Indra Devi

WITH YOU, I BREATHE: A forty day yoga column

#2: Indra Devi

On Wednesday, I sat in the passenger seat of a white truck and the man driving down Interstate 5 asked, Why do you start doing yoga, which is a question I get a lot.

I started practicing yoga because I wanted to lose weight, and every other form of exercise bored me. That’s all I wanted, that’s all I signed up for.

But that answer doesn’t quite explain why now I find myself at Fix Coffee, writing about yoga, and surrounded by five books on yoga. Nor does that answer explain why I’m taking a 200 hour yoga teacher training course and why twice a month I study the Yoga Sutras with a teacher in Silver Lake.

I started for reasons that had to do with health and fitness and continued practicing yoga for different reasons. I started feeling a lot different. I felt better physically and emotionally and about a year in, I found myself interested in Buddhism. I meditated at Buddhist centers in Los Angeles, read Thich Nhath Hanh and went to a monastery for a weekend near San Diego. I did not quite understand why I suddenly cared about spirituality until I was in the Los Angeles Public Library and opened a book about Jung and Kundalini Yoga. The book made it clear: yoga is a spiritual practice.

I told the man who was driving me down to Los Angeles, I was reading lot of books on yoga to be a yoga teacher and he asked, But what do you need to know? Isn’t it just stretch this way and that way?

He wanted me to know he wasn’t bring rude and I didn’t think he was being rude. It’s not an uncommon way of looking at yoga. Many in the United States view yoga as an exercise, as a form of health and fitness. How can we not? It’s packaged that way. Gyms offer classes as part of their program, it’s part of the regimen in exercise boot camps,  athletes practice yoga to avoid injury. Women tell me, “I want ‘yoga arms’ and a ‘yoga butt.'”

I suppose it was inevitable for people in the States to reduce yoga to health and fitness. Bring yoga to the States and yoga will transform and adapt to the cultural values, at least on the surface level.  However, there is one individual who really helped refashion yoga in such a way and that individual was a woman by the name Indra Devi.

In “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America,”  Stefanie Syman writes, “Devi was so good at packaging Hatha Yoga as defense against illness and aging, she made this maddeningly complex discipline so accessible and relevant to postwar Americans, that it was easy to lose sight of its real purpose–spiritual liberation.”

The short story is that Indra Devi arrived to Los Angeles in 1947, opened up a studio on Sunset Boulevard, and taught yoga to Hollywood celebrities, like Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Linda Christian. At the time, there was a health movement happening and she cleverly packaged yoga as a way to stay healthy and beautiful. The title of her first book on yoga demonstrates such: Forever Young, Forever Healthy. Of course, women, in particular, responded and became very interested in yoga.

These days the majority of people who practice yoga are women, which seems to me an obvious and interesting fact. Interesting because until very recently, yoga was only taught and practiced by men.

When Indra Devi was in India, she wanted to learn yoga from Krishnamcharya, one of the most important yogis of Hatha Yoga. He refused to teach her because she was from the west and she was a woman. There were certain rules as to who could learn yoga, and Krishnamacharya applied the rules to her, but Indra Devi did not much care about the rules and she did not much want them to apply.

Indra Devi had seen Krishnamacharya stop his heart and then start it again, which inspired her desire to learn yoga. She wasn’t going to take no for an answer and she was well connected. She talked to the raja, the raja talked to Krishnamacharya, and soon she was his student.

A year later, Indra Devi was moving with her husband to China and Kirshnamacharya told her to teach yoga there, which she did. She moved to China and opened a studio. When she moved to the States, she did the same thing.

The man driving me back to LA asked me, Why did you start doing yoga?

I could have answered, Because of Indra Devi.

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