Born in Riga, Latvia to European aristocracy in 1899, Indra Devi was the first female to been allowed into an Indian ashram (let alone the first woman to study in an ashram) in the 1930s.
Studying with the “godfather” of modern Hatha Yoga, Krishnamacharya (famous for also teaching Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois), Indra Devi is one of the biggest influencers in modern day yoga practice. Indra Devi’s journey is a fascinating one, and here we take just a glimpse at the life of this game-changing woman.
The Journey Begins…
Born Eugenie V. Peterson, Eugenie changed her name to Indra Devi to sound “more Hindu” after developing a passion for India and travelling there to work in Indian films. She soon became a rising star, and through her husband Jon Strakaty who she met in Bombay, she met Maharaja and Maharini of Mysore, where Krishnamacharaya taught.
Her first request for a lesson was met with a refusal: not only was she was Western, but she was female. Indra Devi used her royal connections, and Krishnamacharaya (by all accounts somewhat reluctantly) agreed. What started out as a few cursory lessons turned into a year of study for Indra, and it was Krishnamacharaya who urged Indra to become a teacher when she left India for China.
Legend has it that she was the first person to teach yoga in China (yes, ever), although her pupils included Americans and Russians. After she began teaching she quickly became known as Mataji, which translates as Mother, and the start of a new career was born.
Indra Devi went on to teach yoga all over the world and after leaving China and moving to America, her reputation wasn’t far behind and began to teach famous Hollywood starlets including Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, and Gloria Swanson (although it is claimed she taught Marilyn Monroe, there is no evidence to prove this. Apparently Marilyn did own a copy of Indra Devi’s book, Forever Young, Forever Happy).
After gaining citizenship for America, she changed her name in her new passport to Indra Devi. Her passport came into use when she moved to Argentina where she remained until her death in 1982.
Bet you didn’t know…
She also acted in some Hindi films. She went to drama school in Russia as a girl, and later worked as an actress and dancer in Berlin. Her family’s wealth and status forced them to flee Latvia when Communists took over.
Indra Devi on ‘Being the Change’
She was a woman who got things done. In 1961 she opened the Indra Devi Foundation in México and in 1987 she was elected president of honour of the International Yoga Federation and Latin American Union of Yoga.
Her foundation, Fundacion Indra Devi (or Indra Devi Foundation) was opened in 1988, and still runs today, with the intention of the broad promotion, discussion and teaching of yoga. According to Yoga Journal, Indra Devi practiced only Padmasana, Janu Sirsasana, Ardha Sirsasana, and Ardha Matsyendrasana towards the end of her life. And after living to the grand age of 102, she must have been doing something right.