Often referred to as the mother of Western yoga, Indra Devi assisted in modernizing and simplifying Hatha yoga, revealing it as a form of exercise for Western Society.
“Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish and loneliness.”– Indra Devi
In this glimpse of her life we will explore her:
- Early Life
- Spiritual Journey
- Career and Teachings
- Influence on Modern Yoga
Early Aristocratic Life of Indra Devi
Indra Devi was born Eugenia Peterson on May 12, 1899, in Latvia to a Swedish bank director and a 16-year-old Russian aristocrat.
Her parents’ marriage fell apart shortly after her first birthday, leading to her father’s disappearance, as well as Indra and her mother moving in with Indra’s grandparents.
Raised in an aristocratic household, Indra was homeschooled until the age of ten. Her grandfather’s estate was large, and she recalled the home as lively. As a young girl, Indra had a reputation for being impatient and demanding, as she was constantly waited upon.
Her mother left home to become an actress, a position frowned upon at this time. This left Indra to be raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather coddled her, and she didn’t have any responsibilities, but she did have long durations of loneliness.
When Indra’s mother left, she was devastated. Her grandfather’s death at twelve years-old further amplified Indra’s strong desire for her mother’s presence. These experiences of isolation and loss are perhaps one reason she later searched for solace in spirituality.
Indra would grow to see her mother, Sahsa Zitovich, as a celebrity and yearned to be a part of her life. It was not until years later, when Indra’s grandmother fell ill, that her mother came home. Sasha took Indra to theaters and lavish hotels in the company of other actors. Indra found these trips to be exciting and felt like a celebrity herself.
Most of Indra’s young adult life was spent following her mother and her career. She too began acting and dancing, landing roles in theater and cabaret performances. She toured Europe as an actor in “The Blue Bird” group and later became a Bollywood actress and played the leading lady in “The Arabian Knight.”
Her life during WWI was quite harsh, and food was scarce. Indra and other performers would cross borders looking for work, food, and freedom. She was anxious and would lose contact with her mother. As a result of these trials and tribulations, she became increasingly self-reliant.
In 1914, while visiting her mother’s friend, Indra came across the word yoga in a book by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Indra was captivated by the unfamiliar readings and felt inspired to visit India one day.
Solace in Spirituality
Over a decade later, Indra came across theosophical literature in a bookstore and was inspired to attend an event in Holland called “The Order of the Star,” where she was introduced to the early teachings of J.Krishnamurti and meditated for the first time.
This increased her enchantment with India, bringing her a step closer to fulfilling her dream to visit.
In 1927 an English woman named Alice Adair came to Latvia to lecture on Indian art. Indra discovered Adair lived at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar, India. Adair encouraged Indra to attend the December Theosophical Society Convention in India.
Indra Devi Goes To India
Indra’s fiancé Herman Bolm paid for the trip, hoping it would resolve her infatuation with India. They planned to wed upon her return. She traveled on her own via steamship a life-changing journey, from which she returned as a different woman, ultimately annulling her engagement with Bolm.
Shortly thereafter, she sold her belongings and went back to Adyar, as she had found her spiritual home in India.
On a trip to Calcutta, Indra met her original inspiration, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. She had loved Tagore’s poetry since she was a young girl and found him to be even more intriguing in person.
Indra spent time at Gandhi’s Ashram gathering with other theosophists in Bangalore under the pseudonym of Jane Peterson. These experiences, rooted in spirituality, set the stage for Indra’s life work.
In the 1930s, she performed at a party for Krishnamurti, where she met Indian film director Bhagwati Prasad Mishra. He was so impressed that he gave her the lead role in the silent film “The Arabian Knight,” making her a Bollywood star, and she took on another name, Indira Devi.
Shortly after the film’s premier, she married a Czechoslovak Consulate, Jan Strakaty. While Strakaty did not believe in her spiritual ideas, he was tolerant, appreciated her independence, and supported her. Having a reliable spouse allowed Indra the freedom to study classical Indian dance and theosophy.
Indra Meets Yoga
Indra often hosted and attended parties meeting extraordinary people. At one party, she befriended Jawaharlal Nehru, an activist who became India’s first prime minister. He disclosed how Hatha yoga and the teachings of Patanjali were essential to spiritual training.
Throughout the 1930s, Hatha Yoga evolved from the sensational practices of contortionists and con artists to one focused on health and well-being. Indra sought a yoga teacher and was directed to Swami Kuvalayananda by a close friend.
At first Indra found the physical practices of Hatha yoga to be challenging, but she persisted and gradually made progress.
Indra received the news that her husband would be transferred to Shanghai, and in early 1936 they returned to Riga to prepare. While there, Indra received a wedding invitation from the nephew of the Maharaja of Mysore and took opportunity to return to her spiritual home.
The Mysore Palace had a yoga school where the well-known Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught. Indra saw this as a chance to work with a true yoga master.
When she arrived in Mysore, she asked Krishnamacharya to study with him. He refused, stating he did not teach women or foreigners. Indra was disappointed but determined.
She approached her friend the Maharaja, Krishnamacharya’s employer, and he directed Krishnamacharya to instruct her. Krishnamacharya hesitantly took Indra as a student. He was strict and difficult in hopes she would quit.
Krishnamacharya ordered Indra to follow a strict vegetarian diet and a difficult daily schedule. To his surprise, she showed dedication studying asana and pranayama for eight months alongside B.K.S Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya gained increasing respect for her. His son Desikachar later noted that Indra changed his father’s viewpoint, with Krishnamacharya saying “women are the future in yoga and for yoga in the West.”
When Indra left to join her husband in China, Krishnamacharya asked her to spread the teachings of yoga there.
Indra Becomes A Yoga Teacher In China
In December of 1939, Indra arrived in the international city of Shanghai to meet her husband, Jan. Her mother, Sasha, would also join them.
Jan objected, but Indra began to teach Hatha yoga in a gymnasium. However, yoga was unfamiliar, and she had a hard time finding students.
Intending to find yoga students, Indra held an event to educate diplomats residing in Shanghai, and a few students, mainly American women, began attending classes. Word began to spread about Indra teaching a new exercise regimen from the East.
She soon initiated talks across Shanghai, and yoga became increasingly recognized, leading to her offering more classes to more students.
While in China, she grew close with composer Aaron Avshalomov. Avshalomov created Indian-themed music for her that she performed at popular outdoor venues. Indra called their relationship one of kindred souls.
The War & Divorce
In December 1941, war again impacted her life. Japanese soldiers occupied Shanghai, seizing American government officials. Indra continued to hold yoga classes in her home, but over time there was no one left to teach.
The war also put strain on the lives of many, and as the war ended, so did Indra’s marriage. In March 1946, she left Jan Strakaty and went back to Bombay.
Indra continues Her Yoga Studies
Indra planned to continue her personal studies and sought a new teacher. Although she never indicates who, many believe it to have, Swami Sivananda Saraswati. Like Krishnamacharya, the Swami had no initial interest in teaching her.
Once again, Indra’s persistence and charisma eventually persuaded him to take her on as a disciple.
Her new Guru taught Indra Raja Yoga. She engaged in practices of sensory withdrawal, concentration, and meditation. These methods were exhausting and distressing to her. In time, she succeeded and completed her first book, becoming the first Westerner to teach and publish a book on yoga in India. She dedicated the book to “the women of India.”
Indra felt like life was becoming purposeful. She briefly returned to Shanghai to help her mother and reconnected with composer Avshalomov.
Indra longed to go back to India but was encouraged to go to America, where a new yoga studio was opening. The story goes that Indra was undecided and bought tickets for both countries and boarded the ship that sailed first.
Indra Devi Teaches America‘s Hollywood Elite
A middle-aged Indra Devi undertook a new life near Hollywood, California. She quickly learned there was no new yoga studio opening, and she was alone in a foreign country.
Her perseverance, blended with the yogic concept of detachment, was the catalyst and foundation of her teachings.
These would prove vital to her situation, as she found herself in a challenging yet promising environment, as interest in Eastern philosophy was growing, and Hollywood was a perfect place for self-reinvention.
Indra’s journey in the West truly began when she opened the first yoga studio on Sunset Boulevard. She taught simple classes based on science rather than spirituality. Indra found eager students among Hollywood movie stars such as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Gloria Swanson.
Indra was elated when her mother came to live with her in America. Soon after, Avshalomov joined her as well. Her continued affair with the composer ended up disrupting her new career in America.
Avshalomov’s partner was upset, leading to accusations of Indra being a communist spy igniting an FBI investigation. These challenges didn’t last long, and she flourished even more.
Indra Devi’s Legacy
She began teaching at Elizabeth Arden’s spa and wrote another book titled “Forever Young, Forever Healthy”, at the suggestion of Actress Gloria Swanson.
Indra Devi wrote several more books on her methods and studies over her lifetime. Her book “Yoga for Americans” showed the slower, gentle style of yoga she had developed.
Indra married Dr. Siegrid Knauer, a preventive medicine doctor, in 1953. Indra and Siegrid formed a special connection and became a dynamic pair of alternative medicine providers.
In 1960, she helped to legalize Yoga in Russia, attending the first national yoga conference in Russia in 1989, along with B.K.S. Iyengar and Guru Bhajan.
Indra became a follower of the controversial Guru Sathya Sai Baba in 1966. Influenced by his philosophy, she started calling her yoga style Sai Yoga, a blend of Hatha yoga and meditation.
Indra once again moved to India, this time to further her studies with Baba. She brought her ailing husband, Dr. Knauer, and hired aides to care for him so that she could continue with her endeavors.
Indra’s Death In Argentina
Years after her husband’s passing in 1977, she settled in Argentina and chose to spend the rest of her life there. She continued to teach yoga until her passing in Buenos Aires on April 25, 2002, at the age of 102. Her ashes were spread over the Rio de la Plata.
Indra founded her teachings on love and detachment, lessons she learned from her mother and yoga gurus.
Indra Devi believed you cannot allow someone to hinder your spiritual growth and said, “happiness only comes to those that follow their path.”
For more about Indra Devi’s life check out “The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West” by Michelle Golberg. As well as the Indra Devi: The Motion Picture.
1 thought on “Indra Devi | Biography & Teachings Of The Mother Of Western Yoga”
Wonderful informative article Willow. It really placed Indra Devi within her times and showed her unique impact.