“You create your own universe,” “Love and all is coming.” You may be surprised to learn that what you thought was ancient Indian wisdom found in American yoga classes can be traced back to a Latvian immigrant named Eugenia Peterson. Ideologies that we commonly associate with aligning our chakras and getting toned yoga arms originate with her big misunderstanding. Eugenia, later known by the name “Indra Devi,” was the first person to popularize vinyasa yoga in the west, but what she brought wasn’t actually any kind of ancient Indian tradition at all.
Author Michelle Goldberg, in her new book Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, was recently interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR. Her book explains the striking discrepancies between yoga of the past and what we practice today. More people do yoga than ever before, so it’s no surprise that some things have changed to fit our modern lifestyles. Even so, a few enthusiasts might be surprised to learn their lineage actually comes from New England.
Before she was Indra Devi, Eugenia began her yoga journey with a book called, 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism. The aristocratic Eastern-European was instantly hooked by the book’s mystical and exotic ideas. Her infatuation with what she believed were yogic philosophies led her all the way to India to study with the biggest yoga leader of the day, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the “father of modern yoga.”
But here’s the kicker: the book that inspired Eugenia with “yogic” philosophies wasn’t written by an Indian guru, or even a student of yoga. Instead, it was penned by an American attorney and occultist, William Walker Atkinson. Atkinson was a pioneer in the “New Thought” movement, inspired by the writings of Phineas Quimby. Atkinson later took on the penname Yogi Remacharaka. So he’s not from India, so what? What he’s saying did have some merit, despite a strong tilt towards Quimby’s ideals.
It was the turn of the century in America when Atkinson/Remacharaka wrote 14 Lessons, and the New Thought process was getting really big. Christian Science, also in the same realm of Quimby’s mind-over-matter principles, was surging in popularity at the time, converting New England Protestants and making big waves. Atkinson carefully wove some yogic sayings in with principles he’d learned from Phineas Quimby. His style was similar to a self-help writer of today, and he catalyzed Eugenia’s interpretation of the practice, her personal quest for meaning in her own life and her mission to spread the message.
As far as the actual poses go, once Eugenia was hooked on what she thought was yoga, she headed to India. Krishnamacharya, (an actual Indian guy this time) was teaching K. Pattabhi Jois, creator of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga. Krishnamacharya turned Eugenia away because, not only was she a foreigner, she was a woman. His yoga wasn’t for women, he’d say over and over. Finally, because of her persistence (and her influence with the Maharaja) the great teacher agreed to give Eugenia a chance.
Unfortunately for Eugenia, even the ritual that fascinated her was far from authentically Indian. Krishnamacharya had been the first to make yoga aerobic, with the pushups and jump backs we see today. He had come up with this gymnastic, physically demanding method of poses since he was teaching classes of young boys. He found that their energetic, rambunctious nature required a few exercises to calm them down and find a seat. These movements were, however, European gymnastic exercises he’d learned; you will not find them in ancient yogic scriptures. That’s where we get the power vinyasa flows today. They were intended to teach the young boys discipline and happened to be a well-rounded workout to attain a comfortable seat.
As a yoga practitioner, I have seen a wide spectrum of yoga traditions: from purely spiritual endeavors in sheltered sanctuaries to fitness classes in gyms. I’ve learned that modern yoga has as many variations as people who practice it. The most frequent thing I tell people that are getting deeper into their practice is something I learned at the studio in which I started:
“There will be no correct clothes. There will be no proper payment. There will be no right answers.” We’d say these sort of non-mantras at donation-based Yoga to the People on St. Marks in the East village. I may have not have realized then how the spirit of that captures the essence of yoga, or at least what it must be today. Knowing what I do now, after years of practice, I can see how yoga has had less to do with anything I was ever taught in class, and more to do with what happens at all the moments in between class.
Learning that ancient yoga has little today with our modern yoga shouldn’t inspire us to cancel our yoga groupon, but maybe it should make shift our focus more on the meditation for which all those lunges and stretches are preparation. I don’t think anything can take away from her intention, but one of the greatest lessons we should learn from “Indra Devi” is not to covet the oriental mystique of the yoga practice.