In Loving Gratitude: A Tribute to 4 Women Who Revolutionized Yoga

November 28, 2013    BY Anna Dubrovsky

Not so long ago, yoga was an esoteric practice, virtually unheard of in the United States and other Western countries. A powerful vehicle for enlightenment. For men…in India. Fast forward to the mid-20th century: yoga is now global, mainstream, and decidedly coed. Few people have had as much to do with that revolution as the four women featured in these pages. Charged by their revered teachers in India to spread the word of yoga far and wide, they reluctantly agreed. But then a curious thing happened. At some point, each woman began to make the teachings her own, creating practices anyone could do, no matter their limitations. And all four of them taught us all—male and female, young and old—what it means to be fully alive and truly at home in our bodies. We bow to them here for kicking the doors of yoga wide open and happily walking on through.

Indra Devi cracked a centuries-old glass ceiling by becoming the first woman—and first Westerner—to study with Indian yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, opened China’s first yoga school, and returned to India to teach yoga to Indians themselves before making her way to America.

First Lady of Yoga:  Indra Devi

When Indra Devi moved to California from China in 1947, friends urged her to call her teachings anything but “yoga.” After all, it would be at least another 10 years before Richard Hittleman would introduce yoga on television and two decades before B.K.S. Iyengar wrote Light on Yoga. Post-war Americans would have no sooner signed up for yoga than for fire-eating.

But Indra Devi remained undeterred. The Latvian-born itinerant felt right at home in uncharted territory. She’d cracked a centuries-old glass ceiling by becoming the first woman—and first Westerner—to study with Indian yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, opened China’s first yoga school, and returned to India to teach yoga to Indians themselves before making her way to America.

It didn’t take long to find a fan base here—and it didn’t hurt that some of her earliest fans were among the glitterati. “A great many people seem to have taken up the study of yoga simply because Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Olivia de Havilland, Mala Powers, Robert Ryan, and also the world-famous beautician Elizabeth Arden are known to have been devotees,” she noted in her 1959 best seller, Yoga for Americans.

Indra Devi made an ideal, albeit unlikely, ambassador for yoga, in part because she wasn’t an Indian man. Born Eugenie Peterson to a Russian noblewoman and a Swedish bank director, she was every bit a sophisticated Westerner, comfortable traveling the world and mingling with newsmakers and high society. And yet she was never stern or ceremonious, and her warmth and quick wit endeared her to everyone she came into contact with. She attracted and welcomed students regardless of their motivation: from slimming down to Self-realization.

Devi’s own interest in Eastern spirituality began in her teens, when she came upon the writings of Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and the American occultist who wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka. In 1926, the 27-year-old actress and dancer attended a gathering of the Theosophical Society in Holland, where she became enthralled with Jiddu Krishnamurti. The next year, she sailed to India, following the renowned spiritual teacher from city to city.

For 12 years, she made India her home, marrying a Czechoslovakian diplomat, starring in an Indian movie (the stage name Indra Devi later became her legal name), and rubbing shoulders with such notables as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings first sparked her love affair with the country. It helped to have friends in high places; when Krishnamacharya refused to accept a woman as his student in 1937, his royal patron intervened on Indra Devi’s behalf.

By the time Devi followed her diplomat husband to Shanghai in 1939, Krishnamacharya had warmed up to his sari-wearing student, insisting that she teach yoga. And so she did—for the rest of her remarkably long life. Devi died just shy of her 103rd birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, her home since 1985.

Devi’s teaching style bore little resemblance to that of Iyengar or Ashtanga yoga maestro K. Pattabhi Jois, who also studied with Krishna-macharya in the 1930s. That could be because Krishnamacharya was gentler with her, or perhaps Devi recognized that rigorous discipline and unquestioning obedience would not sit well with most Westerners. She certainly recognized the difference in lifestyles between Westerners and Indians. “I have taken into account not only the pace to which life in the United States is geared, but also the fact that most of you have not had a chance to keep your muscles limber and your joints supple,” she wrote in Yoga for Americans.

Devi brought a woman’s perspective to what had been a man’s world. She also brought her background as a dancer, her deep respect for the nonsectarian teachings of Krishnamurti, and, in the latter third of her life, her devotion to Sathya Sai Baba, the fuzzy-haired holy man who preached, “See with the eyes of love, hear with the ears of love, work with the hands of love.” Her Sai yoga was not the vinyasa flow she learned from Krishnamacharya. She still used the breath to move within and between the poses, but her characteristic trademark was gentler and more devotional.

While disciples of Iyengar and Jois refer to their teacher as Guruji, Devi’s call her Mataji, an affectionate and reverent term for mother. And, like the best of mothers, she taught them about unconditional love. “It’s not only asana that she tried to teach us,” says David Lifar, director of the Indra Devi Foundation in Buenos Aires. “The goal of Mataji—the most important thing of her teaching—was to give love to everyone.”

Start a New Fashion

In Yoga for Americans, Devi addressed everything from asana to the perils of soft mattresses. The section on diet included recipes and sample menus—and a taste of her humor. “The Indians claim that people afflicted with arthritis should always keep a raw unpeeled winter-crop potato close to their skin,” she wrote. “I myself have seen a woman, who previously had hardly been able to move her fingers, open and close her fists a week after she started playing around with a potato…. Since there is no risk of any kind involved in holding a potato, and since you may even start a new fashion by wearing one around the neck like a medallion, you could safely try this experiment…. And let me know the results.”

The Spiritual Emissary:  Swami Sivananda Radha

Just two months into her stay in India, Sylvia Hellman’s guru made an unexpected request. “Start an ashram or school [in Canada] for the divine teachings of yoga and Vedanta.”

It was a tall order. The year was 1955, and practically no one had heard of yoga in North America. Besides, Hellman had not gone to India to become a spiritual pioneer. She had gone to see Swami Sivananda Saraswati, hoping for insight into the meaning of life, which she had good reason to question. Born in Berlin in 1911, she had witnessed both World Wars and lost two husbands: the first killed by the gestapo for helping Jewish friends leave Germany and the second felled by a stroke.

Swami Radha developed a gentle and meditative style of practice called Hidden Language Hatha Yoga. She would invite students to choose an asana and ask them to notice what its name evokes. How do they feel as they move into the pose; what does that pose reveal about their lives? A twist, for example, may become a metaphor for a twist in one person’s life or the way another’s mind twists things.

When he asked her to start an ashram, Hellman tried to reason with the former physician. She pointed out that she didn’t even know Sanskrit or Vedanta. She hadn’t studied the Bhagavad Gita. “It would be the blind leading the blind,” she insisted.

Three months later, Swami Sivananda threw her another curveball. “When you go back to the West, do not work anymore for money,” he told her. “God will look after you.” Hellman, who chronicled her six-month stay in Radha: Diary of a Woman’s Search, wasn’t so sure. “America and Canada are very money-conscious,” she said, “Nobody would understand if I start living on alms.” But Swami Sivananda would not be swayed. “You cannot tell people to live on faith in God alone if you don’t do it yourself.”

Hellman concluded that day’s diary entry with a panicked question: “How can I ever hope to get out of this whole thing?”

But she didn’t. Instead of shrinking from her guru’s formidable assignments, she dove right in. Within weeks of returning to Montreal, the newly initiated sannyasi was teaching yoga classes, lecturing on yoga philosophy, and discussing her experiences in India on TV. The following year, she moved to Vancouver, opened the city’s first metaphysical bookstore, and founded the first Canadian ashram. In 1963, the ashram moved to its present location on the shores of Kootenay Lake in southeastern British Columbia and called itself Yasodhara, a name which it shares with Buddha’s wife and Krishna’s mother.

Swami Sivananda Radha, as Hellman was known after her vows of renunciation, went on to write more than a dozen books; create a publishing house, Timeless Books; launch a quarterly journal that would become the international yoga magazine ascent; and open a string of urban yoga centers.

In the early years, most of Swami Radha’s disciples were men. “We called ourselves Snow White and the seven dwarfs,” she told Yoga Journal in 1981. In time, more and more women found their way to Yasodhara, drawn by courses like “Women and Spiritual Life” and Swami Radha’s strength of character. Today, they outnumber the men. Two years before she died in 1995, Swami Radha named a woman, Swami Radhananda, as her spiritual successor and decreed that a woman should always remain behind the spiritual wheel at Yasodhara. “There have been other very strong women leaders, but they haven’t necessarily passed their lineage to women,” says Swami Lalitananda, who lived and studied with Swami Radha for more than 20 years. “She really wanted women to recognize their leadership potential as spiritual leaders.”

Though inspired by her guru and informed by her intense training at his ashram, Swami Radha tailored her teachings to Westerners. “She understood how the Western mind worked,” Swami Lalitananda says. “We question. We don’t just accept things. In our culture we are not trained to bow down at the feet of our teachers. She was more practical.” Rather than focus on abstract philosophies, she guided people toward a better understanding of themselves and an appreciation of their personal strength. “The main thing I try to do is have my students bring quality into their lives,” she told Hinduism Today in 1988. “To me, people are not spiritual if this quality is not there in their lives—even if they meditate six hours a day.”

Courses and retreats at Yasodhara combine practices found in ancient yogic texts—the Hari Om mantra, for example—with those found in modern psychology textbooks, in particular journaling and dream analysis. And then there are practices found nowhere else, such as the Divine Light Invocation, a standing meditation that Swami Radha learned during a visionary experience in India.

“There are many women who have come and helped. They have stayed and learned so much about themselves and their strengths. The ashram still runs on the very ideals that Swami Radha wanted,” says Swami Radhananda. “It’s as though she were still here.”

Hidden Language Hatha Yoga

Shortly before Swami Radha left India, her guru handed her a humdinger of an assignment, Swami Lalitananda recalls. “He said, ‘Now I want you to discover the spiritual and mystical levels of the asanas and report back to me.’ She said, ‘Gurudev, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. You have to give me an example.’” And he gave her the example of the headstand, Swami Lalitananda says. “He said, ‘When you go into the headstand, it’s like you’re turning your world upside down. So what would happen if your world was turned upside down? You’re seeing the world in a completely different way. Also, from this perspective, you can’t go anywhere. You can’t walk away. So in this position, it’s like you’re making a commitment. And your feet, which are usually grounded in the earth, are now grounded in heaven.’”

Yoga teachers in the West, and particularly in the United States, have put their stamp on the ancient Indian discipline, steering it from fringe to mainstream, and sparked a billion-dollar industry in the process. Few have done more to popularize the practice than Folan, whose 1970s PBS series Lilias, Yoga and You brought yoga into living rooms around the country.

Swami Radha took it from there, developing a gentle and meditative style of practice called Hidden Language Hatha Yoga. She would invite students to choose an asana and ask them to notice what its name evokes. How do they feel as they move into the pose; what does that pose reveal about their lives? A twist, for example, may become a metaphor for a twist in one person’s life or the way another’s mind twists things. Students would jot down their observations between asanas and share them at the end of class. “People’s personal experiences come forward, and they understand something about themselves in a different way,” Swami Lalitananda says of the practice she still uses today. “It’s like unlocking the secrets in their life that their body’s holding.”

The Julia Child of Yoga:  Lilias Folan

During a tour of India in the 1970s, Lilias Folan struck up a conversation with a Ramakrishna monk. “You know,” he told the Cincinnati-based yoga teacher, “we have taken yoga as far as we can in India. It’s up to you in the United States now to take it and run with it like a football.”

The remark confounded Folan, but several decades later, it seems the monk had it right. Yoga teachers in the West, and particularly in the United States, have put their stamp on the ancient Indian discipline, steering it from fringe to mainstream, and sparked a billion-dollar industry in the process. Few have done more to popularize the practice than Folan, whose 1970s PBS seriesLilias, Yoga and You brought yoga into living rooms around the country. A handful of stations still carry her follow-up series, Lilias! Yoga Gets Better with Age, produced in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Though Folan reached millions, she gave the impression of teaching to one. “Lilias had the capacity and talent to be able to play to the camera as an individual, so the person watching the television set really felt that Lilias was talking to that person and that person alone,” says Jack Dominic, station manager at CET in Cincinnati, which produced both series. “People felt that they knew her as an individual, as a friend, as a confidante, as an adviser.” He puts her in the company of children’s TV host Fred Rogers and legendary newsman Walter Cronkite. A 1974 Time magazine article on the growing interest in yoga (“The Manhattan telephone directory lists 27 yoga instruction centers,” the writer marveled) likened her to the beloved cookbook author and TV personality Julia Child, and the comparison stuck.

“It’s not about the down dog,” Folan says. “That’s the outer shell of you and me. It’s about answering the question: Who am I? Who am I really?”

At 76, she still receives fan mail. “You have been an important part of my entire adult life,” a 62-year-old Michigan man wrote in July. “Your instructions were—and are—always the easiest to understand, and the lessons most valuable to me.”

To Folan, whose earliest yoga teachers took a one-size-fits-all approach, the comfort and safety of her students was paramount. And because she was in the unusual position of teaching to people she couldn’t see—unable to gauge their experience, unable to offer corrections—her instructions had to be clear, detailed, and accommodating of every body: male or female, 18 or 80, stiff or bendy, strong or pain-stricken. “I have made 500 televised yoga classes, and I don’t think I’ve ever received a letter that said, ‘I have been injured from watching your television show,’” she says.

In the early days, not all of the mail was flattering. “I remember getting letters signed by the church choir saying that yoga is the work of the devil and does not belong on public television. There was a lot of misunderstanding of what yoga was and what it wasn’t,” she says. “I was determined to make it normal, to make it useable, to make it for the young mother who doesn’t sleep well, for the athlete for flexibility—so that it would be Americanized and still keep its heart.”

Folan was herself a young mother when she turned to yoga in the mid-’60s. Not sleeping well wasn’t the worst of her problems. Her back bothered her, and she tired easily. She smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day. She had a fine husband, two sons, a house with a white picket fence, and even a boat, but she couldn’t escape what she describes as a “gloom cloud.” She went to her doctor, hoping to “solve it all with pills,” but instead he prescribed exercise. “You are suffering from a case of the blahs,” he concluded.

Before long, Folan was taking yoga classes at the YWCA near her Connecticut home and making her way to ashrams in New York, where she met such notables as Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga; Swami Vishnudevananda, founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres; and Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society. “At that time, India was coming to New York,” she says. “There were all sorts of wonderful beings—swamis—and I could sit and listen to their discourses.” It kept the blahs at bay.

Folan was more than a little reluctant to move to Cincinnati for her husband’s work. “But the truth of the matter is, when I moved to Cincinnati, some really exciting things began to happen in my life.” Most notably, she was discovered by the wife of a CET producer while teaching yoga in a school cafeteria. The rest, as they say, is history.

Folan is still teaching yoga, though she’s careful not to overextend herself. She’s focusing on her husband of 53 years, their grown sons, and their seven grandchildren. Earlier this year she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and had to lay off her asana practice as she recovered from surgery and chemo. It was a reminder that as much as yoga has changed—from the way poses are taught to the way practitioners dress—it’s essentially the same. “It’s not about the down dog,” Folan says. “That’s the outer shell of you and me. It’s about answering the question: Who am I? Who am I really?”

Resurrection Breath

These days, Lilias starts and ends most classes with a practice she learned from Goswami Kriyananda of Chicago’s Temple of Kriya Yoga. Known as resurrection breath, it helps practitioners focus on the present.

To begin, take a comfortable seat. Draw an imaginary line through the center of your body, through your brow, chin, heart, and navel. The area over your left shoulder symbolizes dying to the past, and the area over your right shoulder symbolizes letting go of the future. Turn your head comfortably to the left, and gently blow over your left shoulder a few times, as if blowing out a candle, mentally letting go of the past. With an inhalation, bring your head back to center, sensing the moment, and then turn your head to the right. Gently blow over your right shoulder a few times, and imagine that you’re letting go of the future. “Then come back to center once again, the heart center, the now, the present moment,” Folan says. “Breathing in, let the corners of your lips turn up slightly, smile from the center of your heart, and as you exhale, say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so grateful for this moment now.’”

The Other Iyengar: Geeta Iyengar

When Geeta Iyengar (known as Geetaji) began teaching in the early 1960s, very few Indians felt that women should practice yoga, much less teach it to others. She spent a lot of time answering questions like, Will standing on the head prevent a woman from getting pregnant?

Geeta was a mere teen back then, but her words carried a lot of weight. She is, after all, the eldest daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar, now 94-years strong, who has taught Indian royals, politicians, and celebrities, as well as such international personalities as violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Geeta Iyengar is hardly a household name, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Since 1973, when her mother died, she has been the woman behind the man. She has cooked her father’s meals, edited his manuscripts, and run the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India, the nerve center of Iyengar Yoga. She sidesteps praise and recognition, redirecting them to Guruji, her father-slash-guru. But she has long been a yoga master in her own right. At a time when women outnumber men in most yoga classes, she is arguably the foremost authority on yoga for women.

Geetaji's greatest gift to women may be the example she sets. “Because she is such a powerful woman, such a fierce woman, she has empowered many,” Walden says. “She’ll stand up to anybody. She’ll say whatever she feels like saying. She stands in her truth, and don’t we all want to have role models like that?”

Geeta Iyengar’s yoga training began virtually at birth. “It was always around me,” she told an interviewer in 1995. “I remember very well how I used to imitate Guruji while he was practicing. Guruji used to make me bend and twist and make me topsy-turvy on his feet when he did headstand and shoulderstand.” But her childhood was far from idyllic. Like her father, she was a sickly kid, enduring everything from colds and stomachaches to typhoid and diphtheria. At 10, she was diagnosed with nephritis, a potentially deadly inflammation of the kidneys. After a flare-up left her unconscious for four days, her father put “the list of medicines aside and said sternly, ‘From tomorrow onwards no more medicines. Either you practice yoga or get prepared to die,’” she recalls in her seminal book, Yoga: A Gem for Women.

By 15, she was teaching yoga to her schoolmates. Two years later, some of her father’s students asked if she could teach them while he was away in England, and the master consented. She’s never looked back, dedicating half a century to supporting and furthering his work—first as an apprentice and then as his successor, directing the institute along with her brother, Prashant.

The three Iyengars are famously fierce. They scold, and they yell. It’s a trait that’s easily misunderstood, says Patricia Walden, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher who has studied with them since the mid-’70s. “Some people are confused by it. They don’t get that somebody could be screaming and yelling at you, but they’re doing it because they really care that you understand the material, or they really care that you’re injured and they want to help you to get well.”

They are also known for a sort of all-seeing-ness—an ability to spot struggling students in a class of hundreds, to catch you the moment your attention drifts, to “call you on your stuff,” Walden says. “Studying with them is like being naked. You can’t hide.”

Geetaji has distinguished herself by specializing in the specific needs of women. First published in 1983, Yoga: A Gem for Women is an encyclopedic reference on asana and pranayama for different stages of a woman’s life. Her latest book,Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood: Safe Practice for Expectant and New Mothers,which she co-wrote, addresses everything from fertility issues to post-delivery flabbiness. Her teachings on how women should adjust their practice throughout the menstrual cycle have inspired at least two books.

Though she has never married—never had any interest in it, she explains—she is attuned to women’s struggles in balancing family life and other callings. In fact, the matriarch of the Iyengar family has admitted to neglecting her yoga practice. “The demands on me have made it impossible to be completely regular,” she once said. “For men it is different. They can be strict with their program…because there is somebody supporting them.”

Her greatest gift to women may be the example she sets. “Because she is such a powerful woman, such a fierce woman, she has empowered many,” Walden says. “She’ll stand up to anybody. She’ll say whatever she feels like saying. She stands in her truth, and don’t we all want to have role models like that?”

Never Too Late

"Yoga is a gift for old age. One who takes to yoga when old gains not only health and happiness but also freshness of mind, since yoga gives one a bright outlook on life, and one can look forward to a happier future rather than looking back into the past which has already entered into darkness. The loneliness and nervousness, which create sadness and sorrow, are destroyed by yoga as a new life begins. Hence it is never too late to begin. Yoga, if started in old age, is a rebirth that teaches one to face death happily, peacefully, and courageously.

Therefore, nobody is exempted from doing yoga and there are no excuses for not doing yoga. How useful is yoga can only be understood by practicing it."

—from Yoga: A Gem for Women by Geeta Iyengar (Timeless Books, 1990)

Anna Dubrovsky
Anna Dubrovsky is an award-winning journalist and author whose productivity has plummeted with the birth of her two children. But she always makes time for assignments that broaden her horizons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Utne Reader, Fitnessmagazine.com, and Parents.com. She has been practicing yoga since 2001 and teaching since 2008. After much globetrotting, she now makes her home in Southern California.

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