wearing bright, peculiar attire and what I soon learned to be traditional Indian jewelry. The women were dancing to Indian music, their moves light and somewhat flirtatious. One, Oksana Raturi, stood out as the most experienced; she was actually showing the others what to do.
Born to a Russian mother and an Indian father, she’s always had a natural longing for all things Indian. As a child she would watch her father meditate in front of a Shiva statue, she’d wear clothes and shiny bracelets brought all the way from the foreign country where a piece of her heart lived long before she’d even visited it. The clothes her father bought there smelled of mysterious spices, unheard of in the 90s Moscow. The house she grew up in was also unconventional with Indian music playing in the background and sandal wood aroma greeting you at the door.
Oksana was an outdoorsy kid, a lover of nature and tree-climbing. Her mother, an Indian dance teacher herself, tried to get the girl to join her classes, but her heart wasn’t in it at the time. Dancing required discipline, and it was the last thing on young Oksana’s mind. The road to discovering her true passion was long, winding, and self-exploratory.
When Oksana was 14 years old, her father had to move back to India. It was then that her true yearning to see the country began. She wouldn’t be able to go there for six years though — a time she used to evolve into a talented and cultured young woman. At 15, she took up Arabian folk dancing, through it learning of strength and flexibility, femininity and poise.
An exciting hobby, however, couldn’t fill the void left by her father’s involuntary departure to his homeland. Nor could her childhood memories, Indian trinkets scattered around her apartment, or infrequent Skype conversations with her relatives abroad. So finally, at the age of 20, Oksana stuffed her suitcase with souvenirs from Russia and headed to India.
It was a life-changing experience.
If before Oksana’s personal jigsaw seemed to be missing a vital piece, India instantly completed the puzzle. The local lifestyle, food, clothing, accents — it all made perfect sense to her in an instant. She understood and embraced it all, loving the good and empathizing with the bad.
Most clear and relatable of all was Indian dancing. “Discipline, precision, soul, and love — that’s what it’s made of,” according to Oksana. She started with Bollywood dance as it was simpler, but then moved on to Bharatnatyam to get the classical background she was lacking. The more she practiced, the more she learned to love life, herself, and movement. She learned to control her body, shape it into whatever the dance required. She learned that mimics and gestures could convey meaning just as easily as speaking.
Oksana now visits her family in India as often as she can. She enjoys her time there, and misses the place when she’s back home. But even in Russia, there’s a way for her to always be in India — dancing takes her there. She constantly learns new moves herself, teaches other people, and has even showed off her skills in a music video of a famous Russian DJ.
Dancing helps Oksana develop her character, shows her how to be a better person and a better woman, and she’s always willing to share that knowledge with others — exactly as she was doing in the lilac garden where we first met.
What happens in an ashram never just stays there
Oksana isn’t the only one who’s changed because of India — the country seems to have a common impact on people. There, travelers learn how to accept themselves and the world around them, how to live in harmony and embrace every challenge and every joy that come their way. That’s exactly what I’ve heard from my colleague Evgeniy Pestov who’s no stranger to lengthy stays at ashrams in search of peace and spirituality.
His very first visit to India was otherworldly: extraordinary food and bright colors everywhere; smells both very human and utterly mysterious; divine figurines kept in every car as a weak promise of safety on the road; cows walking past. And despite visible destitution here and there, Evgeniy felt that the country and its people were thriving. It’s not mundane pleasures that mattered there, but inner beauty, balance, and self. That, and so much more, was what Evgeniy learned to truly see and value.
Already during his first stay at an ashram called the Oneness University, a physical and an emotional cleanse awaited Evgeniy. Daily yoga practices taught him to love and appreciate his own body. Pranayama and Japa — aka breathing exercises and mantra recitations — freed him of fears, karmic blocks, emotional restrictions. Together with his fellow ashram students, Evgeniy meditated and danced, laughed and sobbed, screamed and kept silence. They all learned how to grant and accept forgiveness, how to live with a loving heart and openness to God.
After that four-week journey Evgeniy returned to Moscow a new man. More sensitive to insincerities and more aware of the present, he took his first steps toward a different life. A life built on trust, tolerance, and candor. At first, he couldn’t quite understand where he was going, and why. But every new visit to India and the experiences he carried from there all the way back to Moscow showed him that he was on the right track. The relationships in his life — with his parents, friends, acquaintances — evolved into something stronger and better. And eventually, he even found his other half in India. “The main thing that’s changed, though, is the relationship with myself. I learned to accept myself, value what I have, be more honest even when it’s scary. I can feel what’s good for me and what I should let go of. I can understand the conversation that life is having with me, its lessons, care, incredible depth, and love.”
Not everyone immerses themselves in the ashram life as fast as Evgeniy did, though. Another Moscow resident, Natalia Soltanova, remembers a completely different experience. Both afraid of going and drawn to India, she decided to stay at the Oneness University, inspired by amazing feedback about one of its founders and avatars, Sri Bhagavan. For the first few weeks of her stay there Natalia felt deceived. Why wasn’t anything different? Where were the promised clarity and peace? Natalia’s anger was overpowering.
She was, of course, undergoing changes, but they were so gradual that seemed nonexistent at first. Sometimes she’d see or hear differently after a meditation at a local temple or after a yoga practice. Other times she’d be able to bend her body in a way she never had before. But the frustration over the lack of more obvious metamorphoses lingered on for weeks.
On the 27th day of her stay it finally hit her: she had changed. Suddenly, she felt more connected to herself and to the world. She acquired an acute understanding of where she was in life, and where she had yet to go. That enlightenment didn’t mean she’d morphed into an exultant being, constantly at ease. No. But she learned to love herself even when she was angry, frustrated, sad, or lonely. Whatever she was feeling at any given moment was necessary and natural.
“India doesn’t just allow you to be yourself, it forces you to. And there’s no greater happiness in life than to be yourself.” As beautiful as she made it sound, Natalia still had a long way to go and a lot more to learn, so she kept returning to the ashram, soaking in the wisdom of its teachers.
At ashrams, students can participate in a variety of rituals. One of them, a homa aimed at finding a partner, is what Natalia once chose to take part in. It’s a beautiful gathering around a symbolic fire. People sit in small groups, pour ghee into the fire, pray for themselves and each other to find the love they deserve, and tie special bands around each other’s wrists. It happened to be Evgeniy’s wrist that Natalia tied the band around, and he helped her out in return. Miraculously, just two months later they were living together in Moscow, and have been together since. The relationship is more meaningful and deeper than either could have ever hoped for. India brought the two together, and it’s in India that they later got engaged.
The country is a home away from home both for Evgeniy and Natalia, for Oksana, and for many others, I’m sure. It’s a place that unites people, brings them joy and clarity, and takes them on a spiritual journey to discover and fall in love with themselves. Whenever my own journey leads me to India, I hope I’m ready for the changes the place might invoke in me.
Author: Lada Redley
Lada Redley draws inspiration from her travels, experiences, and the people in her life. She writes both prose and poetry, and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster, London. You can follow Lada’s adventures on Instagram: @ladaredley.