Yoga has become a multibillion dollar industry, owned and operated primarily by women in the Americas. The unique history of this modern phenomenon is a story in itself. Can you name a famous yogini?(a female yoga follower). Or even one who is able to make a living studying and teaching yoga?
We know that the history of modern postural yoga dates from the time of Sri T Krishnamacharya, guru to BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois (founder of ashtanga yoga) and TVK Desikachar, his son. From those well known three, modern yoga grew to a world-wide method for maintaining wholistic health. The tree of yoga extended its branches into every country in Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia as well as Australia and parts of Africa, where it is practised to heal the wounds of war and oppression.
But there was another student who also came to study with Krishnamacharya in the 1930’s; Indra Devi, or Eugenie Peterson, born of Russian nobility in 1899. And her impact on American yoga precedes any of the others schooled by him. Her achievements broke the trail for those of us who followed in the next wave of yoga in the West.
Peterson dreamed of India as a child. When the Russian Civil War intensified she went to Germany with her mother and then in 1927 to India. There, through the privilege of her social status, she met the wife of the Maharaja who prevailed on Krishnamacharya to take her as a student. She’d had a heart condition for four years previously and she sought healing.
Krishnamacharya was not teaching women at the time, a position he reversed very late in life. He tried Peterson at every turn and she met the challenges. Her heart condition was relieved and she became a teacher.
In 1939 Peterson went with her husband to China and at Krishnamacharya’s advice opened a yoga studio in Shanghai. In 1945 she returned to India and wrote Yoga while there. When her husband died in 1946 she went to Hollywood. And that was the beginning of the love affair with yoga in the west. Indra Devi taught such famous stars as Gloria Swanson to whom she dedicated her first book and Greta Garbo, along with others well known in their day. Baron Baptiste, a current Power Yoga teacher in the USA, is son to Walt Baptiste, actor and body builder, one of Indra Devi’s students at that time. She wrote two more books then; Forever Young, Forever Healthy and Improve Your Life by Practising Yoga. All of her books are in print although some are retitled. They are read worldwide.
Indra Devi returned to India, and the source of yoga dozens of times throughout her life and lived there again in the 1970’s. In 1988 she paid homage to her guru by visiting Krishnamacharya on his 100th birthday. She was 99 at the time.
In a fine turning of the wheel, she went to the Soviet Union in 1960 and persuaded the leadership of the day to lift the ban on yoga. Also in that period she developed a curriculum of yoga for the school system which was established in San Salvador.
Indra Devi was instrumental in organizing world conferences of yoga practitioners. She taught wherever she was invited throughout Europe and the Americas.
Her last expansionary period came after 1982 when Indra Devi moved to Argentina. From there she brought yoga teaching and training to Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. All the while she was teaching, training and practising yoga.
A story is told that at a performance an Argentinean musician mentioned that Indra Devi was going to be teaching the next day and 10,000 people showed up! They needed to rebook the stadium for her class the very next day! The multitudes who came wanted to experience the presence of a spiritually enlightened woman.
She continued to practice even in her very aged years: shoulder stand, forward bends, some standing poses as well as pranayama–the yoga of breath.
Hers was a life devoted to yoga. Philosophically, physically, spiritually, she modelled a process so complete that she lived to span the bloodiest century in human history leaving behind a means by which to transform greed, anger and ignorance into the highest humanity, harmoniously and with integrity.
Indra Devi died at the age of 102, in Argentina, saying as she left that she feared neither life nor death.
Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.