Indra Devi was a trail-blazing woman known as the “First Lady of Yoga.” She was famous for spreading the wisdom and joy of yoga around the world.
I first learned of this Russian-born yoga teacher during my 200-hour yoga teacher training. As a woman, yogini, and female yoga teacher I found her story to be very inspiring.
Let’s review how Devi became the first Western woman to study in an ashram in India. She didn't stop there. She also became the first female yoga teacher in India.
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The early life and background of Indra Devi
The “Mother of Western Yoga” was born on May 12, 1899 in Latvia as Eugenie V. Peterson. Her father was a Swedish bank director and her mother was a young Russian Aristocrat. Her parents separated shortly after her first birthday and her father became estranged. Meanwhile, her mother left home to become an actress.
Peterson was raised in her grandfather’s large estate under an Aristocratic household. She was homeschooled until the age of 10 and was coddled by her grandfather. She had a demanding personality at an early age that would serve her later in life.
When she finished school, she was sent to study theater in Moscow until she was 15 years of age. In 1914, she came across a book by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. The book introduced her to the word “yoga” and other philosophical texts. Her enchantment with India began and she immediately felt inspired to one day visit.
Indra Devi as a young adult
Peterson meditated for the first time and listened to ancient Sanskrit chants. This experience captivated her once more and she vowed to one day make a pilgrimage to India.
In 1927, banker Herman Bolm proposed to her. She agreed under one condition: that he pay for her journey to India and fulfill her dream before they wed. Knowing her infatuation, he agreed.
Three months later, Peterson returned a new woman. The solo pilgrimage changed her life. She ended her engagement to Bolm and sold all of her jewels and furs. She returned to Adyar, India–her spiritual home.
In India, she continued her career as an actress. She performed once at a party and met film director Bhawati Prasaf Mishra. She went on to star in his silent film “The Arabian Knight.” She became a Bollywood star and adopted the stage name of Indra Devi.
In 1930, Devi met and married Czech diplomat Jan Strakaty. The couple became very popular among social circles in Bombay. They were invited to and hosted buzz-worthy parties.
At another party, Devi met Jawaharlal Nehru–an activist and the first prime minister of India. He sparked her interest in yoga once again. He dazzled her with Hatha Yoga and the teachings of Patanjali. He shared with her that they were both essential to a spiritual practice.
She later met the Maharaja of Mysore through her husband. The Maharaja's palace of Mysore included a yoga school that was taught by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. She was driven to study yoga under the famous yogi.
Training with yoga masters in India
In early 1936, Devi received news that her husband would later be transferred to Shanghai. Her husband did not share her beliefs and spiritual ideas. However, he appreciated her independence and supported her endeavors.
Devi then approached Krishnamacharya and was denied from being able to learn from him. The famous yogi refused her for being a woman and a Westerner.
Devi was relentless and determined to practice yoga under Krishnamacharya. She asked her friend, the Maharaja, to intervene as he was Krishnamacharya’s employer.
He instructed Krishnamacharya to take her in as a student. Krishnamacharya challenged her with long hours of practice and a strict vegetarian diet. He was surprised to see her dedication and resilience as she met every challenge.
She was devoted to studying asana and pranayama. She practiced for 8 months alongside notable yoga gurus such as B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya was very impressed with Devi’s efforts. She managed to change his point of view and gained his respect.
Krishnamacharya later stated, “Women are the future in yoga and for yoga in the West.” He asked Devi to spread the yoga teachings in China when she left to join her husband in 1939.
Indra teaches yoga in China
Devi arrived in Shanghai in December of 1939 and reunited with her husband. She began to teach her first yoga classes in a gymnasium, even though yoga was unfamiliar in China at the time.
Devi had difficulty finding students. She hosted several instructional talks that would educate diplomats residing in Shanghai. She slowly gained a few students–mostly American women.
Devi’s Eastern exercise regimen began to spread quickly through word of mouth. She began to initiate more talks across Shanghai and yoga became easily recognized. Gradually, Devi began to offer more classes to her growing students.
War struck in China in December of 1941. Japanese soldiers occupied Shanghai and seized all American government officials. Devi continued to teach her yoga classes until no one was left to teach. In March of 1946, the war came to an end and Devi made her voyage back to Bombay.
Indra Devi's journey to the United States
Devi arrived in India full of purpose. She completed her first book Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness. She dedicated her book to the women of India. Later she was called “Mataji,” which means mother in Hindi. She became the first Westerner who taught yoga in India. She was also believed to be the first Westerner to publish a book on yoga there.
Her husband, Jan Strakaty, passed away in 1946. Devi traveled back to Shanghai to recover their belongings. She was uncertain if she would return to India or venture to the United States.
Devi bought tickets to both destinations. She boarded whichever ship sailed first. Again, she relocated and embarked on a new life in California.
Devi knew that Hollywood was the perfect place for her to reinvent herself. She was determined to spread the teachings of yoga. There was an interest in Eastern philosophy growing in Hollywood. And so, she opened the first yoga studio on Sunset Boulevard.
Popularizing yoga in Hollywood and beyond
Devi found a group of ready students among celebrities. She understood that the ancient practice needed to be presented in a way that would cater to Western tastes.
She packaged her teachings as a relaxing practice that promoted health and beauty. Her movie star students found the breathing techniques useful to their work. The techniques helped cure their anxiety and stress.
Devi’s classes were simple and based on gentleness rather than spirituality. She created a community of eager students. Among the students were celebrities such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, and Yehudi Menuhin.
I think that her success in Hollywood stemmed from her demanding and savvy personality. She was persistent in her mission to popularize yoga. Teaching yoga, she converted more than one high-profile friend into yoga enthusiast learning more about spiritual well-being.
The spread of yoga through teaching and writing
Devi developed her own form of Hatha Yoga. Her method was a gentle modern yoga that incorporated pranayama, asana, and diet. She avoided giving spiritual teachings and left that to the gurus. Her yoga teachings are primarily based on Puntajali and his yoga sutras.
Cosmetic expert and friend Elizabeth Arden, collaborated with Devi to teach in her spas. It was then that Gloria Swanson suggested she write another book. In 1953 Devi authored a second book titled Forever Young, Forever Healthy and then Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga in 1963. Both books were translated into ten different languages and sold in 26 countries.
Yoga for Americans was published in 1959 and outlines the relaxing yoga method she had developed over the years. She went on to write several more books based on her methods and studies she learned over her lifetime.
Devi’s sole mission was to bring yoga to the world. Western yoga still remains as Devi had left it. Most yoga studios are predominantly female practitioners unrolling their mats for practice. There is even a bridge between yoga and holistic spas thanks to her friend Elizabeth Arden.
Indra Devi's later years and legacy
In 1953, Devi married Dr. Siegrid Knauere. She became an American citizen and then officially changed her name to Indra Devi. Knauer was a preventative medicine doctor and humanist. They became a dynamic couple as alternative medicine providers.
In 1966 Devi returned back to her spiritual home, India. She furthered her yogic studies with Guru Sathya Sai Baba. Influenced by Baba’s philosophy, she began to call her style of yoga “Sai Yoga.” It consisted of both Hatha Yoga and meditation.
Her second husband passed away in 1977. Years later she found herself in Argentina. When she arrived in 1983, she immediately fell in love with the country. Her style of Sai Yoga was popular in Buenos Aires. However, Devi's popularity really took off after a single television appearance. She then decided to spend the rest of her life in Argentina.
In 1988 she founded Fundacion Indra Devi and opened six yoga studios around Buenos Aires. The studios are still operating today! In 1999, over 3,000 guests joined in to celebrate her 100th birthday.
Devi continued her teachings until she passed away in Buenos Aires on April 25, 2002. She was 102 years old and her ashes were spread across the Rio de la Plata.
Her legacy as the “First Lady of Yoga” lives on today. Devi was an assertive and persistent woman who broke the barrier to a male-dominated ancient discipline. And with that, she went on to spread the yoga teachings to the Western world.
Takeaway on Indra Devi
Indra Devi was an extraordinary woman who became the first female yoga teacher in India. She took the teachings of yoga to the world and even shared her teachings among world leaders.
In 1939 she guided the first yoga class in China. She persuaded the Communist Soviet leadership to legalize yoga in 1960. She founded the Indra Devi Foundation in Argentina in 1988. This foundation operates six studios that 25,000 students still pass through today.
Devi was a spirited woman who modernized Hatha Yoga for Western society. She was one of the most influential practitioners and a remarkable woman.
I reflect on her work in my own personal practice to this day. I honor how she relentlessly followed her dreams and made them come true. Devi believed that you cannot allow someone to hinder your spiritual growth. She led a fulfilling life and has been such an inspiration to me and thousands more.
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