NEW DELHI — When Indra Devi opened her first studio in West Hollywood in 1947, yoga was little-known in America. In fact, it is said that during one of Devi's first lectures in Hollywood, an audience member thought she was discussing yogurt!
Devi's story is as liberating as it is extraordinary.
She was born Eugenie Peterson to a Russian noblewoman and a Swedish banker in Riga, Latvia in 1899 -- at a time when yoga was a little-know discipline anywhere in the world except India. She attended a drama school in Moscow but had to flee when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. In the backdrop of the brutal civil war, Eugenie and her mother settled down in Berlin where she started a career in acting and dancing. Yoga was banned in Russia in the years after the Communist revolution and it would be Indra Devi who would help lift the ban and write and publish the country's first book on yoga.
(Photo credit: Fundacion Indra Devi)
In Berlin, she adopted the stage name of Ms Peterson-Labunskaya and was doing quite well for herself. There are conflicting reports about how she came to be drawn to yoga.
Some say that at the age of 15 she came across a book on yoga at the house of an acquaintance and felt a pull like she's never experienced before. While one report says she attended a congress of Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society in Holland where she met yoga master Jiddu Krishnamurti and was immediately drawn to Indian philosophy.
Eugenie set sail for India in 1927 and arrived in colonial Bombay where she adopted the stage name of Indra Devi and appeared in some Bollywood productions.
In her recent book 'The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West', author and journalist Michelle Goldberg wrote that the legendary woman yogi had an "irresistible charisma" and easily befriended "Maharajas and gurus, diplomats and politicians, celebrities and socialites all her life".
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The spirited Devi was soon courted by Jan Strakaty, commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. She married him in 1930. But the predictable routines of a diplomat's wife was never going to be enough for her.
"It would be impossible for me to take on a woman, especially a foreign one. It cannot be done," Krishnamacharya is believed to have told her.
The Guru was teaching yoga at the palace of the Maharaja of Mysore at the time. On his intervention, Krishnamacharya took her on as his pupil and set as punishing a schedule for her as he would for his male students. She met every challenge he set for her. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar were the other disciples of the legendary guru and they along with Devi are responsible for the Yoga's global ubiquity today.
Devi was both the first woman and the first foreigner to have trained under Krishnamacharya.
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When it was time for her husband to move to his new posting in China, Krishnamacharya decided that Devi was ready to teach yoga. She opened her first yoga school in China in 1939. This was the time of the Japanese invasion and when the war was over, Devi returned to India and wrote her first book on yoga -- believed to be first book by a foreigner on yoga written and published in India.
She was now called mataji by her ever-growing followers. Mataji is the Hindi name for mother.
But the true diffusion of yoga globally began in 1947 when Devi left for the United States and settled in Hollywood. It took her no time to find a following among movie stars, eager to experience the holistic living of the Orient. The photo of her teaching asanas to Eva Gabor is widely known. She soon had Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson and a host of Hollywood's housewives flocking to her with their yoga mats in pursuit of spiritual wellbeing and Devi was ready with her own form of a modern, crossover Indian yoga for her students in the West.
Devi would later take the gospel of yoga to Mexico and Argentina. She would also adopt the teachings of spiritual guru Satya Sai Baba to devise a new form of yoga called Sai Yoga.
Adoringly called the first lady of yoga, Devi leveraged her high profile friendships with savvy to popularize yoga. She understood early on, even at her time at Elizabeth Arden's spa, that to attract the West to the ancient spiritiual discipline, she had to restructure it to appeal to Western sensibilities. And there lay her success.
Devi died at the age of 102 in 2002, after a century's work of taking the practice of yoga to the farthest corners of the world and making it a household name even among those who understood little of India's spirituality.