Long-forgotten, mystical practice of Slavic gymnastics sees resurgence in popularity
A long-forgotten practice known as Slavic gymnastics is regaining popularity thanks to a group of women looking to give it the same status as yoga.
Sometimes called ‘witches’ gymnastics’, the therapeutic exercises are said to have been passed on from pre-Christian Slavic communities, that nurtured their connection with nature, as well as the strength and beauty of their women.
The outdoor exercises are a set of 27 practices that aim at strengthening, stretching and relaxing the body, stimulating the endocrine system, as well as helping with stress, unblocking emotions and lifting our mood.
Gabriela Kuznowicz, a graduate of psychology and a marketing professional, is one of the women who teaches and propagates Slavic gymnastics in Warsaw. She started her journey seven years ago, and after many twists and turns completed a teachers' course in Moscow.
She told TFN: “This is a practice for women, a form of working with the body and with the energy that flows through us. It is also strongly spiritual, a practice focusing on the broadly understood womanhood. This gymnastics stimulates our hormonal system quite strongly.”
Just like yoga, tai chi or qigong, Slavic gymnastics is a psychophysical system steeped in the traditions and culture of their region, Central and Eastern Europe in this case. Struggling with short summer and severe winters, it was a way for Slavs to keep their strength and care for their health.
The movements and poses are inspired by nature, mimicking animals or plants. Compiled into sets of seven, they are practiced depending on the season, weather, and even the practicing person’s date of birth.
The origins, however, are shrouded in mystery. It is believed to be a system of physical and spiritual practices based on the beliefs of ancient Slavs. The modern rediscovery of these practices began with Gennadiy Adamovich’s book "Gymnastics for Slavic Witches."
Gabriela said: “The genesis, according to Adamovich, is that one of his students once showed him strange movements she learnt from her grandmother during classes. He started to delve into it, did ethnographic research, talked to old women, and created the Standing Water system based on it.”
Adamovich, a Belarusian ethnologist became the pioneer of the Slavic gymnastics. The other names used for it are ‘The Power of the Guardian’ or ‘The Power of Bereginia’ after the primordial goddess of protection.
“The results of Adamovich’s works are based on his statements. I also came across the information, that he falsified the research. It’s hard to tell, what the truth really is. But the fact remains that gymnastics works,” Gabriela said.
“The second fact is, that if you speak to older women in the countryside, even in Poland, then they’ve heard of the exercises.”
One of the things Adamovich did, apart from describing the practices, is combing them with Slavic cosmology – the beliefs on how the universe is made and how different worlds (the higher powers’ one, the one inhabited by humans and other living creatures and one of our ancestors) interact with one another.
The Slavic gymnastics movement quickly gained popularity in Russia and Ukraine, where women were enthusiastic about the opportunity to practice something they felt was in their blood. Poles learnt about the Power of Bereginia from Yuliya Vinogradowa and Ksenia Sileyeva, two Russian teachers who not only developed the system and its feminine character, but also added dance elements to it.
While there is a male practice as well, it is yet to gain a foothold among Polish men.
Dominika Banaszak from Poznań learnt about the Slavic gymnastics from a friend. At first, she treated it as an Eastern European yoga, due to a similar mix of mental and physical exercises. She told TFN: “It was very relaxing and a good way to stretch. I liked it very much.
“The Slavic name itself was equally important. That fact, that the ideology goes back to our roots and where we come from, it was also very attractive to me.”
The exercises can be practiced individually, but the group aspect is crucial for women who are looking for something more than just a workout.
“I was at a stage in my life when I needed it,” explained Dominika. “I was after my third birth, my youngest son didn't go to the nursery yet. We met in a women's group, led by someone I knew and felt comfortable with. We didn't all know each other, but I felt this feminine bond at these meetings. In fact, the spiritual element was just as important as the physical one.”
Unlike yoga, with which Slavic gymnastic is often compared, there is no medical or psychological research that confirms its effectiveness. The growing popularity stems from the testimonies of women, who felt its positive effects and recommend it to their friends.
Medical tests are a necessity for the movement to go forward and expand beyond Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Gabriela said: “This will only be for the benefit of women and the gymnastics itself, so that the system will take on a more medical dimension and become some a therapeutic method, like the Lowen Method [set of exercises used in psychotherapy -TFN].
She added: “This is what I would like to aim for because it really has therapeutic potential, which just haven’t been scientifically proven yet, which makes it impossible to use by doctors.”
Another comparison with yoga is based on the business side’s development. While yoga is one of India’s biggest cultural, and not just cultural exports to the West, Slavic gymnastics trainers hope the European system can gain a similar following.