When I started yoga, I thought I knew what yoga was. A series of postures meant to stretch those parts of the body that never got any stretching.
The longer I pursued yoga, the less I knew what it actually was. The more I looked into it, the more elusive it became.
Interestingly, there’s a book out now that looks at how yoga became popular (and what it was before it became popular). The book is called “The Goddess Pose” by Michelle Goldberg, and it’s the biography of Indra Devi, the teacher who (among others) is credited with bringing yoga to the west.
So how did yoga become what it is now?
Well, it’s fascinating to think that Krishnamacharya (born in 1888), who later taught Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, actually studied hatha yoga at a time when the upper class looked down on it:
The ash-covered mendicants contorting on the banks of rivers had roughly the same cultural capital as unwashed street buskers. The respectable aspects of yoga were those techniques that had to do with breath control, meditation and a philosophy that spoke of transcending worldly concerns.
However, things changed in the 1920s, when the population’s interest in physical fitness was sparked. The maharaja of Mysore appointed Krishnamacharya to teach yoga at his palace. When developing his teachings (this is where ‘vinyasa yoga’ makes its first appearance) he looked at ancient texts and teachings. However,
…the sequences he developed also included drills used by Indian wrestlers and lunges and twists from European gymnastics routines.
So this is where the book’s main character, Indra Devi, comes into play. Maybe less famous, but more crucial to the international success of yoga as a discipline, or so the book alleges. In any case, it’s interesting to look at her a little more closely. Her life has been eventful, to say the least – and it’s hardly possible to summarise it in a few sentences.
Born in Latvia in 1899 (as Eugenia Peterson, in fact), she lived in Kiev, St Petersburg and Berlin, mostly working as a cabaret actor. Things took a new turn for her when she saw the Indian guru Krishnamurti at a gathering of theosophists in the Netherlands.
Devi was moved, became a vegetarian, and travelled to the headquarters of the theosophist movement in Adyar, India to join Krishnamurti’s entourage. […] She adopted “Indra Devi” as a stage name during a brief stint as a Bollywood actor [and] began doing yoga a few years later.
She later started studying with Krishnamacharya in Mysore – as his only female student. It was Krishnamacharya who encouraged her to spread his teachings.
Married to a diplomat, Indra Devi moved around a lot (stops included Shanghai and then later California) and undoubtedly had access to influential people from Hollywood, exactly those ones mere mortals can only dream of calling on. It actually turns out that Indra Devi was the first yoga teacher in Los Angeles and her clients included, among others, Greta Garbo.
Of course she then went on to write books – and the rest is history.
It bears to show that the type of yoga we’re doing now and the different styles we presume have been in existence all along were really products of some twists and turns of history!
Have you read the book? What did you think?
Image credit and book review, including above quotes here.