From Russia to India to Hollywood: Indra Devi was the first woman to learn from a yoga guru - and became the "First Lady of Yoga"

Indra Devi is considered one of the most dazzling personalities in yoga history.

From Russia to India to Hollywood: Indra Devi was the first woman to learn from a yoga guru - and became the "First Lady of Yoga"

Indra Devi is considered one of the most dazzling personalities in yoga history. As a pioneer, she made a significant contribution to the worldwide spread of the Indian practice. At a time when yoga was still dominated by men, she was the first female student to learn from one of the most respected gurus. Indra Devi developed its practices further and carried yoga into the world. She has taught in the USA, Russia, China, India, Mexico and Argentina, among other places.

According to the "New York Times", she taught both Hollywood stars and the Kremlin leadership the Indian doctrine. In doing so, she made an "immense contribution to the progress of yoga worldwide," writes the "Yoga Journal". In the USA she is therefore known as the "First Lady of Yoga". In addition, Indra Devi, who died at the age of 103, experienced the entire 20th century and was thus a witness to all major conflicts and political and cultural upheavals of this time.

Despite being consistently referred to as a "pioneering figure" and "ambassador of yoga" in the yoga world, Indra Devi is rarely mentioned. Wrongly. Her life is a story of feminism and emancipation. The story of a free spirit who kept reinventing himself. "There's something almost supernatural about her willingness to get up and start over at almost any point in her life," says Michelle Goldberg, a journalist who has authored the only book about Indra Devi ("The Goddess Pose") to date the Los Angeles Times.

The long, adventurous journey of the yoga pioneer began on May 12, 1899 in Riga, Latvia, where she was born Eugenie Peterson. She was born into an aristocratic background. Her father, Vasili Peterson, was a Swedish bank manager, her mother, Alejandra Vasilyevna, was a Russian noblewoman who worked as a theater actress. Eugenie Peterson initially followed this career path. She attended drama school in Moscow and also acted in Berlin, where her family fled after the outbreak of the Russian civil war.

From a young age she developed a fascination for India. At the age of 15 she discovered the book "Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism" while browsing in the library of a friend of her mother's. Enthusiastic about spiritual literature, she vowed to travel to India one day. The opportunity to do so arose several years later. In 1972, Hermann Bolm, a wealthy banker, proposed to her. Before the wedding, they traveled to the South Asian country together for three months.

Hardly back home, she gave her engagement ring back to her partner with the words that her place was in India and set off again for her longed-for place. Under the stage name "Indra Devi" she made a name for herself in the Indian film industry. In 1930 she married Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché at the Czechoslovak consulate in Bombay. Through him she met the Maharaja of Mysore, who ran a yoga school in his palace. The legendary yoga guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught there.

As the "father of modern yoga", the guru engaged in hatha yoga, the branch of practice that deals with postures, at a time when the spiritual and philosophical aspects of teaching were more in the foreground. In addition to classic asanas, Krishnamacharya incorporated drills from Indian wrestlers as well as lunges and twists from European gymnastics routines into his yoga. The British "Guardian" describes it as "a syncretism of several physical fitness trends from that time". This gave rise to popular yoga styles such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow. That the movement practice like that found recognition around the world is largely due to Indra Devi.

As the portal "Amazing Women in History" reports, it was chest pain that brought Indra Devi to yoga. She wanted to take lessons from Krishnamacharya, but Krishnamacharya initially refused to accept the actress because she was from the West. And because she was a woman. Until the 20th century, only men were allowed to teach and practice yoga. With Indra Devi came a "stubborn and assertive woman" who broke the barrier. She begged the royal couple of Mysore until the rulers ordered the Guru to teach Indra Devi.

Krishnamacharya eventually took her under his wing. According to the "Yoga Journal", she became the first female yoga student and the first woman from the West to be allowed to live in an Indian ashram. "He was very strict with me and thought that I would not uphold the regime he imposed on me," quotes the "Los Angeles Times" Indra Devi from an interview in which she spoke about her teacher. The apprenticeship was characterized by discipline, restrictions and overtime. The actress still managed to keep up with the male students.

Among others, she practiced with the well-known gurus Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar. Both are also credited today with a crucial role in the history of yoga. Krishnamacharya also saw enormous potential in Indra Devi. According to Amazing Women in History, the guru eventually made her his private student and personally supervised her asana and pranayama training.

When her husband was transferred to China, she had to leave India. Her guru asked her to bring his teachings to the world. According to the Los Angeles Times report, Indra Devi was initially rather afraid of teaching, but did not refuse her guru's wish and in 1939 opened her first yoga studio at the court of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the nationalist leader from China. It was around this time that her nickname "Mataji" ("mother") came about, according to the New York Times. While her husband was summoned to his homeland, Czechoslovakia, after a few years, Indra Devi returned to India, where she taught yoga and wrote her first books. When her husband died in 1946, she traveled to China again to sell their joint possessions.

She then considered going back to India or traveling to the United States. She bought tickets for both destinations and decided on the ship that left first - to North America. According to the "Yoga Easy" portal, she arrived there just in time "to satisfy the film stars' burgeoning interest in body and breathing techniques". In 1947, she opened a studio in Hollywood, where, according to The New York Times, she taught yoga to celebrities such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Robert Ryan, and Jennifer Jones. The stars found the breathing and relaxation techniques helpful in their work. In addition, according to "Hinduism Today", Indra Devi, who had worked in the same industry, met the actors with sensitivity and empathy.

In addition, the yoga teacher taught in the spas of the famous beautician Elizabeth Arden. Indra Devi's style of yoga is "a form of yoga that was intensely physical and made purification of the body a necessary first stage of spiritual training," writes Stefanie Syman in her book The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. . Therefore, "Devis Yoga - Hatha Yoga - met the needs of Hollywood stars much more, especially women who were under constant pressure to look radiantly youthful," says the author. The focus on the physical aspect, the belief that exercise prolongs youth, and the celebrity clientele eventually made yoga a suitable exercise program for the masses.

In 1953 Indra Devi remarried. Through her marriage to the physician Siegrid Knauer, she became a US citizen and had her name officially changed to Indra Devi. In 1961, her wealthy husband, a fan of yoga and alternative medicine according to The New York Times, gave her a 24-room mansion in Tecate, Mexico, where she would teach yoga teacher classes.

But first there was a trip to Russia. According to the US newspaper, the Ambassador of India in Moscow is said to have arranged a meeting with members of the Soviet government, including then Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin. During her visit, Indra Devi is said to have demonstrated her yoga practice in the Kremlin and talked about the physical benefits. She is said to have convinced the country's leadership that yoga is not a religious doctrine. As a result, yoga was officially allowed in the former Soviet Union.

However, over time, Indra Devi incorporated more and more esoteric elements into her yoga classes. "As the culture changed and people became more open to metaphysical ideas, she adapted by infusing her teachings with more spirituality," Michelle Goldberg, author of the Indra Devi biography, told Embodied Philosophy ". The sessions with Indra Devi became an "extended prayer and devotional experience coupled with a series of standard yoga poses," writes the Los Angeles Times.

A few years later, Indra Devi got under the spell of another guru, Sathya Sai Baba. From this she developed a new form of yoga, called Sai Yoga. Only after his death did it become known that Sai Baba, like many other yoga masters, had been involved in sexual assaults. In 1982 - her husband had died five years earlier - she accepted an invitation from Sai Baba devotees to Argentina, according to a report by "Yoga Vidya".

There she spent most of the rest of her life. She is said to have "fallen so much in love with the country and the people" that she decided to settle there permanently. Among other things, she trained the two yoga students Iana and David Lifar, who founded the Indra Devi Foundation in honor of "Mataji", where the teachings of the master are passed on to this day. Into old age, Indra Devi spoke on the radio, at conferences and in lecture halls, which swelled at the seams during her visits, as "Hinduism Today" reports.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Indra Devi was said to have performed demanding asanas up to the age of 99. In the end, according to the "Yoga Journal", her practice consisted of only four poses: three sitting postures and a headstand variant. Indra Devi slowed down her pace only slowly. Through her yoga practice, she lived to an advanced age of 103, healthy and pain-free. She died on April 25, 2002 in Buenos Aires.

Traits attributed to the yoga master include "empathy, warmth, gentleness, and a disarming sense of humor" ("Hinduism Today"). She was considered "charming, personable, warm" ("Huffpost"). "Also, she was very, very charismatic. People were just attracted to her and wanted to do things for her, to take care of her," biographer Michelle Goldberg told Embodied Philosophy. However, Indra Devi was by no means free from egoism and her life was not a prime example of the ethics of yoga. Her dark side showed up in morally sometimes reprehensible decisions: she used her first fiancé for the trip to India, left her first husband alone when he was dying and sometimes surrounded herself with questionable yoga gurus.

Nevertheless, her life's work made a decisive contribution to the spread of yoga in the West. Above all, Indra Devi's ability to adapt to new circumstances is behind the success. "Devi was very, very adaptable. She had to be — it was the secret of her survival," says Michelle Goldberg. In every situation, she decided "against convenience and for adventure," writes "Yoga Easy." With that came a certain restlessness. To the end, the great teacher herself remained a student, always looking for the one true teacher.

Quellen: "Amazing Women in History", Fundacion Indra Devi, "Hinduism Today", "Los Angeles Times (I)", "Los Angeles Times" (II) "New York Times", "The Guardian", "The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America", "Yoga Easy", "Yoga Journal" (I), "Yoga Journal" (II), "Yoga Vidya"