The Lady Who Brought Yoga To The West Side 

Indra Devi is not a very familiar name when it comes to the yoga industry these days because most of her achievements have been hampered by the other yogis who commercialized yoga in western countries. Even I have never heard her name until my Master, SK Durai mentioned her in one of our classes. I was intrigued to find out who is this woman fought for her spot in the shala of Krishnamacharya, the Godfather of modern yoga. Right after our class that day I immediately googled in order to find out more about that resilient lady. Well, that’s when my slight obsession with her started because a strong woman like her has always fascinated me. She wasn’t always known as Mataji Indra Devi, when she was born in Riga, which is known as Latvia at the moment, to an orthodox Russian family on the 12th of May 1899, Euginie Zhenya Peterson was the name given to her. Her father was a high-ranked bank officer and her mother was an actress. Her life was all bed of roses until the Russian Revolution took place where her father had to serve as an army officer and went missing. She then had to leave her birthplace with her mother, leaving all her family’s wealth, and settled in Berlin after the war was won by the communists. At the age of 22, she was working as a cabaret dancer in Berlin which led her into finding her love for acting.

My master has always emphasized that we all are in the path of yoga because of some good karma we did, either in the present or past life and this was proven right in the life of Euginie. She was 15 when she first came across the yogic path. She got a book on yoga instruction by Yogi Ramacharaka. Ever since that day, she has always had the idea of doing yoga at the back of her head but yoga was not taught extensively in the western countries back then so she carried on with her life until one day in 1926 she found a notice in a bookshop that was promoting the Theosophical Society. She took a point-blank decision to learn more about spirituality once she heard the chanting of Hindu mantras in that talk headed by Jiddu Krishnamurthi.

In order to get her curiosity fed, she decided to go to India but due to financial constraints, she persuaded her banker fiancé to fund her trip to India as a condition if he wants to marry her. She then started her journey to India and lived a very simple life for three years. She returned to her homeland just to break her engagement with her then-fiancé Herman Bolm before going back to India, where she rubbed shoulders with elites like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and many more people from the film industry. She adopted the name Indra Devi to be a part of Indian cinema where she made a living as an actress. And her life was going on in glam and glitz for sometimes During one of her social parties, she met Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay, and got betrothed to him.

One day as she was hosting a party with other socialites, she crossed paths with Nepal’s prince, Mussorie who wowed her with some yoga poses. She immediately became interested in pursuing yoga and in her search for a great guru, she heard of the great yoga guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and tried to be his disciple, But Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was hesitant to accept her as his student mainly because she was a white foreign woman. Indra Devi was persistent and sought a little favor from Mysore Maharaja and with a little nudge from the Maharaja, Krishnamacharya finally accepted her under a few conditions. She had to observe a strict vegetarian diet as well as to follow all the rules and had to keep up with all the requirements of the rest of his male students in the yoga shala. Indra Devi was the first woman of different descent to be studying with other students who later on became very well-known yoga teachers all over the world such as B.K.S Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois. After sometimes of being in the yoga shala of Krishnamacharya, she managed to win the admiration of her guru through her devotion to yoga and his teachings.

At the age of 40, she has to leave India and migrate to China as her husband received a transfer. Sri Thirumalai Krishnamacharya urged Indra to teach yoga as he saw the great potential as a teacher in her. The following year of her migration to China, she opened a yoga school in Shanghai with the assistance of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader who happens to be a yoga aficionado as well. She had American and Russian students coming to her expanding yoga school. Her students there fondly started calling “Mataji” which translates as a mother.
After a few years of establishing herself in Shanghai and writing a book called Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness believed to be the first-ever book on yoga written by someone who is not a native to that topic, she returned to India. After the passing of her husband, Indra Devi went to the United States to plant the seeds of yoga there. She then opened a yoga school in Hollywood and took a lot of effort to make yoga a famous practice to have a healthy lifestyle. Many Hollywood stars were attracted by her approach and looked for her guidance. Her fame was spreading like a wildfire, making yoga one of the most sought-after practices in Hollywood in the 1950s. Around the same time, she also wrote couple more books called Forever Young, Forever Healthy” and “Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga that became the bible for the yoga enthusiast,s and sold like hotcakes. These books were translated into 10 different languages and sold many copies worldwide.

At the age of 54, she found love one more time in Dr. Sigfrid Knauer, a physician. She married him and settled in Tecate, a city in Baja California Mexico where she gave training courses in yoga. She then produced hundreds of yoga teachers and also started to give out talks on yoga on radio, television, conventions, and gatherings to create awareness of the benefits of yoga. Her grace, poise, knowledge of yoga, and most importantly, her ability to speak in multiple languages made her immensely popular. After losing her second husband, she started traveling around the globe to spread the knowledge of yoga to many lives before landing in Argentina, where she decided to spend the rest of her life.

In the year 1988, she founded the Fundacion Indra Devi which still runs today, promoting the benefit of practicing yoga and the teachings of yoga. On April 25th of 2002, at the ripe age of 103, she succumbed to ill health and passed away peacefully in Buenos Aires. She was cremated according to Hindu rites and her ashes were scattered over the Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world.

That was just a glimpse of her amazing journey as a woman turned yogini, that I manage to learn. She was a strong woman who got things done as she wished in a world dominated by men, that too during a time where women’s rights were never heard of. As for me, she is truly a game-changer who was mindful of her birthrights. I would like to address my sincere gratitude to my master SK Durai for making me aware of the existence of this feminist who was ahead of her time.

Mataji Indra Devi


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