Indra Devi is known as the first lady of yoga, and the mother of Western yoga. She was born Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia on March 12, 1899. Indra’s father was a Swedish bank director and her mother a Russian theater actress. Devi followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied theater in Moscow. At the age of fifteen Devi came across a book titled “Fourteen Lessons In Yoga Philosophy and Oriental Occutilsm”. After reading the book, written by Yogi Ramacharakra nee William Walker Atkinson, Devi swore she would eventually visit India. Due to dangerous civil wars Indra was forced to flee Latvia and then Poland, finally ending up in Berlin. As a trained actress and dancer Devi was able to join a dancing group based out of Berlin that travelled all over Europe.
Devi attended a conference in Oman, Holland to hear Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society. Coincidently she was able to hear Jiddu Krishnamurti chant in ancient sanskrit. Krishnamurti the renowned yoga master, philosopher, and poet truly moved Devi. In time hearing the spiritual chants would change Devi’s life.
Devi agreed to her first marriage proposal in 1927 only if the lucky man would finance her necessary trip to India prior to their marriage. He agreed to the deal. Indra spent three months in India. Upon arriving home she returned the engagement ring; India is where she belonged.
Living in India:
Indra sold all of her possessions in order to move to India. There Devi was able to quickly make a name for herself as an actress, dancer and Indian socialite. This is when she decided to go by the name of Indra Devi. With Indra’s intelligence, compassion and friendly personality she befriended Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore (the first prime minister of India) and Jawaharlal Nehru (influential poet, playwright, and first Indian citizen to win a nobel prize). At the time Indra’s lifestyle went against all social conventions that a women should follow. Possibly because of her busy lifestyle Indra started to experience some severe heart pain. After four years of trying to cure her ailment a yoga practicing friend of hers suggested to try yoga. Indra contacted Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who is now known as the ‘the father of modern yoga’ and regarded as one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century. Krishnamacharya refused to practice with Indra solely on the basis that she was a women, and a Westerner. With Indra’s persistence and the help of her famous friends, Krishnamacharya finally agreed to take her on as a student. To much of his surprise Indra was a high achieving student alongside all the male students. She handled the vigorous training with confidence and ease. MasterKrishnamacharya respected her hard work and dedication so much he decided to take her on as a private student. After a her intensive training, Krishnamacharya urged Devi to teach yoga to others. Indra healed her heart problem and began her new life dedicated to the instruction of yoga.
Indra moved to China alongside her husband, Jan Stakaty, who was transferred to work there. She opened her first yoga school in Shanghai. There she taught students of all nationalities and became know is ‘Mataji’ which means mother. Indra returned to India after her husband’s work was through and wrote her first book titled “Yoga, The Art of Reaching Health and Happiness”. This was the first ever book on yoga written by a Westerner and published in India. Upon her return she also became the first Westerner to teach yoga in India. In 1946 Indra decided to take her teachings to the United States in hopes to spread them even further. A year after moving to the US she opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, CA. In effort to publicly promote the benefits of yoga in the most expedient and to the largest possible audience to chose to work with Hollywood’s elite.
While living in the US Indra wrote two more books titled “Forever Young, Forever Healthy” and “Renew Your Life By Practicing Yoga”. Her books were a huge success, selling in 29 countries, and translated into 10 languages. Indra became fluent in five languages-English, Spanish, Russian, French, and German. After the death of her first husband in 1946, Indra married an American man in 1953. This marriage enabled her to finally become an American citizen; at which time she took the name ‘Indra Devi’ on her official US passport. In Tecate, Mexico Indra opened a 24 room home where she held yoga teacher trainings. With her growing success and knowledge on health and yoga Devi began speaking at conferences, on the radio, and appeared on television. With her high power and standing India’s ambassador to Moscow arranged for Devi to meet with the Soviet Union in order to persuade the government that yoga is NOT a religion and needs to be legalized. After she spoke with them of the vast benefits of yoga, it was legalized in Russia. In 1966 Indra began practicing under guru Satya Sai Baba, which led to her creation of a new style that she named Sai yoga. In 1982 she visited Argentina for the first time. There she had a monumental television appearance which enlarged her following exponentially. Indra fell in love with Argentina and decided to spend the rest of her life there. In order to spread her yoga methods she created a foundation in 1988 which is still in existence today. As Indra grew older her traveling slowed down. For her 100th birthday celebration there were 3,000 guests in attendance. In 2002 her health began to worsen and she passed peacefully on August 25 in Buenos Aires.
As a woman who rose to global prominence in a male dominated field, Indra Devi is a huge inspiration to me. Independent, diligent and adventurous, she shaped not only her own destiny but also that of countless thousands around the world. In commonality with all true leaders, her most effective teachings were not those she espoused, incredible as they were, as much as by the example of her own life’s actions and accomplishments. For me, the most outstanding characteristic displayed by Indra Devi which I would strive to emulate, is her incredible persistence in the face of unrelenting resistance. I am also compelled to acknowledge, as an almost coequal yet antithetical characteristic to the egocentric drive of personal ambition, her boundless compassion and desire to better the human condition through her teachings; not for personal gain but for the betterment of humanity.
Russia and India Report staff. (22 November 2010) A portrait Of The First Lady Of Yoga. Retrieved from <http://in.rbth.com/articles/
Douglas Martin. (30 April 2002) Indra Devi, 102, Dies; Taught Yoga To Stars and Leaders. Retrieved from <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/
Susan Abernethy. Indra Devi, Mother Of Western Yoga. <http://www.