Yoga, an East - West fusion ?!
In the book The Goddess Pose, Michelle Goldberg shares the adventurous and independent life of Indra Devi, the woman known for spreading yoga in the west. Through Devi’s world traveling story, Goldberg takes us over the 20th century’s esoteric philosophy evolution with the unfolding of the Theosophical and New Age movement, the fanaticism around spiritual Gurus, the intertwined sexual predation and the East - West origins of Modern Yoga. All through the World Wars, revolutions, civil wars, colonial independence and dictatorship Devi experienced throughout her journey.
Who was Indra Devi?
Indra Devi was a Russian aristocrat, Bollywood actress, Californian yoga teacher. She was born Eugenia Vassilievna in 1899 in Riga, Latvia, from an aristocratic family. She traveled the world to either escape war/political conflicts or in her quest for spiritual answers. She had always desired to go to India, which she managed to do for the first time in 1927 where she attended conferences from the Theosophical Society’s HQ in Adyar. She loved India and moved there shortly after her first visit, which at that time was under British domination. While settled in India, Eugenia, who was well educated and fluent in a few European languages, started to present herself as Jane Peterson to sound more British. After quite some time she introduced herlself as Indira Devi for her short career as a Bollywood actress, then Indra Devi and was at the end of her life know as Mataji (which translate to “Mother”), as she was seen as a spiritual guide. Her independent and adventurous lifestyle could easily is discovered through the amount of lovers, travels and moves across oceans she experienced until her very last days. She died at age 102 in 2002 in Argentina, where she was living.
This book is not so much about the practice of yoga, as its title could suggest, yet it is very rich in historical and esoteric facts, which were for some of them completely new news to me. I found it very interesting to read and learn about the lineage and link between various well-known gurus and movements as well as the development of modern Yoga. Below are key takeaways summarized with some interpretation or questioning that arose from it:
A great deal of the book mentions the theosophy movement, as it was an important part of Eugenia’s life. Indeed the theosophy was widely spread amongst elites during Eugenia’s adolescence in Russia, as the Theosophical Society was formed by a Russian woman: Helena Blavatsky at the end of 19th century. The “modern rationalism with ancient wisdom” (as described by Goldberg) of theosophy appealed to Eugenia as it encompassed modern discoveries such as Darwin’s evolution theory with spiritual believes, an East-West fusion that we will found several times across this book. Eugenia became a big admirer/fan/devotee of Krishnamurti, a theosophist creation as a messiah. Krishnamurti was from Indian origin, but was adopted by Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater (both important members of the Theosophical Society) and was raised in Europe. Goldberg writes “… he was a product of Europe’s obsession with India, a custom-made messiah raised in theosophist’s most elite circles.” He was for Eugenia a “teacher and guide” she was fascinated by the guru she had found in him. However, Krishnamurti later in his mission resigned from the Theosophical Society, with which he wasn’t fully aligned, and continued his path on his own. Together with other occult believes, Eugenia discovered about Yoga for the first time through a book written by Yogi Ramacharaka (a westerner, who used an eastern-like pseudonym to write books about Eastern spirituality).
This East-West fusion lets us believe that using an Indian name and/or Indian looking character was going to be more authentic than with a non-Indian. If that is the case, this highlights our ability of being easily manipulated by appearances.
When we speak about 'yoga', we can be referring to many different things. Although yoga has been practiced for thousands of years in India, it had nothing to do with what we call 'yoga' today. Yoga as we use it today is a shortcut for Hatha Yoga which is commonly understood by westerners as a sequence of postures synchronized with the breath and with meditative elements practiced in order to regulate the mind. In its ancient origin though, yoga was a spiritual discipline with no asana (postures). However and prior to the development of what we will call the modern Yoga, Hatha Yoga (or a Yoga with some Asanas) was practiced by naked ash-smeared yogis called Sadhus, which are a couple of times mentioned in this book. Sadhus, known for mortifying their flesh, would take difficult poses and hold them for very long time in order to demonstrate their strength of mind to the Gods. They would perform in front of busy crowds as a show but were largely seen as “magicians, con men and sideshow contortionists” writes Goldberg. Even Vivekananda, who became known worldwide for spreading the philosophical teachings of Hinduism and Yoga in the world, was dismissive toward 'Hatha Yoga' and wrote “We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult and cannot be learnt in a day, and after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth.” and “… the object in this is physical and not spiritual”. However, when Vivekananda attended the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, a new movement of bodybuilding and physical culture had emerged in America. Vivekananda returned home convinced that a strong body was necessary to attain freedom. Goldberg writes, “If Westerners had pioneered muscular Christianity, he (Vivekananda) sought to create a muscular Hinduism”. In 1905 Sandow, the first bodybuilder to become famous, stopped in India while touring and performed in front of crowded Indian audiences, who were fascinated by the skills and strength one could develop. Such ideas and events participated in a switch of reputation toward 'Hatha Yoga' and led to its reinvention - to what we call modern yoga - which saw its progress through the 1930s. It went from “a lurid, threatening relic into a wholesome indigenous science of health and longevity” writes Goldberg.
Modern Yoga is therefore described by Goldberg as “a hybrid of ancient and contemporary ideas, an East-West fusion”. Who would have guessed that yoga, as we know it today, was influenced by western disciplines such as bodybuilding ?!
Indra Devi learned modern Hatha Yoga beside Krishnamacharya, known as “the father of modern yoga”, who was himself influenced and inspired by other physical culture systems, such as gymnastic. He was, as described by Goldberg, “… a brilliant synthesizer, a man capable of drawing from everything he had at hand to create something vital and new … his yoga was … a modern Indian art developed in dialogue with the wider world.” His disciples also included B.S.K Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, both very well-known contributor to modern yoga and its expansion to the west as they both developed their very own yoga style (read asana here) with the Iyengar Yoga and the Ashtanga Yoga.
We can see here how all of these practices from modern yoga are very contemporary (less than a hundred years old) with both west & east influences.
It is also interesting to see how Krishnamacharya was described is this book, as a very difficult and strict man; quite far from the image one could have of a modern yoga teachers’ traits nowadays. It sounds like, similarly to many other disciplines, modern yoga evolved and was shaped by its practitioners.
Briefly I would like to speak about nutrition, another aspect of yoga. Yogis often are vegetarian due to their practice of Ahimsa (non-violence). However, when Krishnamacharya took Devi as his student, being vegetarian wasn’t enough and put her under a very strict diet, for her health and vitality, where she wasn’t allowed to eat any dead food at all, including flour, rice, etc. Devi often used food to demonstrate the power of her teaching by using a tool known in kinesiology. She was having a volunteer coming on stage and having him/her holding alternatively lively and dead food as to show its effect on our body with muscle feedback (i.e. while holding dead food, the volunteer was no longer able to keep his arm up straight while resisting to Devi’s pressure on it). It’s unfortunate that this knowledge didn’t last and that as a modern society we rather moved towards more and more “dead” food with our overly-consumed processed food.
Indra Devi moved to Los Angeles, California in 1947 (at 48 year-old) and found major professional success a few years later while teaching yoga to female bourgeoisie comprising of celebrities and politics who turned yoga into a hobby and a way to fight against aging and weight gain. The elites, the rich, the celebrities were the first audience to modern yoga. This image of yoga being far from the hippies we often associated with the first wave of yoga in the west. We could here question whether Devi’s Yoga became famous for what it was and what it did (in terms of benefits) or for whom it was practiced by. The same question goes for Iyengar’s yoga, as he was brought to the west by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin who hired Iyengar as his private yoga teacher whom he could travel with. “Thanks largely to Menuhin, B.K.S Iyengar would become an international celebrity” wrote Goldberg.
Indra Devi seemed to have spent all her life in quest for a Guru and found a few throughout her life such as Krishnamurti, Krishnamacharya, Sivananda, Sai baba, Premananda but also creates the impression to have always been looking for something more. This evokes to me the question of the role of guru in one’s life as opposed to the role and place one gives to his guru. It’s a tricky difference, which resides in the importance of remaining your own guru. Learning from other is one thing, placing them on a pedestal is something else. We are all equal, right? So why looking in someone else’s vibration for all the answers.
Further and as described in the book, quite a few of those gurus and teachers where accused of sexual abuses. According to the book, Devi most probably knew about the abusive behaviors of some of her entourage but apparently never expressed her feelings/thoughts about the accusations. The same way she would never share negative feelings, situations or emotions. This type of behaviors reminds me of a concept often taught in the New Age movement (including in some modern Yoga teachings), that one shouldn’t emphasis the bad by speaking about it, that one should instead learn to accept the situation, that one should practice contentment and honor the bright side and disregards the dark one. These teachings go on stipulating there is no good nor bad and that we aren’t accredited to judge. All those ideas might be based on ancient spiritual teachings but are probably inverted in the way they are being taught today to the point that such abusive behaviors (i.e. sexual predation) would remain silent although known by a few, including other spiritual leaders, accepting these conducts as divine missions (preventing the victims from escaping this vicious circle while making them believe they have to work on themself and on their karma thus accept such traumatic conditions). For some reasons that I do not fully grasp, the abusers mentioned in this book were followed by millions of fanatic devotees. Some Gurus are like pop stars but fanaticism is an obsession and even a form of addiction, which give unconscious consent to the idols’ behavior (whether known or not) by nourishing their ego and giving them our power, thinking we do not have any. I guess the obsession blinds the fans.
Speaking about inverted spiritual truth, Goldberg write “Instead, in a strange sort of inversion, new age movements have often used Eastern spiritual techniques to strengthen individualism” while talking about Devi’s (lack of) treatment towards her husband when he got very sick. Devi explained her behaviors as being her practice of ‘love and detachment’ – two very buzzing and trending words in the New Age philosophy. Are we abusing from non-attachment as a way of being more self-centered in an egoistic way ? Is it a way to escape the painful, the difficult and escape from our earthly life? Turning a morality upside down, isn’t new and can be found at the roots of critical world events such as with the Nazi movement. Goldberg describes the Nazi inverted spirituality through “Its obsession with bodily health and purity, appropriation of Hindu symbolism and faith in the mystical destiny of the Aryan race” (people of Indo-European heritage) – we all know how these principles dramatically ended.
During her stays in India, Devi got to meet, Jawarharlal Nehru, an Indian Independence activist - Mahatma Gandhi’s protégé - who then became the first Prime Minister of India. He was a big fan of yoga, which he defined as “a method for finding things out for oneself rather than a preconceived metaphysical theory of reality or of the universe.” What I like in this definition and in relation to my previous point on Gurus, is the personal and thus unique experience one can make through his yoga journey – to me it values experience over teachings.
Another definition of yoga is given in this book, this time by Feuerstein, a great admire of Patanjali (who wrote de Yoga Sutras around 400 AD). Feurerstein writes “Transformation of human nature as envisaged in Classical Yoga (the yoga of Patanjali) is entirely a process of negation of everything that is ordinarily considered as typically human”. Goldberg adds, “The point of Patanjali’s philosophy is to reject and transcend this world, not to function more easily within it. His yoga is a tool of self-obliteration more than self-actualization … The fact that yoga is now seen as a route toward individual development and a more efficacious life in the world is thus a historical irony.” Devi and her fellow modern yoga teachers planted seeds in this transformed new approach of yoga. In this world of globalization and cultural appropriation, I believe it is important to know the evolution of things in order make our own informed opinion before judging someone else’s practice when different from ours.
The last point I’d like to touch on hasn’t much to do with the above but is a sentence that resonated with me and that I believe should be shared with the widest possible audience, so here it is: “… immense friendliness and community of spirit from everybody, but why does it need a catastrophe to produce a condition which ought to be as natural to humanity as breathing?” wrote a women when describing the conditions she was experiencing in Shanghai after the Japanese takeover during the WWII. We see this phenomena of brotherhood and community support developing at larger scale during climate disasters, war zones, penuries, etc. but why can’t we act this way when our lives aren’t threatened by major external events. Why do we return to such an individualistic way of living protecting and caring for our very little bubble only?
The above view points on the origin of yoga are based on the book “the Goddess Pose”, which represents one in many other books on this topic so only keep what resonate with you. Overall, I’d say that this book is a good reminder that the preconceived ideas we may have towards an object aren’t always true. Further, it reiterates the divulgations spread with the #MeToo movement - no industry nor discipline doesn’t have its part of darkness. Lastly, it points out that most of the spiritual teachings one can receive is this modern age is a mixture of eastern-western believes with deep New Age influences. Therefore, it is crucial to use our discernment before abiding to any concept. Not that it would be wrong or bad but more so that you don’t want to developed skills opposed to what you think you’re developing. (Food for thought).