of Americans practice yoga as a workout, a spiritual
exercise or a combination of the two. Those who wonder
if their pigeon pose or sun salute carry centuries of
Hindu tradition from India to their sleek modern gym can
relax. Change, adaptation and a dialogue between East
and West have long been integral to yoga, something that
comes through in Michelle Goldberg’s new book,
"The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi,
the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West."
(Alfred A. Knopf: $26.95, June).
if you don’t care enough about yoga to hold a pigeon
pose for the length of time it takes to say that title,
Indra Devi, born Eugenia Peterson in 1899 in Riga,
Latvia, remains no less a fascinating character:
Constantly searching as she moves from Eastern Europe to
India to Shanghai and the United States, she changes
names, marries twice, acts and dances — finally making
it big about halfway through her century-long life as a
yoga teacher, author and lecturer.
of the keys to her personality is that she was a
stateless person and made a virtue of that,"
Goldberg says by phone from New York. "There’s
something almost supernatural about her willingness to
get up and start over at almost any point in her
says researching the book made her think about her own
yoga practice in Brooklyn. "On the one hand, it’s
obviously demystified yoga for me, both for good and for
ill. There is a sort of magic to yoga when you don’t
kind of quite know where it comes from and what is an
ancient esoteric secret. So I guess it is a bit of a
loss when you realize it’s British army calisthenics
repurposed," she continues. "At the same time,
I used to have a bit of anxiety about authenticity that
I’ve kind of gotten over."
is a widely published journalist who wrote "Kingdom
Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" and
"The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the
Future of the World." She started practicing yoga
during a trip to India with her husband. While she
"wasn’t sure she could chant ‘Om’ with a
straight face," she writes, she found no aerobics
classes in the Himalayas.
she became hooked on an "excruciating"
ashtanga-style class. She came across Devi’s obituary
while researching the connection between her Brooklyn
class and the ancient idea of yoga.
traces the independent spirit of the "Zelig-like"
Devi to her childhood, often lonely and often missing
her elusive mother. She grew up to believe that
"personal spiritual development came before
relationships." Devi was said to have known or
studied with the likes of the late yoga master B.K.S.
Iyengar and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal
Nehru, and to have introduced yoga to Kremlin leaders
and Hollywood stars.
history, Goldberg’s book is lots of fun, running
through the Russian Revolution, the Weimar Berlin night
life, Indian independence, 1950s Hollywood and 1960s
counterculture. "The Goddess Pose" shows how
Devi, and those around her, became attracted to yoga
alongside what we might now call New Age philosophies
and a desire for physical fitness.
or Peterson, as she was then known, first learned about
yoga as a teenager in 1914, in the library of the Moscow
home of family friends. The book she found there set off
what became a deep desire to go to India, and those
years set in Devi some of her lifelong traits. "All
around her, the country was turning into hell — and
she was learning a lesson that would serve her for the
rest of her long life: how to survive her world collapse
by reinventing herself," Goldberg writes.
too would be repeatedly reinvented through history,
migration and association with various philosophies. It
had its own child abuse scandal, its stars, its value in
the end of 1927, Devi said farewell to a fiance and
finally left for India, soon joining the traveling
entourage of the renown Krishnamurti, at whose side, she
wrote, "everything became clear and perfectly
comprehensible." (He would later make his home in
the 1930s, hatha yoga began to gain a reputation as a
"wholesome indigenous science of health and
longevity," Goldberg writes. While Indians had done
yoga for thousands of years, their "practices didn’t
necessarily have anything in common with yoga as
currently understood by the West, as a series of poses
and breathing exercises designed to strengthen the body
and calm the mind."
was in that decade that Devi began her formal yoga
training, eventually under the direction of the
legendary teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who, after
months of disciplined practice, told Devi to teach yoga
in other countries. She was fearful, Goldberg writes,
"but he was her guru. She couldn’t refuse."
mother encouraged her to go to the United States, just
as India’s independence neared. And in 1947 she left
for Los Angeles, "the ideal place" for
starting anew, Goldberg notes. Devi opened a yoga studio
on the Sunset Strip and started to teach "a
commonsense exercise and relaxation system, utterly
practical and wholesome, promising transformative
results without the grunting agony of other physical