Growing up in 1980s India, I was, for a time, placed in an all-girls school where nuns in habits gave yoga lessons to which we wore stiff-collared white shirts tucked into navy blue bloomer-like shorts. I claimed the back row in the lotus position, arms outstretched and fingers curled into a gyan mudra. I never awakened a chakra, but sometimes I fell asleep.
Two decades later I moved to San Francisco, where people wore yoga pants and wished each other “Namaste.” Curiosity awakened, I put down $20 to attend a yoga session. When I heard the words “downward-facing dog,” I was sure our teacher had mispronounced a shloka. Once more, I failed to take to yoga, but this time it wasn’t inertia that held me back. What should have been familiar was inexplicably foreign — as all-American as everything else around me.
A similar confusion around yoga’s arrival and dramatic transformation on American shores led the journalist Michelle Goldberg to write “The Goddess Pose,” an elegant and richly drawn biography of the yogini Indra Devi, born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia in 1899 to a Russian aristocrat and a Swedish banker. Goldberg, who was introduced to yoga as a 24-year-old backpacker in India, first encountered Devi in her 2002 New York Times obituary, which credited her with introducing body-centric hatha yoga to Kremlin leaders, Hollywood stars and even some Indians.
Goldberg cleverly describes Devi as “an esoteric female Forrest Gump” who managed, unwittingly, to find herself in the thick of things, and indeed “The Goddess Pose” canters through landmark events from India’s independence to the American invasion of Panama.
Devi’s childhood in her grandparents’ opulent house in Riga was a “perpetual celebration,” Goldberg writes, until German troops marched in, forcing her family to flee to St. Petersburg, where life was “giddy and hideous.” Refugees poured in and bread lines swelled, but even on the doorstep of war, the rich binged on champagne and caviar. Earlier, the teenager had come across a book on yoga in the house of one of her mother’s friends, and although Goldberg doesn’t say what captivated Devi, it was enough for the impressionable young woman to exclaim aloud, “I have to go to India!”
This dream was a great comfort to Devi, inspiring hope in the turbulent times that followed. Her mother had long left to become an actress, and Devi negotiated adulthood, and often the war, on her own, supporting herself by performing in the theater and in cabarets in Weimar Berlin. It was only in 1927 that she was able to sail for India, where she quickly gained a foothold among the glamorous elite. She acted in a silent film opposite a future superstar of the industry named Prithviraj Kapoor. She exchanged flirtations with Jawaharlal Nehru.
When Devi did learn hatha yoga it was in the gem-studded palace of the Maharajah of Mysore, under the tutelage of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who would come to be known as the father of modern yoga. Thereafter she became a pollinator, taking whatever her guru had taught her wherever she went — Shanghai, California, Russia and, eventually, Argentina, where she died at the age of 102. Fittingly perhaps, the farther she traveled from the heart of yoga, the less interesting — for readers at least — her story becomes.
With a jeweler’s eye for detail, Goldberg presents a singular woman. A quasi feminist ahead of her time, Devi was at ease with wielding power in a man’s world. Determination was calcified in her bones. She took whatever she wanted from life, and what eluded her — love, mostly — she insisted fostered necessary detachment. She became so detached, friends accused her of abandoning her dying husband to travel the world.
But it’s necessary to recognize that Devi’s resolve was gilded with the dual privileges of race and social status.
In California, as in India before, Devi became famous because of who she cultivated. She latched on to Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson and was invited to teach at Elizabeth Arden’s spa because the cosmetics mogul was infatuated with White Russians. Had Devi lived today, Tina Brown would fly her to New York to inaugurate a Women in the World conference.
In fact Devi’s life reveals itself a perfect example of how cultural appropriation unspools, and how powerful people and even institutions are complicit in this. Devi benefited from the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred East Asians and Indians from entering the country, meaning that pre-eminent Indian yoga instructors were kept out of the United States while Devi became the practice’s cover girl. For all her many appealing qualities, if she had lived in a more equal time, we may not have been talking about her.
Independent though she was, Devi was also cloyingly vulnerable, a lifelong chela in search of the perfect guru — a surrogate, Goldberg suggests, for her absentee mother. The so-called god man Sathya Sai Baba made Devi feel “dazed and ecstatic,” and she became his principal Western evangelist until she could no longer ignore the rumors of sexual abuse swirling around him. But then she went ahead and fell in with another holy man, only to be dismayed when he was later convicted of rape. Followers of Bikram Choudhury will surely empathize.
There is much to enjoy in Goldberg’s cleareyed view of Devi’s life, and there is also a lesson: While (for some) yoga as a discipline may be infallible, the gurus who teach it never are.
THE GODDESS POSE
The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West
By Michelle Goldberg
322 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.