Among the prominent figures of the 20th century who enabled the spread and popularization of postural yoga in the West, names often mentioned include Krishnamacharya and his disciples Patthabi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, T.K.V Desikachar, as well as Swami Sivananda and his disciples, such as André Van Lysbeth. However, a frequently overlooked disciple of Krishnamacharya, who led an absolutely fascinating life and greatly contributed to popularizing postural yoga in the United States (and beyond!), especially by teaching it to Hollywood celebrities, is Indra Devi.
The First Foreign Disciple of Krishnamacharya
Born Eugénie Peterson in 1899 in Riga, then a territory of the Russian Empire, she who would rename herself Indra Devi upon her arrival in India discovered the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore during her adolescence. This marked the beginning of her fascination with Indian culture and India itself. A dancer and actress in Berlin, she first set foot in India in 1927, having accepted a marriage proposal from a German banker, on the condition that he allow her to travel to India first. After three months of travel, she broke off her engagement and sold everything she owned to settle in Madras, now known as Chennai.
Fréquentant les cercles de la Société Théosophique, elle se lie d’amitié avec Jawaharlal Nehru, alors militant pour l’indépendance de l’Inde et futur premier ministre de l’Inde indépendante. Elle joue dans un film indien sous le nom d’Indra Devi en 1930, l’année où elle épouse un diplomate tchèque à Mumbai. Elle s’intéresse de plus en plus au yoga postural, fascinée par les démonstrations publiques de Krishnamacharya dans lesquelles il parvient à arrêter ses battements de cœur. C’est avec réticence que Krishnamacharya accepte d’enseigner le yoga à une femme étrangère, et c’est suite à l’intervention du Raj de Mysore, son employeur, qu’il finira par céder : Indra Devi devient ainsi la première femme étrangère à étudier le yoga avec lui. Réputé pour sa sévérité (dont B.K.S Iyengar garde des souvenirs amers), Krishnamacharya soumet Indra Devi à un régime ascétique strict, testant ainsi sa détermination.
And Yoga Arrives on Sunset Boulevard...
In the late 1930s, her husband was transferred to China, and Krishnamacharya asked Indra Devi to spread yoga there, which she set out to do, initiating the transmission of postural yoga in the Middle Kingdom. Following the death of her husband, and the resumption of the civil war in China in 1946, Indra Devi exiled herself to California in 1947. With her worldly experience as a diplomat's wife, she quickly connected with personalities such as author Aldous Huxley or Jiddu Krishnamurti, who introduced her to Californian circles fond of spirituality, with an orientalist leaning. Her encounter with Paul Bragg, advisor to movie stars and precursor to the gurus of wellness and natural health that proliferate today, completed her introduction into a Hollywood then in its golden age. Indra Devi opened her yoga studio in 1948 on the famous Sunset Boulevard, and among her students were many stars of the time, such as Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Eva Gabor, as well as Elizabeth Arden, the head of the eponymous beauty and cosmetics company.
Yoga as an Elixir of Youth and Stress Relief
She exclusively taught postural yoga, based on pranayama (breathing) and asana (postures). She indeed believed that spiritual teachings were the prerogative of Indian gurus. Is this a form of humility towards the teaching of a foreign spiritual tradition, or conversely, a sanitization of yoga, reduced to a form of exercise devoid of any reference to its spiritual foundations? The debate remains open. Researcher Elliott Goldberg, who dedicates several chapters of his book The Path of Modern Yoga (2016, Inner Traditions) to the transformations of yoga introduced by Indra Devi, analyzes her success as a result of her reframing yoga as "a beauty secret, an elixir of youth, and a health stimulator" (p.352), aimed at a predominantly female audience. At a time when so-called male gymnastics aimed to strengthen men's muscles and vigor to make them paragons of virility, the rise of so-called female gymnastics aimed, in turn, to make women more beautiful and graceful (have we really evolved since then? You have four hours). Through her books like Forever Young, Forever Healthy (1953) and Yoga For Americans (1959), Indra Devi presented yoga as a gentle and natural method to combat aging, a beauty and holistic health secret, as proven by the famous Hollywood icons who were her students. She thus contributed to its popularization in the West as a discipline for women, while in India, it remained primarily the prerogative of men at the time. Furthermore, in societies still traumatized by the horrors of the Second World War and already plunged into the Cold War, right in the heart of the "age of anxiety", Indra Devi also presented yoga as a relaxation technique intended to combat stress and depression.
Yoga in Service of the Ego?
By reformulating the objectives of yoga from spiritual liberation to a bodily discipline aimed at health, youth, beauty, and well-being for an American audience, she significantly contributed to the rise of yoga in the United States and the West. This yoga, which she wanted to be stripped of the esoteric folklore attributed to it at the time, was indeed more likely to conquer a wide audience that "wants to transform... but not too much" (ibidp.355). Elliott Goldberg thus asserts in his book that Indra Devi's teachings consecrate a conception of yoga as a method not to transcend the sense of "self" as is the case in the texts of premodern yoga, but as a practice that on the contrary would reinforce the ego. By presenting yoga as a secret of vitality, youth, and serenity, she would be the pioneer of the most common definition of yoga today: that of a gentle technique to combat stress, holistic health, and individual adaptation to the vicissitudes of life. Thus, in the introduction to her book Renew Your Life Through Yoga, titled "Anxiety: The Problem of Our Time", she compares learning yoga for the preservation of mental health to learning swimming to avoid drowning. It seems to me that at the time, ending the threat of nuclear annihilation would have relaxed people quite a bit too, but yoga isn't a bad idea either.
A Definition of Yoga That Has Stood the Test of Time
Thus, Indra Devi's teaching can be considered alternately as an ingenious and pragmatic adaptation of yoga to the concerns of an audience that is primarily seeking fulfillment and serenity in this world, far from any quest for transcendence or spiritual liberation, or as a heresy, even a betrayal, of the teachings of yoga as a soteriological path, that is, of spiritual liberation. She is of course neither the first nor the last to carry out a reformulation of the objectives and teachings of yoga in this pivotal period that runs from the end of the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, which will see yoga exported outside the borders of India, then reformulated, adapted, and appropriated, by different Indian and/or European actors, to meld and be melted into the concerns and expectations of new audiences and new times. Heresy or not, it remains that the reformulation of yoga by the "First Lady of Yoga" as a bodily technique of relaxation designed to soothe stress has widely become the authority in the common understanding of what yoga is today.
 W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue, 1947
To Learn More:
Elliott Goldberg, The Path of Modern Yoga, Editions Inner Traditions, 2016
Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, Corsair, 2016