The first lady of yoga

Picture of Indra Devi

Indra Devi, founder of SAI Yoga

Eugene Peterson was happy traveling all over Europe as a part of a theatrical troupe. However one day she met an Indian philosopher and yogi and her life changed. This is a remarkable story of the transformation of Eugene Peterson into Indra Devi the film star, and the transformation of the film star into a renowned world-famous yogi.

Eugene Peterson was born in 1899 in Russia. Her mother was a member of the Russian nobility while her father was of Swedish origin. She died in 2002 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the age of 102. “She was like a national treasure” the New York Times quoted one Argentina writer in its story of her passing.

The story of her transformation into Indra Devi from Eugene Peterson started when she and her mom had to move to Germany in 1917 in the wake of the revolution in Russia. She trained as an actor and dancer and became a part of a theatrical troupe that toured all over Europe. During the course of her travels she met the renowned philosopher and yogi called J. Krishnamurti and she became fascinated with India.

She obsessed about visiting India but did not have the funds to do so. She then got her chance when a wealthy banker proposed her. She said yes only on the condition that he paid for her trip to India before the wedding. He agreed and they were engaged and soon she was on her way to India. Three months later upon her return and her first meeting with her fiancée she returned her ring. She felt she had no choice but to be honest with him as she felt that her home was in India.

She then sold all her possessions including the few jewels and furs she had and took a one-way ticket to India in 1928. Soon she became a Bollywood movie star with the stage name of “Indra Devi”, and she was married to a Czechoslovakian diplomat. She was leading the high life, meeting politicians and celebrities, but she felt that something was missing and that this was not the reason why she had come to the country. She prayed for direction.

Soon her prayers were answered. In 1937 when she suffered from some kind of cardiac illness she was directed to take treatment from the renowned yogi Krishnamacharya. However when she visited him he refused treatment. This was the first time a western women had approached him and he was not sure of her level of commitment. Indra Devi was persistent and Krishnamacharya relented. Within a few months he had cured her. But seeing her dedication Krishnamacharya offered to make her into a yoga teacher and she accepted. She ended up staying with him for a year feeling for the first time that her reason for being in the country was being answered. She probably was the first westerner taught by Krishnamacharya to be a yoga teacher. Krishnamacharya taught her a gentle style of yoga, given that she was just recovering from a heart condition.

Soon she moved to Shanghai when her husband was transferred there. In 1940 she opened a school in Shanghai at the house of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast. Amongst her students were many Americans and Russians and she was also giving free lessons at local orphanages.

After World War II was over she moved back to India but her husband died suddenly and she took this as a signal to move. She moved to US and her yoga became a hit with celebrities. This was when she legally changed her name to Indra Devi. In 1953 she married a renowned doctor and humanitarian from Los Angeles. In the same year she published one of the first book on yoga by a westerner. In 1960 she visited Russia and soon she was meeting Russian high officials at the behest of Indian embassy officials. Due to these meetings she was instrumental in legalizing yoga in Russia. (This was formerly viewed as a religion and was banned in communist/atheist Russia.)

When her second husband died she moved back to India. However when she visited Argentina she fell in love with the country and ended up moving there permanently. A single television appearance gave her a rock star like status and large number of people took up yoga.

Indra Devi has played a tireless role in spreading yoga all over the world. Given her contribution to yoga nobody should begrudge her richly deserved title of “The first lady of yoga”.

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5 Responses to The first lady of yoga

  1. bhuvaneswar says:

    WOW!

    These lives tell us something about the power of disposition (via karma) to experience the karmaphalam of the individual through inner dispositional impulsions that drive the jiva to act, fulfill and experience the desires by karmaphalabho:gam

    • Lisa Olszanski says:

      Wow is right…she lived such an interesting and Rich life that all of us have benefited from. For this, I am so grateful…Thank You Indra Devi…Namaste’

  2. Pingback: Santé et bonheur par le yoga | Yogashala

  3. Don Wilson says:

    But there is so much more. You have not spoken of her dedication to Satya Sai Baba. I first heard her lecture about yoga at the Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu 1970. I was very disappointed because she seemed to only want to talk about this guru. It was very crowded, and I was boxed in so I stayed and just listened, and tried to hear her truth without judgements. By the end of the evening my life was changed forever. Although she continued to teach yoga, her talks were all about Sai Baba.

    • gloria jean stern says:

      i want to know more about this lady. i am writing my philosophy paper for satya life yoga and i just happened across this lady. i am going to order more books on her through amazon. her name calls out to me. love that smile and the twinkle in her eyes, kindness, hope, and love.

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