How Eugenie Peterson - 'Indra Devi' Took Yoga Global

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    Yoga is truly a global phenomenon today. A timeless practice steeped in spirituality and self-discovery, it has become a way of life transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. But have you ever wondered how yoga became so popular worldwide, starting the early part of the 20th century? We bring you the extraordinary tale of a remarkable lady – Eugenie Peterson – also known as ‘Indra Devi’ who played a pioneering role in popularising Yoga in the United States, China and South America.

    Peterson was among the earliest women from the West to learn Yoga and become a Yoga teacher. A lot of the credit for spreading yoga in the west goes to her.

    Starting out

    Indra Devi was born Eugenie Peterson in 1899 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. She was the daughter of a Swedish bank director and a Russian noblewoman. Forced to flee to Germany in 1917 because of the Russian revolution, her fascination with India and Yoga began in the 1920s, when she attended a talk by noted Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti in Berlin.

    Years later, Eugenie would recollect how the Sanskrit mantras chanted by J Krishnamurti had a profound impact on her:

    "It seemed to me, I was hearing a forgotten call, familiar, but distant. From that day everything in me turned upside down."

    This was the beginning of her love for India and Eugenie became obsessed about travelling there, but did not have the funds to do so.

    Traversing India

    In 1927, fuelled by her insatiable curiosity, Eugenie set out on a pilgrimage to India, the birthplace of yoga. Her objective was to study under the guidance of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a revered Yoga Guru in India. Recognizing Eugenie’s indomitable spirit, Krishnamacharya assumed the mantle of her guru and instructor. Her fellow students like BKS Iyengar and K Prattabhi Jois too went on to become Yoga legends in their own right.

    Eugenie learned Yoga's philosophy, mastered its asanas (poses), and pranayama (breathing exercises) during her time with Krishnamacharya.

    Introducing Modern Yoga to China and the United States

    After her return from India, Eugenie moved to Shanghai in 1939, where she started the first modern Yoga classes in China. Madame Chang Kai-Shek, the wife of the Nationalist Chinese leader was her patron. A large number of Chinese and Expats living in Shanghai became her followers and she became popularly called ‘Mataji’.

    Following the Civil War in China, Eugenie returned to the United States in 1947. At that time, yoga remained an enigma to the Western world. It was she who opened one of Hollywood's early Yoga studios, attracting famous stars like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson who were intrigued by this new practice from India .

    “Yoga for Americans”

    But it wasn't easy going. Eugenie encountered initial resistance as she strove to popularise yoga in the United States. Many Americans viewed yoga as an exotic and unfamiliar discipline, often associating it solely with mysticism and spirituality. Nevertheless, Eugenie persisted in her mission to demystify yoga and promote it as a comprehensive practice for holistic well-being. Emphasising its non-religious nature, she positioned yoga as a tool for self-improvement and personal growth.

    Over time, Eugenie's perseverance bore fruit as yoga gained traction and acceptance across the United States. As her teachings spread, she traversed the globe, imparting her teachings across Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Eugenie’s role as a global ambassador of yoga proved instrumental in its widespread acceptance and recognition.

    Through her writings, Peterson demystified yoga and made it accessible to a wider audience, particularly in the Western world. She also wrote bestsellers like 'Yoga for Americans,' which added to yoga's spread as it acted as guides, introducing readers to the philosophy, asanas, and breathing techniques of yoga.

    Eugenie's clear explanations, combined with her personal experiences, inspired countless individuals to embrace yoga as a transformative practice for physical and mental well-being. Her writings not only educated and empowered readers but also contributed to the widespread acceptance and adoption of yoga as a holistic lifestyle choice across the globe. In the 1960s, Eugenie moved to South America, where she worked to promote Yoga. She died in 2002 at the ripe age of 103.

    Yoga around the globe today

    Today, yoga has become a global phenomenon, embraced by millions around the world. It is not only practised in specialised studios but also integrated into schools, workplaces, and fitness centres. Yoga's versatility and adaptability have led to the development of various styles and approaches, catering to different needs and preferences.

    Yoga's universal appeal lies in its ability to offer a holistic approach to wellness. Beyond physical fitness, it provides a path to inner peace, mindfulness, and self-discovery. Its emphasis on breath control, mindfulness, and mind-body connection makes it a valuable tool for stress management and personal growth in an increasingly fast-paced and demanding world.

    Eugenie Peterson’s pioneering efforts were instrumental in popularising yoga and breaking down cultural barriers associated with the practice. Her journey from Latvia to India and back to the US marked the beginning of yoga's global journey. Today, yoga continues to transcend boundaries, offering a pathway to health, well-being, and self-awareness for people of all backgrounds, contributing to a more harmonious and balanced world.

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