Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf 2015
If you have ever wondered why it might be that women have the most interest in the practice of yoga this book might explain it, and in a most provocative manner. Michelle Goldberg introduces us to a woman who most of the recent texts written by men on yoga only mention in passing. Indra Devi whose given name was Eugenia Peterson was, as the author notes, something of a Forest Gump figure in the world of yoga. Not Forest Gump in a simple minded way, this woman was far from simple minded, no it seems that Indra Devi was somewhere in or around many of the major events related to presenting the inner workings of yoga to the world, and not just postures as the title might suggest.
Indra Devi was the first non-Indian woman to have met and studied with the revered teacher of K Patabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and others ̶̶ T Krishnamacharya. As Goldberg explains in her text, Krishnamacharya was not up for teaching this woman born into Russian aristocracy. Krishnamacharya was not interested in teaching any women outside of his family, so it goes. He had to be coerced into teaching Indra Devi and only after sometime accepting her as a willing, deeply interested, and qualified student.
What the book does aside from letting us in on this lady’s seemingly charmed life is to show us some of the thinking that revolved around the practice of yoga during her lifetime and up to this date, again hinting at why women might be the major players in the practice of yoga today.
One of the things that Goldberg writes about yoga that some who are very learned in the science of yoga will take exception to is that yoga, as it has come to be practiced in the United States, seems to elevate “exercise into a sacrament, merging the contradictory quest for beauty and selflessness. It’s a kind of secular magic, promising that by assuming certain physical positions, you can bring about specific changes in the body and soul – clearer skin and clearer thoughts. It’s alchemy for a disenchanted age, rendered plausible to Westerners by translating esoteric tantric terms into the language of glands and hormones.” True adepts which most Westerners have never come in contact with know that one’s true nature is untouched by, and does not require the benefit of clearer skin or postures to be recognized ultimately.
Nonetheless, Goldberg takes us behind the scenes with Indra Devi as she hob-nobs with ‘consciousness-raising’ luminaries like H.P. Blavatsky (Mahatma Gandhi may have been influenced by her writings), Annie Besant, J. Krishnamurti , Colonel Olcott, all at one time associated with the Theosophical Society. Goldberg’s research is intriguing and even people deeply educated in the entire story of yoga and meditation will find something of value in this highly readable book, from a historic perspective.
Indra Devi knew India’s Nehru, met the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, her students taught yoga classes in the concentration camps in China, she personally taught yoga to Chiang Kai-Shek’s wife and friends. She was instrumental in tweaking the then “Soviets” interest in human abilities to control internal faculties. The Soviets were researching yoga related phenomena for the purposes of understanding self-regulation so that these things could be taught to the cosmonauts. There are those who pooh-pooh some of what is said about the yogi’s ability to control internal states, but the Soviets and even the United States saw the efficacy in trying to understand this. Note the recent movie with George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats!
All in all the book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in learning more about the vastness of yoga, and some interesting people who have influenced and have been influenced by it.