In the mid-ninetees, after about a year into the practice of meditation and yoga, I heard of her; one of the iconic yoga masters in modern time- Indra Devi.
I started to read about her and dvelving deeper into her story and I got more and more intrigued. And when I learned that she was an strong woman, in films, a devoted yogi, a traveler and of Swedish descent, I of course felt more kinship and she became a huge inspiration for me.
Indra Devi, was the daughter of European nobility and she is most famous for introducing the ancient discipline of yoga to the Kremlin leadership, Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson and students in India.She was known to her followers as Mataji, which means mother, and she was a student of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the legendary guru who gained worldwide attention for stopping his heartbeat for two minutes. At a time when yoga was almost an exclusively masculine pursuit, she was his first female student.
Like two of his other students, B.K.S. Iyengar and Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, who were both men, Hindus and Indians, she took his essential teachings and built a style of yoga accessible to Westerners and non-Hindus. It was characterized by gentleness.
An Ambassador of Yoga
Indra was born Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia, on May 12, 1899. Her father was a Swedish bank director, and her mother was a Russian noblewoman. She attended drama school in Moscow as a girl, and escaped to Berlin with her mother when the Communists came to power in 1917.
In Berlin, she became an actress and dancer. Her fascination with India began at 15, when she read a book by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, then some books on yoga. In 1927, she sailed for India.
Under the stage name Indra Devi, she became a rising star in Indian films. In 1930, she married Jan Strakaty, commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. Through him, she met the Maharaja and Maharini of Mysore, who maintained a yoga school in their palace where Sri Krishnamacharya taught.
She asked the master for a lesson. He refused, on the grounds that she was a Westerner and a woman. But she persuaded the royal couple to prevail upon the guru, and he reluctantly consented, said Fernando Pages Ruiz, a freelance writer who interviewed her.
Rather than the cursory lessons he had at first intended, Sri Krishnamacharya taught her for a year. When he learned that her husband was to be transferred to China, he trained her to be a yoga teacher.
Going to China
In Shanghai, she taught what was thought to be the first yoga class in modern China, Mr. Ruiz said. Her husband, she said in a 1996 interview in Yoga Journal, was ”dead set against” her yoga courses. It was also the time of the Japanese occupation.
For a time she held five classes of 25 students a day in the bedroom of Madame Chiang Kaishek, wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast.
After the war, she returned to India and wrote her first book, believed to be the first book on yoga written by a Westerner to be published in India. She also became known as the first Westerner to teach yoga there.
Her husband, meanwhile, had been ordered back to Czechoslovakia, where he died in 1946.
Destiny brought her to Hollywood
She returned to Shanghai to recover their belongings and was unsure whether to go to India or the United States. She bought tickets for both destinations and resolved to take whichever ship sailed first. America won.
She found her way to Hollywood, arriving in January 1947. She discovered ready students among movie stars, who found yoga’s breathing and relaxation techniques useful to their work.
She taught yoga for at Elizabeth Arden’s spas in Maine and Arizona, but refused to join the staff.
In 1953, she married Dr. Siegrid Knauer, who preferred preventive medicine to antibiotics. After becoming an American citizen, she legally changed her name to Indra Devi.
Dr. Knauer bought her a 24-room estate in Tecate, Mexico, at which to give training courses for yoga teachers. He died in 1977.
In 1960, India’s ambassador to Moscow arranged for her to meet the top Soviet leaders, including Aleksei Kosygin, the premier, Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, and Anastas Mikoyan, chairman of the Supreme Soviet. After she spoke to them of the benefits of yoga, it was legalized in Russia.
In 1966, she became captivated by the teachings of the guru Satya Sai Baba. This resulted in a new form of yoga that she called Sai Yoga.
She traveled and taught around the world. In 1982, she visited Argentina, where her popularity snowballed after a single television appearance. She formed a foundation to spread her yoga methods. At the time of her death in 2002 at the age of 102, it operated six studios.
Thank you Indra for being you and for making way for women in yoga.
Om Shri guru bhyoh Namaha,