Women and Yoga, and essay by Brenda Harris
The practice of yoga is many thousands of years old. Some say it goes back 5,000 years. The practice was created and cultivated by men in India. Women were not allowed to participate.
Yoga has many fathers. I have learned about several in the books that I have read. Just as we all need a Father, we also need a Mother. (The sun and the moon, the yin and the yang, the Mother and the Father. ) Along came Indra Devi to fill the role as our Mother of Yoga in the West.
Indra was born Eugenie Peterson in pre-soviet Russia in 1899 and later changed her name to Indra Devi. She was the daughter of a Russian noblewoman Mother and a Swedish banking director Father. Indra studied drama in Moscow and escaped with her Mother to Berlin when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917.
When she read about India and yoga, she became very fascinated with the country and the practice of yoga. She longed to travel to India to meet the yoga masters. She eventually did so and became friends with Maharaja of Mysore. Indra sought out the yoga master, Krishnamacharya and asked to study under him. At first, he told her that his school did not accept women or foreigners. I admire Indra Devi’s perseverance because she did not give up. She went to the Maharaja and he intervened so that Krishnamacharya would take her on as a student. He was very strict with her and she proved herself so much that he became impressed with her dedication. He began to give her private instruction.
Later, when her husband told her that they were moving to China, she went to Krishnamacharya and he told her that this was her opportunity to open a school in Shanghai and teach there. She did what the yoga master suggested and opened a school. After her husband died, she decided that she wanted to bring yoga to the west. Indra moved to California. People tried to convince her to name her practice anything other than yoga. But, she did not bow to that pressure. She opened a studio in Hollywood, California. Movie stars, and artists came to her studio.
As it is today, when Hollywood’s famous do something, others often imitate them. A famous makeup artist and spa owner, Elizabeth Arden, became a student and later incorporated yoga in her spas. I admire Indra Devi for her pioneering spirit, her dedication and her perseverance.
Another yogini that I greatly admire is Sivananda Radha. Swami Radha, as she is known, was born Sylvia Hellman in Germany in 1911 and lived through both world wars in Berlin. She lost her husband when he was executed in a concentration camp for helping Jews to leave Germany. Her parents were both killed in the war. Swami Radha became very disgusted with the brutality and meaningless of war and she left Germany and emigrated to Canada. She developed an interest in yoga after reading about it. She saw it as a means to find the meaning of life. This took her to India to learn more.
In India, Swami Radha met Sivananda Saraswati. His teachings impacted her in such a way that she returned to Canada with a deeper understanding of life and she gave up all attachments. She lived on charity initially but quickly people started to seek her out to hear her speak. She founded an ashram in British Columbia.
Swami Radha’s purpose was to help westerners understand the ancient yoga teachings of the East. She not only taught in Canada but traveled extensively in America and Europe as well, giving lectures and teaching others. Her teachings integrated Yoga within a spiritual and philosophical manner of living that was open to all cultures and traditions. Swami Radha passed away in 1995 and has left a beautiful legacy through her ashram in Canada.
Because of pioneers like Indra Devi and Swami Radha, people in the west were being introduced to yoga. This was helped further when Lilias Foran brought yoga into the living rooms of America. In 1972, Lilias intoduced yoga to the average, every day American in the PBS series, Lilias! Yoga and You. I never saw the series, but I can imagine that I would have taken to yoga much sooner if I had.
Time Magazine did an article on Lilias and called her “Julia Child of yoga“ because of her ability to go into the homes of Americans by way of TV and make them feel as though she was talking directly to them. Lilias received many positive letters from viewers, both young and old. She also received some ugly mail accusing her of doing “the devil’s work”. Clearly, yoga was still considered a strange and foreign practice by many at the time. But, Lilias was a great factor in opening many people’s eyes to the benefits.
The seeds Yoga were lovingly planted by Indra Devi, Swami Radha and Lilias Foran, among others. I am very grateful to these Mothers of Yoga.
Today, we have the internet with information at our fingertips. ‘Google’ is a word now found in the dictionary. When I google famous yoga instructors, many women pop up in my google search and I have been reading about them. When I googled to find a yoga class in Raleigh that I could attend, I found Y Respira Studio. I read about its founder, Claudia Chambers and knew that I wanted to meet her and learn from her. It is because of pioneers like Indra Devi, Swami Radha and Lilias Foran that we have Claudia. And it is also because of women like Claudia that we have Whitney, Krisa and Brenda, Y Respira’s three yoga certification students of Winter 2015. Claudia is helping us to not only enrich not our lives, but the lives of others.