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Health Contributions in History: Indra Devi, Mother of Western Yoga

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“Yoga means union, in all its significances and dimensions.” – Indra Devi

Yoga has been shown to have numerous health and wellness benefits. Yoga has become increasingly popular to help improve your flexibility, strength, and posture, helping reduce muscle and body pain.  A consistent practice of Yoga also helps reduce anxiety, depression, and stress levels, plus it improves sleep.

In this blog, we’re shining the spotlight on Yoga pioneer Indra Devi who broke the men-only barrier and helped spread the ancient practice to the Western world.

From its inception 4,500 years ago until the mid 20th century, yoga was exclusively taught and practiced by men in India. Indra Devi convinced Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, to teach her when yoga was forbidden to women.

Indra became a seminal yoga practitioner, teaching celebrities including Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, and Greta Garbo. She’s best known for breaking barriers and making yoga accessible to everyone.

Early Life

Born Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia, on May 12, 1899, Indra Devi’s father was a Swedish bank director, and her mother was Russian royalty. When the communist came to power in 1917, she and her mother fled to Berlin. There Devi became a dancer and actress.

In 1927, she sailed to India to become a film star under the name Indra Devi. In 1930, she married Jan Stratkaty, a member of the Czechoslovak embassy in Bombay. Through her husband, Indra Devi met Krishnamacharya.

Indra approached Sri Krishnamacharya about teaching her yoga. He said at the time. It would be impossible for me to take on a woman, especially a foreign one. “It cannot be done.”

Eventually, her desire to learn and persistence won out, and he agreed to train Indra to become a teacher herself. Indra was the first woman and the first non-Indian to have trained under Krishnamacharya. After spending the war years in China and upon her husband’s death, Indra made her way to America in 1947.

Eva Gabor with Indra Devi

Indra in America

When Indra opened her first studio in Hollywood, little was known in America about the ancient Indian practice of yoga.

Indra was a spirited and charismatic person, and it took her little time to gather a following among the movie stars. A photo of Indra teaching poses to Eva Gabor was widely seen and made her a celebrity in her own right. Soon Indra’s brand of modern, secular yoga had Los Angeles housewives flocking to her studio.

She became friends with the expert cosmetologist Elizabeth Arden and taught at her spas in Arizona and Maine. During this time, Devi wrote “Forever Young, Forever Healthy” and “Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga,” which soon became best sellers. In 1959, Indra published “Yoga for Americans,” which became a staple for budding yoga practitioners everywhere.

For over 60 years, Indra Devi was one of yoga’s most influential forces, spending most of her life traveling and teaching yoga around the world.  Even after she reached the advanced age of 100, Indra Devi continued to practice yoga. Her followers called her Mataji, a Hindi term meaning “respected mother.” The title is a singular honor for the woman who exemplified yoga’s principles of love and light that lasted nearly all of her 102 years.

Indra’s Legacy

Today, in America alone, over 55 million people practice yoga because of the many benefits you gain – from more flexibility and strength to a relaxed mindset.

Devi developed and taught a form of hatha yoga that remains one of the most popular forms of yoga today. It includes postures called asanas and breathing exercises called pranayama.  Some of the asana body postures she taught included:

Sirsasana – the Headstand

The headstand has restorative benefits for the nervous system and helps improve balance, body alignment, and strength.  It’s considered the most valuable asana.

Padamasana – the Lotus Pose

The ancient sitting posture called the lotus pose is the most recognized and used for steadiness and breathing.

Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog is one of the best-known asanas. It helps release tension in your shoulders, aligns your spine, and helps strengthen your arms and legs.

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