Have you ever wondered how yoga came West? While there’s probably no single person solely responsible for bringing yoga to North America, there is one amazing woman who played a major role. Her name was Indra Devi, and her story is intriguing.
Indra Devi was born Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia in 1899. She was raised in Russia, where she lived until the time of the Russian Revolution. Eugenie discovered yoga when she read about it as a teenager. Enthralled by the practice, she decided she decided she would travel to India one day.
In 1917, during the revolution, Eugenie left Russia. After living for a while in Latvia and then Poland, she ended up in Berlin, Germany in 1921. A trained actress and dancer, Eugenie joined a theatre group that performed all over Europe. In 1926, she encountered the yoga master and poet Krishnamurti when she heard him chanting in Sanskrit at an event she attended in Holland. Eugenie later said this event changed her life.
Trip to India
The next year, Eugenie’s fiancé Hermann Bolm financed the trip to India that Eugenie had dreamed of since she was a teenager. Unfortunately for Hermann, Eugenie called off the engagement when she returned. She sold her possessions, and returned to India to live under the stage name Indra Devi. A few years later, now a rising star in India, Indra Devi married a Czechoslovakian man and became a socialite.
Over time, Indra Devi befriended Mahatma Gandhi and other prominent figures in India. But her lifestyle began to take a toll on her health. After several years of unsuccessful treatment for recurring chest pain, a friend suggested she try yoga.
Indra Devi Breaks the Mold
Devi wanted to study yoga with Krishnamacharya. However, yoga was a man’s practice in those days, and Krishnamacharaya initially refused to accept her as a student. She was a woman and a Westerner, after all. But some persuasive intervention from the Maharaja changed the guru’s mind. Indra Devi became Krishmacharaya’s first female student.
Indra Devi’s devotion and discipline impressed her guru, and he soon took her on as a private student. Some of her fellow students included K. Pattabi Jois, pioneer of Asthanga Yoga and B.K.S. Iyengar!
In 1939, Indra’s husband was relocated and the two moved to China, where Devi began teaching yoga. Students came from Russia and America to study with her. Eventually, she returned to India and wrote what is believed to be the first book on yoga penned by a Westerner. She also became the first woman to teach yoga in India.
After her husband died, Indra Devi moved to the United States and opened a yoga school in Hollywood. She became an American in the 1950s and legally changed her name to Indra Devi. With the help of her movie star students, who helped publicize her studio, yoga took root in America. Indra later move to Argentina, where she died in 2002 at the age of 102!
If you’re a woman or a Westerner as well as a devoted yogi, you can thank Indra Devi for helping to open the doors to a practice once reserved primarily for men in India.