The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg

The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg
Image via Alfred A Knopf

When you take a contemporary yoga class, it’s quite common to hear the teacher make reference to how the ancient wisdom of yoga gives you tools to deal with modern life. It is inferred, and sometimes explicitly stated, that the yoga postures you are practicing are themselves very old, and this antiquity and mystical Eastern origin is used to confer power and authority to the poses. But the truth of the matter is that only a very few of the simplest poses (sitting crosslegged, for example) can be traced back any further than several hundred years. Most postures are much more recent inventions.

In The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life on Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, journalist Michelle Goldberg uses Devi’s life as a lens though which to view the ascension of yoga in the last century. Devi’s biography is the main plot line of the book, but the circumstances of yoga’s journey to the mainstream is an undercurrent throughout. It’s fascinating how Goldberg is able to repeatedly illustrate how yoga’s rise was the product of a back and forth conversation between Eastern and Western cultural trends. Almost every encounter that Devi has with what she thinks is true Indian culture turns out to have been mediated by European or American influences, which reinforces the idea that claiming authenticity for one type of asana practice or another is meaningless. 

The Origins of Indra Devi 

Born Eugenia Peterson to an aristocratic Russian family in Riga, Latvia, Devi was in her early teens when she encountered a book that sparked her interest in India. The book, Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, was credited to Yogi Ramacharaka, but was actually written by William Walter Atkinson of Chicago. Atkinson was deeply involved in New Thought, which Goldberg describes as a "proto self-help movement." Though the book itself is incidental, Goldberg writes that the "strange coupling of Indian spirituality and Occidental self-improvement" that it represents is emblematic in Devi's life and yoga's evolution. After World War I, Devi’s first guru was similarly a hybrid of Western and Eastern influences. Although Krishnamurti was legitimately Indian, the organization of which he was the spiritual leader was a western invention called Theosophy. It was as a follower of Krishnamurti that Eugenia Peterson first went to India and embarked upon a lifetime of fascination with Indian spiritualism that would lead her from guru to guru, becoming Indra Devi along the way.

Indra Devi and Yoga

Devi eventually came to study with the man who is often called the father of modern yoga: T. Krishnamacharya, whose other students included B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. But if you’re thinking that Devi will finally encounter an authentic yoga tradition in this episode, think again. The method that Krishnamacharya developed under the patronage of the Maharajah of Mysore was yet another hybridization, this time of Indian tradition and western gymnastics and military training calisthenics, designed for the young boys who attended school at the palace.

This method would become Ashtanga Yoga under the guidance of Jois. After some initial reluctance to take on a Western woman as a student, Krishnamacharya taught Devi many of his asanas and pranayama exercises in a less strenuous format than he used for the boys. When she left Mysore after eight months, Krishnamacharya charged Devi to go into the world and spread what she had learned, which she did first in Shanghai and then later while based in the U.S. and South America, among many other places she lived and traveled.

The Goddess Pose includes many fascinating anecdotes and insights into Devi’s life, from her adventures as an itinerant young actress in Europe in the twilight of the Russian revolution, a seeker in an India struggling for independence, and a yoga teacher in Shanghai during the Second World War. As Goldberg points out, Devi’s biography puts her in some of the most crucial places of change in the 20th century. Eventually Devi came to the U.S., where she used connections forged throughout her travels to become the yoga teacher to Hollywood stars (Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson) and upper class housewives through her work at Elizabeth Arden spas. She wrote several best-selling lifestyle books that included yoga instruction. Her unique background and approach were instrumental in moving yoga from the esoteric to the commonplace, allowing Goldberg to skillfully illustrate how yoga's history is in a constant state of evolution instead of a single unbroken tradition. 

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