New York City on a Sunday morning has come to resemble an urban ashram, as the multi-billion-dollar yoga industry attracts ever more converts. From its traditional roots as a spiritual practice in India, yoga is now the exercise of choice among a certain cohort of women in the West attempting to downward dog their way to good health and taut contours. Most American devotees are women, and many of them are wealthy, driving a proliferation of studios and apparel lines.
Yet, the average practitioner is most likely unaware that one extraordinary Russian woman is partially responsible for yoga’s current ubiquity.
Indra Devi, whose life touched three centuries and was dedicated to spreading the gospel of yoga around the world, is the subject of a new book by Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West (available now from Knopf).
“[Devi] planted the seeds here and in a lot of other places, certainly in Latin America,” Goldberg tells Women in the World. “She had a huge amount to do with disseminating [yoga] worldwide, and she taught many, many teachers at her school in Mexico. And I think she also created and prefigured a lot of modern yoga culture.”
Born Eugenia Peterson in 1899 in Latvia, Devi became a master of self-reinvention over the course of her life. If The Goddess Pose were a fictional story, it would be hard for readers to suspend their disbelief. Devi not only lived an exceptional life wholly on her own terms, but she also managed to be something of a real-life Forrest Gump, popping up in locations around the globe right in the middle of world-changing events.
Russia during its Civil War? That was the scene of her childhood. Freewheeling Berlin after WWI? She lived it up with the best of the partygoers as an actress in a cabaret show. India during the height of the British Raj? That goes without saying. WWII Shanghai during the Japanese invasion? Devi was there, helping the diplomats’ wives stay sane through yoga. Surely not Dallas when JFK was assassinated, you may think to yourself. But you would be wrong. She even played a role in post-colonial Panama as the spiritual advisor to dictator Manuel Noriega’s second-in-command and rival, Roberto Díaz Herrera.
“As a child, I intuited that happiness only came to those that dared to follow their own path. I forged myself as an independent being, and I was never tied to a place, nor a religion,” Devi wrote in her autobiography.
One of the most empowering takeaways from The Goddess Pose is the single-minded independence with which Devi pursued her life’s mission, despite the fact that it went against every norm for women of her day.
She landed on that mission by accident: When Devi was 15, she visited the home of one of her mother’s friends and saw a book about yoga on his desk. That chance encounter planted in her an instant and life-long fascination with India and the spiritual practice.
But events sent her on a roving path as an actress trying to support herself while fleeing the Red Army. So, it wasn’t until 1927, 13 years later, that she finally fulfilled her dream of visiting the country that had so captivated her as a teenager.
Once she arrived in India, Devi was swept up in the New Age spiritual movement of Theosophy and the social circles of the British Raj. As the granddaughter of a Russian aristocrat, she was no stranger to high society. In fact, Goldberg notes, she was well taken care of for most of her life. Aided by an irresistible charisma, she befriended Maharajas and gurus, diplomats and politicians, celebrities and socialites throughout her life.
“She actually had this sort of astonishing confidence that she could set off for almost anywhere and the universe would conspire to take care of her,” Goldberg says.
And it did—until she was married to her first husband, and tumbled into the listless despair felt by many women who find themselves cast as wives without purpose. It was then that she remembered the excitement the discovery of yoga had once triggered in her. She returned to India and convinced a yogi, Krishnamacharya, to teach her, despite his reservations that she was a woman and a foreigner. He was so impressed by her dedication and passion that, when her time with him came to an end, he instructed her to teach yoga to the world.
“I think yoga saved her, and, at the same time, I think having a mission saved her,” Goldberg says. “On the one hand, I think that yoga is a powerful practice … and there’s a lot of empirical research that shows that yoga is an excellent remedy for depression and anxiety and a lot of the things that she was suffering. But I think, at the same time, it gave her a purpose, and it gave her a mission. And that’s what she really, really needed.”
Devi eventually traveled to America and began preaching to the Hollywood set. She led expensive health retreats for the ladies visiting Elizabeth Arden’s Arizona spa and counted big name celebrities like Greta Garbo as followers.
The yoga that the latex-clad armies practice today isn’t exactly the same as that proselytized by Devi, though they are closely related (Goldberg refers to her as the “godparent” of the movement). Devi’s yoga was less aerobic than the modern iterations that focus on working up a sweat through vinyasas, jump backs, and various hybrid forms of exercise (a development Goldberg thinks Devi “might have cast a wry eye on”). But her practice did usher in one major change to yoga that particularly appealed to Western sensibilities: Classical yoga sought transcendence in order to commune with the divine, while Devi’s search for transcendence—and that of yoga today—is generally in pursuit of realizing one’s own individuality and purpose.
“The fact that yoga is now seen as a route toward individual development and a more efficacious life in the world is thus a historical irony,” Goldberg writes. “Eugenia would play an important role in this conceptual transformation.”
The Goddess Pose is an entertaining ride through a life that intersected with momentous events up until the end—Devi was just shy of 103 when she died in 2002. But Goldberg is clear-eyed about Devi’s shortcomings — her refusal to act in any way that wasn’t true to herself resulted in her being selfish, sometimes painfully so, when it came to her loved ones. Still, it’s hard not to admire her for throwing off convention, finding true independence, fulfillment, and, above all, happiness. And for teaching Western followers to be mindful and centered in the process.
Namaste, Indra Devi.