When a Russian yogini took India’s ancient discipline to Hollywood

Indra Devi was known as the "First Lady of Yoga". Source: Reuters

Indra Devi was known as the "First Lady of Yoga". Source: Reuters

Indra Devi, the daughter of a Russian noblewoman, discovered Indian culture as a teenager and went on to become the first European woman to write a book about yoga. She took India’s ancient discipline to Hollywood and taught yoga to legendary actress Greta Garbo and violinist Yehudi Mehunin.

Yoga is now enjoying an unprecedented wave of popularity both in Russia and the West.  A few great teachers helped popularize the ancient Indian spiritual and physical discipline in the Western world, including Paramahansa Yogananda. Indra Devi (born Evgeniya Peterson), a Russian actress and dancer turned yoga teacher, also played a significant role in spreading yoga, becoming one of the greatest bridges between India, Russia and the West.

Born in 1899 in the Latvian city of Riga, which was then a part of the Russian Empire, Peterson was the daughter of a Swedish bank director and Russian noblewoman.

As a young girl growing up in the twilight of the Russian Empire, she developed an interest in India after reading the works of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Peterson, who would enrol in drama school in Moscow, was forced to flee Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Life in India

Living in Berlin in the 1920s, she became an actress and dancer and grew increasingly fascinated with India. At the age of 28, she sold her jewels and fur to raise money for a voyage to the country.

It was in India that Peterson adopted the name Indra Devi. She took dance lessons from actress and dancer Enakshi Rama Rao. Soon, the Russian woman started performing publicly as a dancer and her performances were even praised by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Indra Devi then tried her luck in India’s young film industry. She acted in a Hindi film titled ‘Sher-e-Arab’ with Prithviraj Kapoor. The film was a success and Indra Devi became an overnight sensation.

While she looked poised to have a promising career as an actress, destiny would have other plans for the Russian woman. She married a Czech diplomat, who introduced her to the Maharaja and Maharani of Mysore. The royal family of Mysore maintained a yoga school, where Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, known as ‘the father of modern yoga,’ taught.

Indra Devi approached Krishnamacharya, who was also B.K.S. Iyengar’s guru, to teach her yoga, but he initially refused on the grounds that she was a woman and a European. The Mysore royal couple intervened and the Indian guru reluctantly agreed to teach Indra Devi.

The lessons went on for a year and the Russian woman developed a strong bond with her guru. When Krishnamacharya found out that Indra Devi’s husband was being transferred to China, he trained her to become a teacher.

In China, she started teaching illustrious citizens, including Madame Chiang Kaishek.

Indra Devi would return to India after World War II and write a book titled ‘Yoga for You.’ The book was published in America under the title ‘Yoga for Americans.’

Yoga guru in Hollywood

After her husband’s untimely death, Indra Devi moved to the United States and became a full time yoga teacher. She was called Mataji in the U.S., where she adapted yoga to meet the needs of Westerners.

Indra Devi became a sensation in Hollywood after it became known that she was teaching famous actresses such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. Violinist and conductor Yehudi Mehunin was also one of her students.

Yoga was a craze among Hollywood celebrities in the 1950s and 60s. “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,” Indra Devi wrote in one of her books. Decades later, this is still the case with a growing number of successful entrepreneurs, athletes and leaders professing their passion for yoga.

Yoga in the USSR

Indra Devi went back to Russia in 1960 with a quest to get yoga legalized. Although yoga had been practised by eminent Russians since the late 19th century, the Soviets viewed it with suspicion and made it illegal in the 1930s.

Her old friend K.P.S. Menon, who was India’s Ambassador in Moscow, arranged a meeting between Indra Devi and top Soviet leaders, including Premier Aleksei Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

At a reception, she explained what yoga was all about to the Soviet leaders.  Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko then proposed a toast: “To Indra Devi, who opened our eyes to yoga.” 

Unfortunately, it would take decades before yoga was completely legalized in Russia.

Indra Devi would only be back in Moscow in 1990, by when yoga was legal and becoming popular once again. She appeared in a popular TV programme in a sari while sitting on a sofa in a lotus pose. She was allegedly mobbed by autograph seekers the next day in Moscow.

The Russian yogini would dedicate several decades of her life to spreading the Indian discipline in the unchartered lands of Central and South America.

She moved to Argentina in 1982 and lived there until her death at the age of 102 in Buenos Aires in 2002.

Indra Devi remained deeply connected with India and would regularly visit the country until her death.

Ajay Kamalakaran is RBTH’s Consulting Editor for Asia. Read more of his articles here. Follow Ajay on Twitter and Quora.

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