If you’ve ever practiced yoga you may have Indra Devi to thank. She began her extraordinary life in 1899 in Riga, Latvia as Eugenia Petersen. From there she went on to become a cabaret performer, a Bollywood star, and an ambassador’s wife. And this was before she discovered yoga.
Michelle Goldberg’s new biography, “The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West,” makes the point that this wasn’t a case of wealthy dilettantism. Devi was a woman whose passion drove her to abandon a suitor, sell off furs and otherwise do whatever was necessary to move to India. And she did it more than once.
Devi’s interest in the Indian subcontinent sprang from an attraction to spirituality, in particular theosophy and one of its rising stars, Jiddu Krishnamurti. However, Krishnamurti abandoned the movement not long after Devi met him, crystallizing a pattern of instability that had and would continue to follow her.
As a teenager she was forced to flee Russia. She lived through the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, and later she counseled Diaz Herrera, the Panamania colonel who famously spoke out against Manuel Noriega.
Even her subsequent guru, Sai Baba, proved unsuitable for following. Yet despite the shifting ground, Devi didn’t lapse into bitterness or despondence. If anything, she found constancy in her ability to transform. Perhaps this is why she lived, as Ms. Goldberg writes, “happily ever after.”
Interestingly, though Devi introduced yoga around the world to everyone from Greta Garbo to Kremlin leaders to the Argentinian pop star Piero, she didn’t even begin to study the practice until the 1930s, and at a time when it was the province of men.
In fact, the yogi Krishnamacharya infamously refused to teach her, because she was neither male nor Hindu. But Devi would not go away, and eventually he relented. Maybe this is why she so often expressed the belief that in the coming age of equality between men and women, women were going to have to be stronger physically, mentally and emotionally.
For Devi, yoga was the way to achieve all three. Of course she taught men as well, and in her later years she was particularly fond of visiting jails to convince hardened criminals of yoga’s powers.
While the book does weave together this complex tapestry masterfully, the way it’s written Devi appears in flashes, like some kind of sprightly fairy. Ms. Goldberg opens with a lengthy story about her own personal experience with yoga, detailing her personal skepticism about practice, as well as the difficulties she had researching Devi’s scattershot life. It was interesting enough, but I opened the book not to read about the author, but the author’s subject. Continue reading >>