A young woman running away to India and changing her name sounds like a story from the 1960s or ’70s. Indra Devi was always ahead of her time. She took the above steps in 1927 and, years later, became the first internationally known female yoga teacher. She led a fascinating life.
Eugenie Peterson was born in Russia in 1899. As a girl, she studied drama in Moscow, but fled to Germany with her mother, a Russian noblewoman, when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917. In the 1920s, she traveled around Europe as a dancer and actress with a theatre troupe. She had already, however, developed an interest in India, having read a couple of yoga philosophy books as a teenager.
Indra in India
In 1927, Peterson took her first trip to India. She soon returned, changed her name to Indra Devi, and began a career dancing and acting in Indian films. In 1930, Devi married an attache to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay (now, Mumbai) named Jan Strakaty.
It was through her husband that Devi met the Maharaja of Mysore, who brought Krishnamacharya – a learned yogi – to his palace to open a yoga school of study. It was at this yogashala that B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois trained under the guidance of Krishnamacharya.
Though Krishnamacharya taught his own wife and daughter yoga, it was rare for a women, much less a westerner, to formally study with a guru. Indra Devi approached Krishnamacharya about learning yoga but he refused to teach her. The Maharaja intervened, and she became a yoga student.
It is said that Indra Devi was held to the same standards as all of the male students. She apparently was so successful that Krishnamacharya told her she should teach yoga when Devi and her husband moved to China in 1938, as he was transferred there to a new position. She may have been the first to teach yoga in China, though there were often Americans and Russians in her classes.
Indra Devi’s husband unexpectedly died in 1946. She was allegedly unsure about the next chapter of her life, but moved to Hollywood, where she soon opened a yoga studio. It was there she taught Eva Gabor, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and, possibly, Marilyn Monroe. Devi also published two popular yoga books during that time.
In 1953, Devi remarried. In the early 1960s, with financial help from her husband, Devi opened a large yoga training center in Mexico. She continued to travel, teach yoga and write. The center closed in 1977 after her second husband died.
Indra Devi moved to Argentina in 1982, intending to make it her permanent home. She founded another yoga foundation there and remained a popular yoga teacher, one of the world’s best known. Devi passed away in the spring of 2002 at the age of 102. She blazed many trails over the course of her career and inspired countless women and men to follow the path of yoga.
Few Quotes by Indra Devi
It becomes necessary to learn how to clear the mind of all clouds, to free it of all useless ballast and debris by dismissing the burden of too much concern with material things.
Like water which can clearly mirror the sky and the trees only so long as its surface is undisturbed, the mind can only reflect the true image of the Self when it is tranquil and wholly relaxed.
Yoga means union, in all its significances and dimensions.
Yoga is the art and science of living.