When Indra Devi was born in Russia in 1899, yoga was virtually unknown outside of India. By the time of her death, in 2002, it was being practiced around the world. Here Michelle Goldberg tells the globetrotting story of the incredible woman who helped usher in a craze that continues unabated to this day. A sweeping picture of the twentieth century that travels from the cabarets of Berlin to the Mysore Palace to Golden Age Hollywood and beyond, The Goddess Pose brings the Devi’s little known but extraordinary adventures vividly to life.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
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I NEVER WOULD have started doing yoga if there had been aerobics in the Himalayas, but I was desperate.
The few times I’d taken yoga classes in college, my failed attempts to relax redoubled my anxiety. Each pose was a reminder of the lifelong inflexibility that had often mortified me. When I was a little girl, a sadistic ballet teacher barred me from a holiday party because of my terrible splits. In elementary school, I dreaded being forced to sit “Indian style,” because it left my hips and back screaming. Later, trying yoga, my awkward efforts to keep my legs and back straight while touching my toes and my inability to do even a half lotus only left me tense and humiliated, convinced that the practice was best for those who were already calm, willowy, and graceful.
Besides, while I’d been captivated by India’s kaleidoscopic religious richness during months of traveling, I was wary of anyone purporting to peddle enlightenment to credulous Westerners. On my first trip to the country, a short backpacking sojourn in the late 1990s, I’d read and loved Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola, a wry Indian look at the Western spiritual tourists who flock to the subcontinent, and the enterprising Indian sages who’ve risen to meet the demand. “As our home industry expands on every front, at last it is our turn to mass market,” she writes. The hippie spiritual scene interested me as a journalistic subject, but I certainly didn’t want to participate in it. I wasn’t sure if I could even chant “Om” with a straight face.
Yet, I needed exercise. Living in McLeod Ganj, a mountain village just outside the city of Dharamsala, where the Tibetan exile movement was headquartered, I was sick of hiking. My husband and I—we’d eloped the previous year, when I was twenty-four and he was twenty-eight—were about six months into what would be a year-long trip through Asia. Prior to our departure, he’d worked at an Internet start-up. When he cashed out his stock options before they bottomed out in the crash of the late 1990s, we became Internet thousandaires, with a sum in the low five figures that seemed, at the time, to be a fortune. Both of us loved to travel. Putting all our stuff in storage, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City.
After three months bumming around Southeast Asia, we went from Singapore to the tip of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, then west to the relatively idyllic state of Kerala, where, while lying on a beach, we were approached by movie producers looking for extras for an Indian musical. They were shooting a scene in an ashram, and since no Indian ashram is complete without a handful of flaky Westerners, they asked for our help. Delighted, we agreed. On set, we met a thirty-two-year-old Argentine devotee of the real-life guru Sai Baba, about whom I’d long been curious. His followers believe he’s God, and I’d seen his face, beaming beneath his surprising Afro, on stickers and trinkets for sale all over the country. A former medical student, the Argentine had given up her studies and her Buenos Aires apartment after dreaming that Sai Baba summoned her to India.
Later, as we snaked our way north, we visited her at Sai Baba’s enormous Prasanthi Nilayam ashram, in a barren corner of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. The ashram boasted a shiny planetarium, two hospitals that treated patients for free, a college, a music school, and a brand-new airport for wealthier devotees with private planes. Around the edges, luxury apartment buildings were replacing mud huts. Rather than requesting two of the ashram’s ten thousand beds, we checked into a nearby hotel. Every afternoon, a loudspeaker piped in music praising the guru. When I bought a pen at a local shop to take notes, it had Sai Baba’s smiling face on it.
There was an ambient spiritual hysteria at Prasanthi Nilayam. At dinner one evening, a devotee we’d become friendly with pointed out an Austrian woman tugging her listless seven-year-old son behind her. She was in the midst of a spiritual crisis because she’d had a dream in which Sai Baba instructed her to abandon the boy and live on the streets as a beggar, and she didn’t know if she had the “strength” to do it. As far as I could tell, no one at the ashram was stepping forward to discourage her.
I also heard rumors of sexual abuse and was shocked to meet old hands at the ashram who accepted these stories as true, though they interpreted the molestations as part of Sai Baba’s divine mission. One man, an American ex-motivational speaker, thought they were part of Baba’s plan to spread his message. “Probably more people are going to know about you if there are allegations that you’re a pedophile than if you say God is incarnated on earth,” he told me. I ended up writing a story about all this for Salon. It didn’t leave me any more eager to find a guru.
Arriving in McLeod Ganj, weeks later, my husband and I saw a flyer seeking volunteers to teach English at a school for Tibetan refugees. After months of lassitude, we were thrilled and relieved at the chance to be useful and threw ourselves into the work. Settling down for several months in the sweet, peaceful little town, blessedly cool after months on the roasting plains, I realized I needed to get in shape. Most travelers who wander around India on the cheap lose weight, but I have an iron stomach, as well as a weakness for nan and paneer tikka masala. There was a three-hour ashtanga-based yoga class that met early every morning in a gymnasium near the center of town, and I signed up for it.
It was excruciating. I didn’t know it at the time, but ashtanga was initially based on exercise routines developed for teenage boys. The jump-backs we did between poses—like squat-thrusts followed by half push-ups—were channels for an animal energy I’d never possessed. The contortions required for binding poses were out of reach, the inversions terrifying, and I still couldn’t do a split, but I kept going back, at first because I wanted to lose weight, then because my friends in town were also going, and finally because it left me feeling fantastic.
A lot of the credit goes to my teacher, Vijay, a Gumby-limbed South Indian who could toss his ankle behind his neck as casually as if he were flinging a scarf. Vijay had very few pretensions. Once, catching me smoking a cigarette, he plucked it out of my fingers—and then started puffing on it himself. “Vijay, what are you doing? You’re a yogi!” I cried. “Michelle,” he said to me with a gleam in his eye, “I’m not a yogi. I’m a businessman.” I appreciated this sort of candor.
Before I left India, Vijay said to me, “Smoking won’t interfere with your yoga, but yoga will interfere with your smoking.” This turned out to be true; a year later, I quit. By then, my husband and I were living in Brooklyn. I was working as a journalist and writing about politics, which often left me knotted and angry. Yoga became a refuge. Sometimes I practiced four or five times a week. In the ritual and community of classes, I began to sense some of the consolation that others find in religion. Though still not a believer in anything supernatural, I felt the benefits of stepping outside the rush of ordinary life and trying to attune myself to a higher state of consciousness, however inchoate and fleeting. The discipline of paying attention to the habitual way your thoughts unfold, to the familiar grooves of your mind, seemed like cognitive therapy, but cheaper. I loved that I could find psychological solace and a workout at the same time.
I would never be lithe or supple, but I learned to do things with my body that I hadn’t thought possible. Occasionally, I would even feel that there was something positive in the tedious loathing I’d always felt for my never-skinny frame, since without that loathing, I might never have taken up yoga in the first place.
But while I loved yoga, I also wondered about it. The claims made for the curative powers of certain poses—the idea that one specific arrangement of limbs could treat depression, another fight headaches or PMS—seemed almost magical. I cringed at the way some of my American teachers romanticized India, a country that, for all its religious magnificence, can also be a place of staggering brutality. And I knew that despite descriptions of postural yoga as a quintessentially Indian discipline, the sweaty, fast-paced style I was practicing in New York was hard to find outside of tourist enclaves on the subcontinent. Everyone in my yoga class back in McLeod Ganj had been from the United States, Europe, Australia, or Israel. Vijay told me his own teacher had been a Frenchman. The Indian yogis I encountered, by contrast, tended to be dreadlocked mendicants practicing torturous physical austerities—standing on one leg for days, sleeping on a bed of nails—that seemed a universe away from anything one learns in a modern yoga class.
Among Western yogis, the standard explanation for the relative scarcity of their style of yoga in India is that most Indians have lost touch with their heritage. Still, I was curious what exactly the connection was between the ash-covered sadhus I’d seen contorting themselves on the banks of the Ganges in Benares and the invigorating stretches, lunges, twists, and handstands I practiced first in McLeod Ganj and then in ninety-minute sessions on a rubber mat in Brooklyn. I started looking around for a book or an article that would explain it. And at some point, I came across the New York Times obituary for Indra Devi.
“Indra Devi, the daughter of European nobility who introduced the ancient discipline of yoga to the Kremlin leadership, Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson and even students in India, died on Thursday in Buenos Aires,” the obit began. “She was 102.” The piece explained that she’d learned from the same guru as B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, yoga masters I’d heard about from serious students in India. It described her life as a Berlin cabaret performer and an actress in early Indian cinema. According to the obituary, she taught “what was thought to be the first yoga class in modern China” and wrote the first book on yoga by a Westerner to be published in India.
In Indra Devi’s story, I thought, I’d find the answers I was lookingfor. So I began to trace the path of her strange, occasionally inscrutable, and often epic life. As I’d hoped, that life does indeed give us a way to understand where yoga as we practice it in the West came from, showing both its links to an ancient Indian tradition and its wild discontinuities. It reveals how the discipline has been shaped by long dialogue among India, Europe, and America. In a strange way, following the serpentine tale of Devi’s life and teachings resolved whatever anxiety I had had about modern yoga’s authenticity, because it showed that there’s never been a pristine, eternal tradition to corrupt.
The narrative of Devi’s life, however, is much more than the story of yoga in the West. As I dove into it, I felt that I was discovering a secret sideways history of the twentieth century. Devi was a Zelig-like figure, an esoteric female Forrest Gump who seemed to show up wherever tumultuous world events were unfolding. Her story moves through the Russian Revolution, the cabarets of Weimar Berlin, the Indian independence movement, the World War II Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and Hollywood during its 1950s heyday. She pops up, somewhat randomly, in Dallas when JFK was shot and then in Saigon when the Vietnam War was raging. That ashram I visited in Andhra Pradesh? It turns out that she was the one who spread Sai Baba’s fame across the West. She crossed paths with Gandhi, Greta Garbo, and John Lennon. As spiritual adviser to Manuel Noriega’s second-in-command, her name appears in most histories of the U.S. invasion of Panama.
It’s an astonishing story, and once I started trying to write it, I realized why no one had told it before. What source material exists is scattered in archives, old newspapers, government files, and friends’ houses all over the world. Some is in English, but some is in Russian, Czech, German, Polish, and Spanish, and the last is the only one of the languages in which I have any facility. Devi published several books, including, when she was one hundred, a Spanish-language memoir titled Una mujer de tres siglos, or “A Woman of Three Centuries.” Her autobiographical writing, however, is highly selective, full of large gaps. In her memoir, there are fewer than eight pages about her eight years in China. Some important incidents are ignored entirely.
In parts of this book, I had no choice but to use Devi’s own version of events as my guide. But I also dug up old letters and mentions of her in out-of-print books. I obtained her confidential FBI file—J. Edgar Hoover, not surprisingly, had his eye on her—and the service record of her diplomat first husband. I hired a researcher to help me navigate archives in Riga, Latvia, where she was born, and in Berlin. In addition to those countries, I traveled to India, Argentina, Mexico, and Panama. I spent a lot of money on professional translators, sometimes not knowing whether the material would be useful until after I read it in English. Even after all this, lacunae remain. Most of the people who knew Devi in life found her, on some level, ungraspable, and she remains elusive in death.
This is partly because she had so many identities. Again and again, she would build a life for herself and then discard it when it no longer suited, moving on with no discernable effort or regret. You can see her talent for rebirth in how often she changed her name. Born Eugenia Peterson, she was also known as Eugenie and Jane, and later Indira and Indra, all in combination with various surnames. For her, constant openness to change was a spiritual precept, though it also marks her as a very modern sort of celebrity. (In the pages that follow, I will refer to her as Eugenia until she arrives in Hollywood and officially becomes Indra Devi.)
Many people who knew her spoke to me, including two close friends who themselves had tried, unsuccessfully, to write the story of her life, and who generously shared everything they’d learned. (A writer named Natalia Apostolli was finally able to produce a Spanish-language biography of Devi in 1992. Titled Una vida, un siglo, or “One Life, One Century,” it is based almost entirely on Devi’s stories and recollections.)
Some of those who loved her and who helped me will be disappointed in this book. To them, she was nearly divine. I see her as a complicated, audaciously modern, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes maddeningly irresponsible woman, not as a spiritual exemplar.
Indeed, the more I learned about Devi, the more I doubted that her ethic of nonattachment, an idea often bandied about in yoga classes, was truly compatible with passionate loyalty to other people. In “Reflections on Gandhi,” published a year after the Mahatma’s assassination, George Orwell writes, “In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that ‘non-attachment’ is…better than a full acceptance of earthly life…If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for ‘non-attachment’ is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work.” This opinion is reductive, but after spending years researching Devi’s life, which is in many ways a triumph of nonattachment, I don’t think Orwell was entirely wrong.
Yet yoga remains as important to me as ever. My yoga classes even helped me deal with the doubts about yoga that occasionally emerged while I was writing this book. I think this is why the practice is such a comfort to secular urbanites like me—it’s a technique, not a faith. You don’t have to believe in anything, even yoga itself, to find joy and solace in the conscious joining of breath and movement, or relief in slowing the whirling of the mind. You just have to do it.
Devi played a huge role in teaching the world to do yoga. For that, I’m not only fascinated by her, but also grateful. She, more than any cave-dwelling ascetic or Brahmin sage, is the godparent of a practice that has had an enormous impact on contemporary culture as well as on my own wholly worldly life.