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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

Indra Devi

Indra Devi’s yoga studio opened on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 1948. That’s her in front in the second picture. She is the subject of a recent biography by Michelle Goldberg, The Goddess Pose.

Indra Devi led an extragavantly transnational life — as befits someone with a significant role in the creation and spread of a global yoga. Born Evgeniya Peterson in 1899 in Latvia to a Swedish father (a banker) and Russian mother (an aristocrat and performer), her family was stripped of its assets after the Russian Revolution. By 1921 she was performing in a Russian theatre troupe in Berlin and became a silent film actress in India under the name 'Indira Devi', with her most famous film produced in 1930: the arrival of sound curtailed her film career. After studying yoga with Krishnamacharya in Mysore in 1938, she taught yoga in Shanghai in a house belonging to Soong Mei-Ling/Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Five classes a day in “Madame’s bedroom,” which was large enought to hold 25 people). After the Japanese invasion, still free because of her German papers, she taught yoga to the staff of the American consulate that had been interned in the Metropole Hotel. In 1948 she opened the yoga studio in Hollywood pictured above, one of the very first. At the age of 86 she moved to Argentina, teaching there as well. She died there in 2002.

When she approached Krishnamacharya to join his yoga school, he refused: “In my school there are no women, there are only men, and, among them, no foreigners.” So she went over his head to his employer, the Maharaja of Mysore, who insisted she be admitted. Ten years later she was in the US teaching largely, though not exclusively, to women; and publishing books: titles such as Forever Young, Forever Healthy and Yoga for Americans.

Rank and celebrity play a large part in her story: she seems always to have access to the people who will propel her forward. Through the celebrity of many of her clients Yoga became really for the first time a non-esoteric phenomenon in the US and therefore beyond. For her first decades in the US the 1924 Immigration Act was still in force: no Indian teachers were able to come. Indra Devi’s trademark sari must have been one of the very few. The restrictions didn’t begin to ease until 1965, just in time for a rather different yogic influx into the US.

There is a link into Australia: in Shanghai she brought in another White Russian refugee, Mikhail Volin, to help teach classes. In 1950 he set up the Sydney Yoga Centre. He is the author of the 1964 Yoga at Home liftout in the Australian Woman’s Weekly where he can be seen on a tigerskin wearing a thong.


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