A portrait of the First Lady of Yoga

Indra Devi teaching yoga. Moscow. 1991.Source: RIA Novosti

Indra Devi teaching yoga. Moscow. 1991.Source: RIA Novosti

Known in India and all over the world, she was one of the first yoga teachers in the West. She toured the world with her lectures and seminars, but has not opened a school in Russia.

Yoga was out of favour in the Soviet Union, with the Communists seeking to be the only gurus. People secretly passed around printed yoga manuals and read them to tatters. When the first yoga book was finally published in 1992, Yoga for You (translated into Russian), few people knew that the author, Indra Devi, was of Russian descent and that her fascination with yoga began in Tsarist Russia.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 15-year old Eugenie Peterson came across a book that would change her life: Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. As she browsed through the book, she felt her heart beating faster: “Yoga! India! I must go there!” Yet, many years passed before her dream finally came true.

Eugenie was born on 12 May 1899 in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire. Her father, Vasily Peterson, was a bank director, and her mother, Alexandra Vasilyevna, was a theatre actress under the stage name Labunskaya.

Future Indra Devi finished school in Petrograd in 1917 and soon became a drama student in Moscow. She had a bright future ahead of her, but all she could think about was India…

The 1917 October Revolution was followed by a brutal Civil War, Eugenie and her mother escaped to Latvia and from there to Poland, finally settling in Berlin in 1921.

Forgotten call

In 1926, Eugenie learnt about the upcoming congress of Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society in Holland, to be attended by Jiddu Krishnamurti, a renowned yoga master, poet and philosopher. “For some inexplicable reason I decided that I must go to this congress in Holland,” Eugenie recalled later.

The Congress was held at Ommen, the estate of a noble Dutch theosophist. Over 4,000 participants pitched tents in the local park and cooked vegetarian food for themselves. First Eugenie saw it as some kind of Oriental exoticism, but one evening she heard Krishnamurti singing holy hymns in Sanskrit. “I had this feeling that I was hearing a long forgotten call, familiar but distant. This was a turning point for me, the week I spent in the camp changed my life,” Eugenie would recall many years later.

Meanwhile, Ms Peterson-Labunskaya was making a good theatrical career for herself, having many fans in Berlin. When Hermann Bolm, a banker, proposed to her, she said yes, but on the condition that he pay for her trip to India – a cherished dream – before the wedding. Bolm gave her the money.

On 17 November 1927 Eugenie set out for her first trip to India, managing to cover the entire country from south to north. At first she “found Indian customs and habits strange: wearing a sari, sitting on the floor, bathing the way Indians bathed, and eating with your right hand.” But she learnt all that very quickly, embracing Indian culture and assimilating herself very quickly.

Three months later, during the first meeting with her fiancé upon her return, Eugenie returned the engagement ring. She felt guilty, but hoped that he would understand: “My home is in India.”

Arabian Knight Star

How yoga came to Russia...
Three Indian nationals paved the way for the development of Yoga in Russia in 1989: Guru Iyengar (who who visited Russia twice), Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi (founder of Sahaja Yoga) and Guru Bhajan (Kundalini Yoga and White Tantric Yoga). They selected disciples from among the Russian enthusiasts. But there were Russian followers – for example, construction engineer Viktor Boyko from Sevastopol. Having “fallen” for yoga at the age of 16, when he was 24 (in 1971) he translated a book by Guru Iyengar into Russia and began to practise it. In 1989 the USSR held its first national conference on yoga, as a result of which the USSR Yoga Association was formed. Up to now there wasn’t any convincing marketing research of the yoga market in Russia. Inga Yakhney, an expert at the Fitness Professionals Association (FPA), believes that today one in three Russians following a healthy lifestyle does yoga.
Yoga has its followers among Russian elite: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in one interview that he practices yoga regularly, and former first lady Naina Yeltsina proclaims it should be “practiced in every Russian home”.

Eugenie sold the few jewels and furs she had and left for India, for good, as she thought.

She was exploring India, or rather “recalling” it, as she often had a feeling of deja vu. She decided to study Indian classical dance, so she went to take lessons from the famous dancer Enakshi Rama Rao. She was very much surprised, however, when her instructor told her after several lessons that the course was over. “You know everything already,” she explained.

Once she was dancing an Indian temple dance at the meeting of the Theosophical Society in Adyar and attracted the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru. She was introduced to him, and they developed what she called “a loving friendship”. Adyar is also where popular film director Bhagwati Prasad Mishra offered her a role in his new film Sher-e-Arab (Arabian Knight), with Prithviraj Kapoor, the founder of India’s film dynasty, in the leading male role.

The film’s premier in January 1930 made Eugenie an overnight global sensation. Mishra suggested she choose a pseudonym and gave her a list to choose from; she pointed randomly at Indra Devi.

At one social gathering Eugenie met Jan Strakaty, commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay, whom she would soon marry. She became a colonial socialite. Receptions, balls, horse races… The Strakatys were received by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nehru family, the Roerichs; they would meet with the leaders of India’s liberation movement.

“The only thing I could not abandon was my friendship with Indians of all castes and ranges, though this violated the strict code of conduct for white people living in India. I met the people I wanted to meet, and received everyone I wanted to receive,” she wrote. Her husband was an open-minded man, allowing her complete freedom in this respect.

This lifestyle, however, soon began to weigh heavily on Eugenie. Yes, she is in India, but... “Did I come here to live like this? What happened to my plans to work, help people and study? And I told myself that it was time to act, change my life and start everything from scratch,” She would write later.

In Mysore Yoga Shala

One time a friend staying with the couple suddenly started experiencing heart trouble. Indra recalled how Indian yoga masters demonstrated their healing methods and concentrated all her thoughts on curing her ill friend. He recovered, but the following day she herself experienced chest pains and had to stay in bed. A local doctor diagnosed her with heart failure, but the prescribed treatment did not help. European doctors proved helpless, too. She thus spent the subsequent four years rocking back and forth between getting better and worse.

Now, 1 in 3 Russians practice yoga
According to some estimates over 90 yoga studios in 70 Russian cities offer now yoga classes and workshops to all comers. Khatuna Kobiashvili, publisher of Yoga Journal, says there is a minimum of 200–300,000 people in the country practising various types of yoga.” But according to him the growth continues: in the last five years it has been 400–500%. Maxim Yushko, executive director of the Yoga Practika network, roughly estimates the entire market at several tens of millions of dollars per year.

A friend of hers, who himself studied yoga for many years, said: “You applied a yoga method. Why won’t you discuss your illness with yogis? This would be logical.”

Indra heeded his advice and came to the legendary guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. She decided to take a course in yoga to recover and adopt a healthy lifestyle, but the guru looked her up and down with an ironic glance and said that yoga was for Indian men only. Indeed, only young Kshatriyas studied at the Mysore Yoga Shala in 1937.

“It would be impossible for me to take on a woman, especially a foreign one. It cannot be done,” the guru insisted. “He could work miracles, such as stop his heart and turn the lights on and off at a distance. But he could not get rid of me,” Indra Devi said. Yet, Krishnamacharya did relent after Maharaja of Mysore interfered by putting in a word for Indra. Indra was admitted to the yoga shale, but Krishnamacharya was not going to take it easy on her. The diplomat’s wife had to comply with strict discipline and observe a strict diet, avoiding any “dead” products, including not just meat but also white sugar, flour, rice, and preserves. Root vegetables, such as potato, onion and carrot, were also excluded. She was allowed to eat only whatever the sun shined on. The students got up before dawn, and they had to go to bed before 9 at night. It was also forbidden to use a stove to warm oneself up. “I have no special classes for women,” Krishnamacharya told her right off the bat; she had to keep up with the male students.

Things were very difficult for Indra at first, but, little by little, she got used to everything, losing weight and completely recovering from her strange disease. Appreciating her zeal, Krishnamacharya began working with her individually.

“He said I was ready to move on to the next stage of training. The next day he asked me to come earlier and locked the door. He sat on the floor and began to show me special secret exercises to control my breathing and told me to write everything down,” Indra Devi recalled.

Teaching yoga in Moscow
Teaching yoga as such is not considered a profitable business. Individual lessons in Moscow cost about $100, but a group lesson is about 600 roubles. But the busiest times in yoga clubs are the morning and the evening, so they cannot hold more than four lessons per day. And teachers with a name well-known enough to build a club around it are expensive. These days they ask for up to 50% of the subscription price.

In 1938 she became the first foreign woman among dedicated yogis. When Krishnamacharya learned that her husband was to be transferred to China, he called her again: “You are now leaving us, you will teach yoga. You can do it, and you will do it.”

Indra thought this was unbelievable: as a newly dedicated yogi, she could not grasp that she, too, would be a guru one day. In India, however, people don’t argue with their teachers. On a ship to China she realised that, for the first time ever she no longer wants to dance, wear jewellery and expensive clothes. It was then that she put on a light sari, which became the only clothing she recognised hereafter.

In 1939, she opened a school in Shanghai at the house of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast. There were many Americans and Russians among her pupils. More and more people began to call her Mataji, which means mother. Devi was giving lectures on yoga, including free lessons in orphanages.

Yoga for Americans

Indra decided to change her life following the unexpected death of her husband. With eight years of teaching experience, the renowned guru left for the United States in 1947. A year later she opened a yoga studio in Hollywood. To make yoga popular, Indra turned to publicly influential celebrities. “Most people like to copy their idols. So, a great many decided to study yoga only because Gloria Swanson, Yehudi Menuhin, Pandit Nehru, and Ben Gurion were known to pursue yoga,” she wrote in one of her books.

Mataji gradually developed a style of yoga adapted for the West, including yoga asana, most suitable for white people, special breathing techniques and diets. At the same time, Indra Devi always stressed that her method relied on the classical yoga of Patañjali.

In 1953 Indra married again, this time walking down the aisle for the well-known doctor Siegfried Knauer. In the mid-1950s she was granted American citizenship and put her Indra Devi pseudonym in her new passport.

Queen of assanas in USSR

In I960, Indra Devi’s name grabbed headlines all over the world. “Brave female yogi puts the Kremlin upside down.” Such was the reaction to her visit to the Soviet Union. Mataji decided to visit Russia, where she had emigrated from 40 years ago, after she read a small article about yoga in a Soviet magazine. She began to ask around about whether yoga really was practiced in the Soviet Union or not. In reply she received an invitation to visit the USSR.

In Moscow, Indra Devi visited the Indian Embassy, where she met an old acquaintance from India. “How wonderful that you came!” he exclaimed. “They think here that yoga is some kind of Oriental religion! We have to relieve the truth to them.” A few days later, she received a personal invitation from Indian Ambassador Kumar Menon to a formal reception, where he introduced her to Communist party leaders. She explained to them the ideas of ancient Indian teaching. Come the end of her class, the then Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko proposed a toast: “To Indra Devi, who opened our eyes to yoga.” The following day she was expecting a flood of phone calls from reporters and from those wanting to study yoga. But she did not get anything of the sort, and ended up leaving the Soviet Union disillusioned.

Argentine final

Russian-born Indra Devi, known to followers as the 'First Lady of Yoga', died at 102 on April 25, 2002, in Argentina, her home for 17 years. The photo was taken in Buenos Aires. Source: STR New / Reuters

In 1961, Indra Devi moved to Mexico and founded the International Training Centre for Yoga Teachers. She continued to visit India several times a year, even moving there for a while following her husband’s death.

It seemed she had little choice but to remain in her spiritual motherland for the rest of her life. But Indra Devi felt strong enough to continue her mission.

In 1982, she visited Argentina to give a series of lectures; after a single television appearance, her popularity exploded across the country. Three years later, Mataji decided to settle in Argentina and build a system for spreading classical yoga throughout Latin America.

In 1990, she visited the Soviet Union again, celebrating her 91st birthday in Moscow. By this time, yoga had already grown vastly in popularity. In 1989, the first all-union yoga conference was held, called «Yoga: Improving Your Health and Empowering Oneself”, which is where the Yoga Association was founded.

She caught the Russian public eye when appearing on a popular TV programme in a sari while sitting on a sofa in a lotus pose. The following day she was mobbed by autograph seekers who easily spotted her on the streets of Moscow.

At the end of her life, having toured the whole of the world, Mataji used to say that three countries were particularly dear to her: Russia, where she was born, India, her spiritual motherland, and Argentina, which she called “an amicable country”.

Indra celebrated her 100th birthday in Buenos Aires. Over 3,000 guests came to celebrate and wish her good health. Her health, however, worsened in 2002; she could not even go to India where she wanted to spend her last days. The First Lady of Yoga died on 25 April 2002 in Buenos Aires. Her body was cremated, as the traditions of her spiritual motherland call for, and her ashes were scattered over Rio de la Plata.

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