Yep, it’s real.
That was the first thing almost everyone wanted to know about the now-infamous “Baby Yoga with Lena Fokina” video. The swinging, flipping and lariat-like twirling of a tiny infant seemed so surreal—and the baby so unmoved by its plight—that many viewers decided it had to be a hoax.
I had a hard time watching the video, too. But I was not at all surprised that it was Russian. I’ve been going to Moscow since 1990 (I now write about Russia for Time Magazine), and I have found a Russian obsession with physical hardiness that goes far beyond pictures of Putin fishing topless. I remember going with my brother to a Soviet sanatorium—what they used to call their spa-resorts—in 1990 and finding that the main treatment there was standing in a stainless steel room while a technician sprayed us with what felt like a fire hose. A friend I’ve known for over 20 years in Moscow got baptized last year in the countryside—not in a church with a splash of water, but by stripping in the middle of a frozen lake and jumping into an ice-fishing hole while the priest looked on.
But “baby yoga,” and its corollary, dunking-a-newborn-in-the-ocean, is not just another act of toughening. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that in a certain milieu of alterna-Russians, the parents who do this are sort of like Slavic Tiger Mothers: hyperinvolved parents who want to give their child a leg up in life. “I wanted the best for my daughter,” says my friend Ivan, who baby-swung his firstborn after hearing about it in a Moscow birthing class. “So we started when she was five days old.” Seven years later, he says, she’s not only healthy, she’s fearless and advanced beyond her peers: “She started walking early, swimming early. I really think it worked.”
[The original video]
I thought if I showed Ivan this video, he would be shocked by how extreme this particular bout of baby-swinging was. Instead, he watched it like Rowlf the Dog watched Two Girls, One Cup: meh, no big deal. It is, he said, pretty much what he did with his daughter.
Until I see some peer-reviewed studies about this, I’ll leave it to others to decide whether swinging a barely conscious newborn over your shoulders does more good than harm. But I am pleased to say that we’ve tracked down the baby in the video, and she seems to be doing just fine. (Follow DadWagon on Facebook)
The baby, it turns out, is a girl named Platona Goryun, who lives in Khorol, Ukraine, about three hours outside of Kiev. She was just two weeks old when she was subjected to what Fokina calls “dynamic gymnastics” for newborns in the video above. Her father, Sashka Goryun, uploaded the video just a month ago, but apparently it was filmed almost two years ago. Little Platona is, by all appearances, a healthy toddler, albeit one who still gets swung in the air quite a bit (see our baby-yoga gallery for more images of Platona and her father).
DadWagon also managed to track down Lena Fokina, the Baby Yoga guru from the original video. Fokina Skype-chatted with us from her home in Dahab, Egypt, in the Sinai Peninsula, where she lives with her daughters (who not only survived baby-swinging but also grew up to be ridiculously attractive freedive instructors, pictured below and in our photo-gallery). Fokina was generous with her time and spoke at length about family freediving, slothful Americans, and the salutary effects of being swung over your mother’s head. The interview was done in Russian and translated into English:
Thank you for chatting with DadWagon, Lena. Can you tell us first a little about yourself: where you come from, how you came to do baby yoga.
I come from far away; my homeland is in the Urals. I then lived in Moscow, and now I’m in Dahab, Egypt, my “little homeland.” We came here four years ago, and go back to Russia in the summers. As for yoga, yoga is just life, whether you are an adult or a child.
How old are you?
I’m 50, but that’s only the appearance.
Tell me about the courses you run in Egypt.
Our courses in Dahab are a regime of daily exercise for children and adults of different ages: yoga, extreme developmental gymnastics, freediving, getting adapted to the water, rebirthing, lectures, discussions and much more.
Um, what exactly are “extreme developmental gymnastics”
That’s what we call it when it gets scary for the parents and children and me
(just kidding). It’s actually skipping rope, climbing, all sorts of flips, trampoline, stretching…
I do Ashtanga yoga, but I’ve never heard of anything like this Baby Yoga. Is this traditional or did you invent it?
Life invented it; it was conveyed to us by the teacher and author of all these ideas, Igor Borisovich Charkovsky.
So this is a uniquely Russian form of yoga.
This yoga is for all young children.
Are your students all Russians?
Of course not!
So where do they come from?
Over the last 30 years, Charkovsky’s system has lived in Russia and has spread from there. Not everyone accepts it.
The first thing everybody here thought when they saw your baby-swinging video was “Holy shit!” Then they thought, is it real or fake? So: Is it real? If so, who is the baby?
The child was born in the Black Sea region. Her name is Platona, and she was two weeks old when we took that video. We have a lot of children like her here. They are early readers, singers, talkers, swimmers. You haven’t seen anything like it anywhere!! And there’s swimming with dolphins, scuba diving with them… Come to Dahab! (Photos of Lena and her daughters in Dahab.)
And are they early readers, talkers, and so on because of baby yoga?
Not only this. It’s just one reason.
What else makes them so talented then?
Love for each other and to one another.
I have two small children and I was, you know, careful with them when they were newborns. So it was hard for me to watch your video. It looks like it has to injure the child. Their hands? The cartilage in the joints? Their brains?
No. It makes the hands stronger.
Did you know that YouTube took the video down because it was in violation of their policy on “shocking and disgusting” content? What is your response to that?
Did they notice that the babies aren’t crying—they’re even laughing—and that this system has been used for over thirty years in Russia and the children are all alive and healthy? If you need more proof, the best thing is to come see us.
Have you heard from people who are upset about the video?
Everybody in Dahab is satisfied. What’s more, a British film crew made a documentary about us, and interviewed the parents.
At the end of your video, it looks like you’re trying to get the two-week-old baby to walk. Is mobility the goal of your baby yoga?
Yes, more mobility, and other goals. First off, more trained skills. Second, more freedom. Third, independence. We learn from nature and teach our offspring to survive. Come to Dahab; we’ll be glad to show our classes and our children. How old are your children?
Four and two years old.
The happiest age!
Da, da. You say you “teach offspring to survive,” but it looks like what you’re doing could kill them. Have you ever had an accident while swinging around a baby?
I don’t recall any. Another objective of our yoga: to teach parents and children to interact so that everything will be in harmony.
How much training do you need to do this baby yoga?
It depends on the sensibility of the child’s mother. Sometimes it only takes one training session.
Do you think mothers who are afraid of this kind of baby yoga just aren’t brave?
Yes, those people have problems of their own. One more objective here is to get the parents’ own activity and movement levels up.
Should Americans try “baby yoga” at home?
Americans should be able to do a lot of this themselves, in order to pass something on to their children. An immobile American loses their naturally given reflexes (swimming, reaching, stepping—they have machines that do this for them). That’s why, in parallel with their children, the parents learn to do these things: dive, swim, run, jump, bend and much more. Our workshop is called “family active lifestyle.”
It’s true. Some American babies are too obese to swing around over your head.
Well, exactly, then: they need the Russian way of life!
Are there lessons for baby yoga online, or do you have to go to Dahab to learn?
Online is complicated. You have to go to the guru!
You said that the baby in the video was two weeks old. Why start so young? Their bodies are so underdeveloped.
We’re talking about these reflexes they have by nature from birth. They are based in dynamic gymnastics.
Did you know that this video went viral in the United States, that there was a lot of speculation about who you and the baby were?
We know. So what? The more people find out about this, the calmer and healthier they’ll become.
I saw that you do courses in the Gulf of Aqaba. What are your “family freediving” courses?
We adapt [children] to the aquatic environment. It’s a variety of exercises for breath, swimming and diving equipment, diving at depth and free-swimming along the reef and enjoying the stunning underwater spectacle.
Hmm. I grew up near the reef in Florida. It can be amazing.
Oh, we dream of free-swimming with wild dolphins! Do you know Boris Said?
We have a lot of dolphins, but I don’t know Boris. Who is he?
He studies wild dolphins in Florida and swims with them. Children and dolphins is another big topic of Charkovsky’s.
So my children are 4 and 2 years old, but they don’t know how to swim yet. What would you do with them in Dahab?
We would get them slowly accustomed to life.
Life in general or life in the water?
Life in general. And in the water. If you can organize a seminar, gather people, arrange a space, we’ll come.
Good idea! [ed. note: this may actually be a very bad idea] I noticed in some of your videos that some women in your courses are topless. Does this create problems with the Egyptians? When I was in Hurgada, another Egyptian resort, I noticed nudity was a big problem for Egyptians.
Each country has its own traditions and you have account for that. Don’t take your own prayers into someone else’s church. So we do not wear bikinis. This is a Muslim country. Some women here even wear a niqab.
Have you ever had any legal problems in Egypt? In Russia?
I never have. I love people.
But authorities are different. They never gave you any problems for the Baby Yoga?
We are humanists! And we don’t do anything wrong. On the contrary, many Egyptian parents learn these techniques and go diving, in their niqab, with us.
So the answer is ‘no’? Because in the United States, Baby Yoga might cause you some problems.
So then we are better off in Dahab! Come visit! Thank you!
Yes. I know it’s late. Just one more question: what is the name of the English film made about you?
“дети стихии” (approximate translation: “Children of the Wild”).
For more information on Lena Fokina’s courses, visit www.fokiny.com (in Russian).