Hollywood’s Yogi

Posted online: June 2016

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By Katherine Stewart

In July 1993, Suza Francina, a yoga instructor and former mayor of Ojai, sat down with Indra Devi, the woman who is perhaps most responsible for introducing yoga to the West. “She was this total free spirit, an international citizen,” says Francina, who had taken classes from Devi in the 1970s at Ojai’s World University.  “When you spoke with her it was so inspiring—you could connect with her sense of freedom. And she gave you the confidence to carry it out.”

At the advanced age of 94, Devi was a legendary figure—not only for having popularized the traditional Indian practice, but also for her extraordinary and adventurous life, which had spanned continents and brought her in contact with artists, thought leaders, and politicians from around the world. In the interview—which was published in two parts in the Ojai Valley Voice—Devi held forth on yoga and philosophy, recalled her extensive travels, and firmly reiterated her strong belief in women’s rights.

Another Ojai resident, yoga instructor Elizabeth Cleveland, describes her participation in one of Devi’s teacher-training courses as “beautiful, amazing, an incredible experience that changed my life. She really opened me up, not only to the importance of the breath, but also the spiritual side of yoga.” Perhaps more than any other Western individual, Devi is responsible for the ubiquity of yoga today. But anyone acquainted with this remarkable woman knows that her influence on the world stage went so much further than that.

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Devi’s epic life has been detailed in an absorbing and masterfully written biography by Michelle Goldberg titled Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped 9780307593511 (1)Bring Yoga to the West (Knopf, 2015). Devi was born into an aristocratic Russian family as Eugenia Peterson. Soon, Russia was rocked by political turbulence and the teenaged Devi joined a traveling cabaret troupe and fled the country. She developed a deep interest in philosophy, joined the nascent “spiritualist” movement of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, then eventually traveled to India, where she acted in silent films and mingled with Jiddu Krishnamurti, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi.

The Western spiritual seeker who travels to India is something of a cliché. But, as Goldberg points out, it wasn’t when Devi did it. She was an original, and her contemporaries thought she was unusual to say the least. Devi persuaded a reluctant yoga master to train her in the secrets of his art, and became the trusted confidant of several famous gurus, crossing paths with John Lennon and Yoko Ono along the way. She moved to Shanghai, where, during World War II, she taught yoga in an apartment owned by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

Forced to flee political instability in China, she decamped to Hollywood, where her coterie of devotees included Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley, first Bond girl Linda Christian, and Gloria Swanson. From there, Devi introduced yoga to heiresses and business leaders at Elizabeth Arden’s spa retreats in Arizona and Maine. At the behest of Rancho de la Puerta founders Deborah and Edmond Szekely, she opened a teacher-training yoga school in Mexico to meet the growing American demand. She introduced the practice to Kremlin leaders and lived for a time in Saigon, Sri Lanka, and Panama, where she served as the “spiritual advisor” to a colonel who plotted to overthrow the military dictator Manuel Noriega.

In her eighth decade, she moved again, this time to Buenos Aires at the behest of an adoring Argentinian rock star. She delivered impassioned speeches to packed audiences then crowd-surfed amongst her fans. She died in Argentina at age 102.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.51.40 PMWhile she is best known as an emissary of yoga, perhaps Devi’s greatest talent was for reinvention. “She had so many identities,” Goldberg writes. “Again and again, she would build a life for herself and then discard it when it no longer suited, moving on with no discernible effort or regret.”

It would be natural for Santa Barbarans to wonder: Did Devi encounter that other mitteleuropan adventuress, Madame Ganna Walska? Highly likely. Walska’s sixth husband, Theos Bernard, who in fact encouraged Walksa to purchase the 37-acre estate in Montecito that became Lotusland, traveled in many of the same circles. Swept up in the then-fashionable movement for Eastern-oriented self-exploration, Bernard opened a yoga teaching center in 1939. He published a pair of philosophical and instructional treatises in 1947 and 1950; Devi published her own books on yoga in 1948 and 1953. Walska hosted one of Devi’s most famous pupils, Gloria Swanson, at Lotusland on several occasions.

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By the time Francina sat down with Devi for the interview for the Ojai Valley Times, Devi’s physical and mental acuity were powerful testaments to her practice. Well into her 90s, she remained passionately engaged with the world. Photos that accompany the interview show a gray-haired, supple-bodied woman, her face enlivened by humor and curiosity.

“When people ask, ‘When will you retire?’, I say I don’t know. I am busier now than ever,” Devi told Francina. “Just a few days ago I was interviewed for the newspaper, the radio, and the television—all at the same time. The radio man asked, ‘How does it feel—aging?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how it feels…ask someone who’s aging.’”

 

 

[SPRING 2016]

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