Piedmont Yoga Studio News September 2008 | iHanuman


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Piedmont Yoga Studio News September 2008

After a month's hiatus, we return to the story of Yoga in the US. In the July newsletter we looked at one of the unsung female Yoga pioneers of the 20th century, Sita Devi Yogendra, and I promised you then more about our female trail blazers. So this month we'll visit with a woman whose life spanned the entire 20th century, and whose followers lovingly called her the "First Lady of Yoga."
It's generally believed that Yoga was introduced to this country by the 28-year-old Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion in Chicago, an momentous event held in conjunction with that year's World's Fair. This is sort of true. Vivekananda lectured on Patanjali's Classical Yoga and the three Yogas-Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti-outlined in the Bhagavad Gita. He even taught meditation to a few select students. But most Americans nowadays equate Yoga with the postures or asanas, in other words Hatha Yoga, and the self-proclaimed Swami actually had a rather low opinion of that school. Hatha Yoga, he wrote dismissively, "deals entirely with the physical body"and doesn't "lead to much spiritual growth" (with all due respect, Vivekananda missed the boat on this one, and someday we'll have to come back to these rather common misconceptions about Hatha Yoga and try to clear them up).
There were a few home-grown teachers teaching something like Hatha Yoga in this country in the first half of the 20th century. One that springs immediately to mind is "Oom the Omnipotent," as the media sarcastically dubbed him, whose name was Pierre Bernard. Pierre was a genuine character, a sincere practitioner but at the same time a bit of a rogue, and we'll come back to him someday, along with his wife, Blanche de Vries, also a Yoga teacher, and his nephew Theos, author of one of the classic Yoga books of the first half of the 20th century, titled Hatha Yoga.
One of the first true Hatha teachers in this country though was a woman by the name of Eugenie Petersen. Born in 1899 in what is today Latvia, her father was a Swedish banker, her mother a Russian noblewoman. As a teenager Eugenie read a book about India that sparked her imagination, though who wrote the book is uncertain. It may have been Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian who was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913), or Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, or the mysterious Yogi Ramacharaka, who authored about a dozen books on Yoga-related subjects in the first decade of the 20th century. We'll return to him someday too, but for now we'll let him remain a mystery.
In 1927 Eugenie finally traveled to India where, because of her performing talents, she won a role in an Indian film and took the stage name that she'd use from then on, Indra Devi. A few years later, after a good deal of dogged persistence, she became the first female ever accepted as a student by the curmudgeonly guru T. Krishnamacharya, who also instructed three other modern Yoga giants, BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and TKV Desikachar (his son). During the Second World War, Devi taught Yoga in China (reputedly to Madame Chiang Kai-shek), and then in 1947, immigrated to the US. Here she established one of our first public Yoga schools, in of all places Hollywood, which soon attracted film stars like Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Robert Ryan. She moved on to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the mid-1980s, where she died in 2002 at the ripe age of 102. You can still find her books, either online or in used bookstores, so be on the lookout for Yoga for Americans (dedicated to Gloria Swanson, with a Foreward by violinist Yehudi Menuhin), Forever Young, Forever Healthy, and Renew Your Life Through Yoga.

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