Home / Articles / #3 November 2011 / Nataliya Klevalina. «Indra Devi - the one who put the world on head»

Nataliya Klevalina. «Indra Devi - the one who put the world on head»

The world knows the first lady of yoga under the name of Indra Devi, but very few people know that a well-known yogini was born and grew up in Russia, and her name then was Eugenia Peterson-Labunskaya.

Yoga was not welcomed in the USSR. Authorities claimed to be the one and only “guru”. Self-published yoga guidelines were handed to each other and read up to the holes. From India to America, then to Europe and further to the East – that was the way yoga teachings have reached Russia. When finally in 1992 the book “Yoga for you” in Russian translation was published by a publishing house “Soviet sport” very few people suspected that its author, Indra Devi, got acquainted with yogis’ doctrine for the first time in pre-revolutionary Russia.

For the first time colored books devoted to eastern teachings appeared on shelves of the Russian bookshops in the beginning of twentieth century. One such book “Fourteen lessons on philosophy of yoga and eastern occultism” happened to come into hands of a fifteen years old grammar-schoolgirl, Zhenechka Peterson, and turned upside-down all her life. Hardly thumbed through the book the girl felt suddenly that her heart started to beat violently: “Yoga! India! I should go there”. However, many years have passed before she managed to fulfill her dream.

Zhenechka was born on 12th of May (according to the new style) in 1899 in Riga (now the capital of Latvia) which then was a part of the Russian Empire. Her father, Vasily Peterson, was a big fair-haired Swede, the Director of Riga bank; her mother Alexandra Vasilevna was an actress of the Theatre of Nezlobin and acted under a pseudonym Labunskaya. The newborn was christened in Orthodox Church. The first lady of yoga was carefully keeping her next-to-skin cross, on its backside there was a mysterious date: “31st of April 1899” – a day which does not exist. In 1917 Zhenechka graduated grammar school in Petersburg with a gold medal and soon became a student of a theatrical school in Moscow. Fedor Fedorovich Komissarzhevsky designated a brilliant future to his favorite student. But secretly she already was dreaming of India…

Soon the Civil War began in Russia, the groom of Labunskaya, a brilliant young officer Vyacheslav Tretyakov, was missing during the war. Many acquaintances of the Petersons left… Driven away by fear, Eugenia and her mother ran to Latvia, then in December 1920 to Poland, and one year later they moved to Berlin.

The forgotten call

In 1926 walking along Tallinn with her mother Eugenia suddenly noticed a signboard “Theosophic literature” in a show-window of a small bookstore and decided to look into the shop. The seller gave her a leaflet. It appeared that soon a congress of the Theosophical society of a well-known Anna Bezant was going to take place in Holland, an Indian yogi Krishnamurti would be present there. “I do not know why, but I have decided that I should go to Holland to this congress”, - recollected Eugenia Vasilevna later.

Congress took place in Oman, here there was a huge estate of one Dutch nobleman, a theosophist, who was pleased to offer the place for the needs of his colleagues. More than 4000 people gathered in the park of this ancient manor to study Hindu philosophy and meditation techniques. They lived in tents, cooked food themselves and washed dishes. The food was vegetarian. “I was turning my nose away, saying - how is it possible to eat this grass; I will come home and eat a beefsteak”, - the first lady of yoga recollected. In the beginning she looked at all this as some kind of Eastern exotics.

So it lasted until once in the evening at a fire the young woman heard the visitor from India, a poet and a philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, singing ancient sacred hymns in Sanskrit. “It seemed to me that I hear the forgotten call, familiar, but distant. Since this day all in me has turned upside-down. This week in camp became a turning point in my life”, - recollected Eugenia Vasilevna many years later.

Theatrical career of Peterson-Labunskaya developed very successfully. In Berlin she played in Russian theatre of Yakov Yuzhny “Blue bird” and goes on tours through European capitals. A known German director Max Reinhardt paid attention to her and was intended to invite her into his theatre. The young actress had a lot of admirers. An imposing banker Herman Bolm proposed to her. In some numbness she agreed. It seemed that her destiny has been predetermined. However, Eugenia imposed the condition to the groom: she is going to marry him, but first she wishes to fulfill her cherished dream - to visit India. Bolm gives her a necessary sum of money without saying a word. Let her go. Of course, she won’t like it: alien environment, dirt, illnesses, and wild heat. Let her be disappointed and forget it…

The first travel of Eugenia to India starts on 17th of November 1927, she managed to travel through all the country from the south to the north. First “it seemed strange to wear sari, to sit on the floor, to bathe as Hindus and to eat without spoons, forks or knives, only with fingers of a right hand”. But soon Hindus began to accept her as equal. The young woman in record-breaking short terms managed to acquire their customs and a way of life.

Three months later meeting his “wander bride” Bolm noticed that Eugenia became different. She opened her mouth just to tell something about her Indian “epopee”. The groom took her from the station directly to a restaurant - to celebrate their meeting. However the holiday was spoilt, here in the restaurant Eugenia returned Bolm the wedding ring received for the engagement. She felt guilty, but hoped, that her groom will understand it: “My home is there”.

A star of “The Arabian Knight”

Eugenia sells all her not numerous jewelry and furs and again leaves for the Country of Elephants, forever, as she thought that time. The sum she gathered should be sufficient for several months according to her calculations, and after that… Well, you should not think further. “India… Whom do you have there?” – “Nobody”, - an old conversation with her mother in Petersburg is recollected.

Eugenia started to open India for herself, or to be exact, to “recall” it, because often it seemed to her, that all this have already happened to her earlier. So, once, having decided to study classical Indian dance, she went to a known dancer in the country - Inakshirama Rau. Several lessons later the girl was surprised when her teacher said that her training is finished. “You have already know everything”, - the dancer explained.Once during a meeting of the Theosophical society in Adyar Eugenia was performing Indian temple dance and she was noticed by Jawaharlal Nehru. They got acquainted and an “enamored friendship”, as she called it, between the Russian dancer and Indian pandit was established for long years. In the same place, in Adyar, a known director Bhagvati Mishra offered her a role in a movie “The Arabian Knight”. The main hero was supposed to be played by Prithviraj Kapoor, a well-known founder of the Indian cinematographic dynasty. Eugenia agreed to participate in shootings: she was still short of money. Just in one day, after a premiere of “The Arabian Knight” in January 1930, she became a star of the Indian cinematography. There was no any Peterson-Labunskaya mentioned in captions, of course. Then the world has got acquainted with Indra Devi for the first time. As she recollected, the director Mishra simply gave Eugenia the list and suggested to choose a pseudonym, and she stuck with a finger randomly and became “a heavenly goddess” – that is how “Indra Devi” is translated from Sanskrit.

Events of this period of her life replace each other rapidly. During one of the secular evenings Eugenia got acquainted with the most enviable groom in Bombay, forty-years old chairman of the Club of Bachelors, an employee of Czechoslovak Consulate, Jan Strakati, and soon she became his wife. The next hypostasy of Eugenia is a colonial lady of the world. Receptions, balls, races… The spouses Strakati were invited by Rabindranath Tagore, by a family of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Roerichs, they met with participants of the Indian emancipating movement. “The only thing that I did not want to refuse, - recollected Indra Devi, - was my friendship with Hindus of all castes and ranks though it was breaking strict unwritten rules of the white people living in India. I was meeting with whom I wanted, and was receiving everyone I wanted”. Her spouse, being a person of wide outlook, gave her freedom in this respect.

But soon such life has started to burden the young woman. Yes, she is in India, but... “Whether I came here for this? To become a mistress of the popular salon and a woman of fashion? What happened with my plans to work, to help people, to study? I have told to myself that I have to take an action. I should change my life and start everything from the very beginning”, - recollected Indra Devi.

In yogashala in Mysore

Once there was one acquaintance in their house, suddenly he has got problem with his heart. Having remembered how Indian yogis demonstrated their methods of treatment Indra focused all her thoughts on healing this person…

The acquaintance got well, but the next day she fell down in bed with strong pains in the heart. The doctor diagnosed the heart insufficiency and prescribed her a treatment, but she did not become better. The young woman spent all days long laying in bed. The husband took her to Europe where she was shown to the best cardiologists, but they appeared to be helpless. After returning to Bombay Indra became even worse. “I gained weight, my skin became earthy, there were wrinkles. Very often I could start crying without any reason”, - she recollected. She spent four painful years in such condition.

During her husband’s holiday which they spent in Prague Indra got acquainted with a medical student named Ripka. Once she lost consciousness in his presence. When the young woman told the future doctor (as it appeared he was studying yoga methods for many years) about the case after which she got ill, he said: “You have used some of yoga methods. Why don’t you talk about your illness with yogis? It would be logical”.

After returning back to India Indra addressed a well-known Sri Krishnamacharya, whose name then rattled all over the country. She decided to take a course of yoga to recover and acquire a healthy way of life.

“I was preparing for this meeting for hours, I wanted to look as good as possible”, - recollected Indra Devi. But the guru gave her an ironic glance and said that yoga is only for men and only for Hindus. It is true, in 1937 in yogashala in Mysore there were only young kshatriyas being trained, representatives of the military elite of the country.

“I will not accept a woman and which is more a foreigner, it is impossible!” - the guru repeated persistently. “He could make miracles: he could stop his heart, switch off electricity in a distance and switch it on again. He could not get rid only of me”, - recollected Indra Devi. Her acquaintance with maharaja of Mysore who put in a word for her helped to break hardness of the guru. Indra was accepted to yogashala, but Krishnamacharya was not going to give her any indulgence. Eugenia had to obey severe discipline and adhere to a strict diet: to avoid “dead” products, not only meat, but also white sugar, flour, rice, canned food. Vegetables which grow in the ground - potatoes, onions and carrots - were excluded as well. She was allowed to eat only what perceived rays of the sun. It was forbidden to go to bed later than nine o’clock in the evening or to sit next to the fireplace.

Students usually woke up before sunrise. Such schedule was developed specifically for young men so that in the course of hard “universities” they managed to shape their own “diamond” body (strong and healthy). “I do not have classes for women”, - Krishnamacharya told her from a threshold. I had to practice together with the rest. A spouse of the lord of Mysore, seeing Indra’s persistence, felt respect to her. She gave Indra a personal cook for the whole time of training who developed a special menu for the foreigner according to requirements of the guru.

At first Indra thought that she was going to die with all those rules, but gradually she got used to them. A new student has lost some weight, face became smoother, and the main thing, all symptoms of unknown illness have disappeared. Seeing her eagerness, Krishnamacharya started to teach her personally. “He said that I am ready to pass on to the following stage of training, - recollected Indra Devi, - next day he asked me to come earlier and locked the door that nobody could interrupt us. He sat down on the floor and started to teach me the art of special secret exercises of breath control. He made me write down everything that he was talking about”. Later she realized what has happened. In 1938 she became the first woman-foreigner among the devotees.

When Krishnamacharya got to know that spouse of Indra was shifting to Shanghai, he called for her again. “You are leaving us now, - he said, - you will teach yoga. You can and you will do it”.

It seemed incredible for Indra: a new devotee could not even think that someday she will have to become the guru. But in India you must not object the teacher. The spouse of the diplomat left India assured that Krishnamacharya was mistaken and she was not the one peculiar at all.

Already on the ship the young woman felt that she does not want to dance anymore, to carry jewelry or magnificent dresses. Then for the first time she put on light sari and since then she did not consider any other clothes.

In Shanghai in 1939 she opened a school in a house of madam Chan Kaishi who was passionately involved in yoga. Among her students there were many Americans and Russians. At that time she was more often called mataji (“mother”) - this is the way a respected woman-teacher is addressed. Indra Devi read lectures about yoga, tought free of charge in children's homes and shelters.

Yoga for Americans

News about an unexpected death of her husband, who went on business to Europe finds her in India. From here Indra goes to Shanghai to manage the property. Her previous life came to an end. To go somewhere, but where? Steamships go irregularly after the end of the Second World War, and she decides to go to a port and to buy a ticket for the first coming ship.

Thus in 1947 after eight years of teachings an already known yogini appeared on the board of the ship heading to California. And again: “What do you have in America?” Nothing. “They looked at me as if I was crazy”, - recollected Indra Devi.

In one year she opened yoga studio in Hollywood. Elizabeth Arden's support helped Indra very much. “The queen of cosmetics” included yoga elements in a programme of fashionable spa-salons. In popularization of yoga Indra puts a stake on celebrities who have influence on general public. “People in most of the cases like to copy tastes and habits of their idols, - she wrote in one of the books, - thus a large number of people started to practice yoga only because Gloria Swanson, Yehudi Menuhin, pandit Nehru and Ben-Gurion are known as adherents of yoga”.

Greta Garbo, Ramon Navarro, Jennifer Johns, Robert Ryan, Gloria Swanson, Yul Brynner, Merilin Monroe become students of Indra. However, Indra Devi gave yoga lessons to “ordinary mortals” as well – she organized sessions of yoga-relaxation for women working on factories and saleswomen. Those were the simplest yogic poses - for removal of tension and weariness of the working day.

Gradually she has developed a teaching technique adapted for “a person of the West”. It was a complex of asanas, the most suitable for the “white” man, yogic respiratory exercises and special diets, of course, not as strict as the one she was once put on by her guru in the course of training. Mataji was telling about the features of a human body from the yogic point of view and was teaching basics of concentration and meditation, but always made an accent that in the heart of her method lays the classical yoga of Patanjali, who lived approximately in II century BC. He was the head of an influential yogic school and systematized available knowledge about the ancient science in his “Yoga Sutras” - 195 short aphorisms.

In 1953 Indra got married again. This time she married Sigfrid Knauer, a known doctor, who become her assistant. In the mid-fifties she got American citizenship and officially put the name Indra Devi in her new passport.

The queen of asanas in the USSR

In 1960 name of Indra Devi appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. “A brave woman-yogi who put the Kremlin upside down”. Reason for similar headlines was a visit of Indra Devi to Soviet Union. Once, an issue of “Ogonek” magazine brought by actors of the Bolshoi Theatre touring in the USA came into her hands. Having found in it a small notice about yoga, Indra rushed to ask: whether there are yogis in the USSR?

Not without trembling she dared to step over a threshold of the Soviet consulate. Since post revolutionary years rough sailors and semi-literate chiefs from workers were kept in her memory. However, fears were vain, Soviet diplomats were kindly holding doors in front of her, were wearing expensive suits and could competently express themselves. The consul answered fairly that does not know anything about yoga in the USSR, but offered immediately: “Why don’t you go and see everything with your own eyes?” To see Russia again, 40 years later… She did not think that it was possible. Everyone was dissuading her: husband, mother, friends. Though this time she was not asked: “What do you have in Russia?” Indra took her faithful colleague, a Hindu, Ball Krishna, and went for a journey. They went to the USSR through Finland and she managed to visit Leningrad, the city of her youth.

In Moscow Indra Devi visited the Indian Embassy where she unexpectedly met her old acquaintance from Shanghai. “How remarkable that you have come, - he exclaimed, - they think here that yoga is a certain eastern religion, we should dissuade them”. In few days she gets a personal invitation from the Indian Ambassador Kumar Menon for a formal reception in “Soviet” hotel. During the reception he represented Indra Devi to the leaders of the Soviet Party: to the First vice-president of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Alexey Kosygin, Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrey Gromyko and the First vice-president of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Anastas Mikoyan. For a long time yogini was explaining them an essence of the ancient Indian teaching. Earlier she has described it in her book “Yoga for Americans”: “Many continue to think, that yoga is a religion. Others consider that it is some kind of magic. Some associate yoga with rope tricks, spelling of snakes, fire absorption, sitting on nails, lying on beaten glass, walking on sharp swords etc. Sometimes it is connected with a destiny prediction, hypnosis, spiritism and other “-isms”. Actually yoga is a method; it is a system of physical, intellectual and spiritual development (allocated by Indra Devi - comment by editor)”.

When “the master class” was over Gromiko stood up and gave a toast: “For Indra Devi who has opened our eyes on yoga”. Next day Mataji was expecting hailstones of calls from journalists and simply those who wanted to study yoga. But nothing happened and she left the USSR in disappointment.

Argentinean finale

One year later doctor Knauer made a present for his wife – a huge ranch near the Mexican small town Tecate on the border with California. Here Indra Devi organized an International training centre for teachers of yoga and moved to Mexico with her husband. Several times per year, she visited India, and after the death of her spouse she even moved to her favorite country for a while.

It would seem, what does remain for her: to stay on “a spiritual native land” forever and wait for the end? But Indra Devi still feels forces to continue her mission.

When in 1982 she came to Argentina with lectures for the first time, her concept of this country was limited to a traditional one: tango, Cordilleras, Tierra del Fuego. Buenos Aires, the most Europeanized city in Latin America, has conquered her at once. Indra having acted on TV has won hearts of the Argentineans in one evening.

Three years later a well-known yogini decided to move to this country. The majority of friends dissuaded her from such a risky step: to abandon the country where she had the name, school, students and again to go where the eyes can look, like a hippie! “What do you have in Argentina?” Nothing. Indra starts to build a system of disseminating classical yoga from the very beginning. Again there are lectures, seminars, and not only in Argentina, but also in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and also in Spain and Germany.

In May 1990 Mataji comes to the USSR for the second time, visiting native Riga and Leningrad. She celebrates her 91st birthday in Moscow, this time in an environment of numerous admirers. By this time yoga has been “legalized” in the USSR - in 1989 there was the first All-Union scientific-practical conference “Yoga: problems of health improvement and self-improvement of a human” during which Yoga Association has been founded.

Indra Devi was invited to a popular TV program “Before and after the midnight”. Vladimir Molchanov having learnt about the age of Mataji, with anxiety asked people who were accompanying her whether she would manage to rise to the second floor where the studio was situated. And he was very much surprised seeing how the yogini has literally flied up the ladder: Indra Devi still was giving two yoga lessons daily. After Molchanov's program all the country remembered an unusual woman in sari sitting on sofa in a lotus pose. Next day she was attacked in streets by collectors of autographs.

On a life decline, having travelled all over the world, Mataji said that three countries have a special meaning for her: Russia, where she was born, India, her spiritual motherland, and Argentina - an “amicable” country as she called it. Her 100th birthday Indra celebrated in Buenos Aires. More than 3000 guests came to congratulate her with the anniversary and to wish her good health. In 2002 her health has worsened, she was not even able to leave for India where she wished to finish the course of her life. On 25 of April 2002 the First lady of yoga died in Buenos Aires. Her body, according to the customs of her spiritual motherland, was cremated, and ashes were dispelled over the Rio-de-la-Plata.

Published by authority of the author and magazine "Vokrug Sveta" www.vokrugsveta.ru

Photos courtesy of: Fundación Indra Devi www.fundacion-indra-devi.org