Women Who Shaped Yoga: Celebrating Our Yogini Pioneers

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How much do you really know about the women who shaped American yoga? We wanted to celebrate Women’s History month by exploring a few of these influential pioneer yoginis who delivered yoga to the West before it was cool. Our search proved more intriguing than we would have expected.

Accustomed to today’s world of internet distractions and in-your-face social media, we were surprised and elated to discover that the Feminine mystique is alive and well in the records of our yogic past. Celebrate with us the ever-morphing and transformative power of the Female.

Have you ever noticed that most of the students in your yoga classes are women? Of course, you have.

Yet, most of the “masters” we hear about are men. Who and where are the historical feminine figures of American yoga?

Sure, we have the radiant Shiva Rea flying the vinyasa banner in the West and tribal-dancing her way into the headlines. In the East, Sharon Gannon has recorded chants with Mike D of the Beastie Boys and was credited by Vanity Fair for “making yoga cool and hip.” There are famous female yogis out there, making themselves known, and there are also blossoming yoginis on their way to stardom. Jessamyn Stanley is an Instagram yogini celebrity, courageously re-setting the trend by proving that yoga can be practiced -- against all norms -- by every body, with a homegrown sense of humor.

Women are everywhere in yoga. And yet, when you track women’s participation in the deeper history of yoga, particularly in America, you often turn up underwhelmed. Perhaps this is not for a lack of involvement on women’s behalf, but for a lack of credit.

I was chatting about this article with Kira Sloane, discussing how difficult it is to trace the feminine role in the history of American yoga, and Kira suggested, “it’s hard to track that which transforms.”

So true.

Perhaps it is women’s unparalleled and innate nature of adaptability that allows them to be such chameleons when we gaze out at the historical landscape of yoga. Women are shapeshifters. Which means they can slide in and out of a multitude of roles and seem to have an instinctual ability to adapt as needed to survive and thrive.

This was profoundly true in the life of Indra Devi, a woman heavily credited with bringing yoga to America. By sowing the seeds of yoga amongst the glitz and glam of Hollywood in the late 1940s, Indra Devi ensured that yoga was planted in fertile soil to spread amongst the trend-setting elite.

Born Eugenie Peterson in what is now Latvia in 1899, Indra Devi discovered yoga in her teenage years and bravely moved to India. She would become the first female to study under “The Father of Modern Yoga,” Krishnamacharya, practicing alongside masters like BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. She lived until 2002, dipping her 102 years of life into three distinct centuries.

Securing this opportunity as a student of Krishnamacharya was not easy for a Westerner, let alone a woman; somehow, Indra Devi prevailed. And thank goodness she did. Given the title “the first lady of yoga,” Devi was certainly paramount in making sure that yoga was accessible to Americans. If it weren’t for Indra Devi, yoga would most likely have been first presented to the United States solely through the eyes of men.

So how is Indra Devi not a better-known figure in yoga culture?

Devis’ biographer Michelle Goldberg presents a theory in her book that perhaps Devi’s commitment to detachment made her “on some level, ungraspable” and this is why, Goldberg presumes, “she remains elusive in death.”

In her book The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, Goldberg says of Devi, “Again and again, she would build a life for herself and then discard it when it no longer suited, moving on with no discernable effort or regret.”

Indra Devi’s “talent for rebirth,” according to Goldberg, seems to be emanating this skill that Kira mentioned: adaptability. We don’t know much about her because she was so skilled at transformation. Like adorning oneself in camouflage, the historical female landmarks of American yogic history stood out just enough to have their voices heard by their students but mostly blended with the topography of the times.

This transformative nature and yogic camouflage are not an uncommon thread in regards to historical yoginis. Lilias Folan, who pioneered yoga broadcasting in America with a nearly three-decade run of her show Lilias Yoga and You, also mentions how yoga changed her and how she, in turn, feels that she has transformed over and over again throughout her yogic life. Lilias said in an interview with a local news station, “[My husband and I have] been married over fifty years and [my husband] says he’s been married to fifty different women.”

Lilias started teaching yoga on public television in 1970 and retired from the show in 1999, only after filming 500 episodes. Ironically, Lilias was also granted the nickname “the first lady of yoga,” once again proving that all the details of feminine yogic history in America are eternally blending together in confusing ways.

When I first started teaching in South Carolina back in 2001, I was astounded by how many women wandered into my classes with a great deal of experience but claiming they had never set foot in a yoga studio. Since I was one of the first studios in the area, I believed them. Later, these women (because they were genuinely all women who reported this) told me that they had spent decades of their lives on the mat with Lilias and were forever indebted to her teachings. Lilias was, and would always be, their foremost teacher - although many of them would never actually meet her in person.

I actually love this about Lilias. She was broadcast out into every home in the country that had a television for nearly thirty years, but she still remains somewhat hidden.

There are loud voices in the yoga world. But it is the millions upon millions of quiet voices out there that are truly influencing and spreading yoga around the globe on a daily basis. These whispering women are not often seen because, for them, yoga is about turning inward, not exhibiting outward.

I bow at the feet of those humble teachers out there, mostly women, teaching in community centers or small venues with no flash or glory. Please, please keep doing what you are doing. We may not know who you are, but you are seen.

Can you think of anyone else in yogini history who exemplifies this talent for morphing?

How about the wife of Shiva, Parvati? Depending on whom you ask (there are so many different renditions of Hindu mythology), Parvati has many different forms unto which she can transform, each manifestation exemplifying the powerful competence of the Feminine to customize a mood to a moment and accommodate with finesse to handle the task at hand.

I am proud to be a woman of yoga. And, genuinely, I welcome anyone to this “club” – man or woman. One of the highest feminine skills that we can all embody: adapt without regret. It’s a treasure: this ability to metaphorically strip the rear-view mirror off the windshield and drive onward without looking back.

Every yogi I know has been both enlightened and scorched by the transformative power of yoga, encouraged to transform as she unravels the teachings of yoga and yet at the same time supported in her transformation by the very same teachings – as if yoga is prodding her along and also holding her yogic hand along the way.

Don’t you feel this way? That yoga has your back as you are forced to transform? This, to me, is the power of the Divine Feminine. She forces you to change but holds you close as she does so.

I can only suspect that all the great female landmarks along the path of yoga in American history felt this same support. And they continued to morph and acclimate and blend so that today we can be inspired by their journeys as we venture along our own yogic pilgrimage.

About the Author

Kate Smith

Kate Smith never seems to be satiated by the study of yoga. Kate founded her own yoga studio twice and has been a certified teacher for 20 years. She self-published her novel, Brine, about a mermaid named Ishmael. She lives outside of her hometown of Charleston, SC with her husband, daughter, and their two dogs — all of whom graciously love the ocean as much as she does.


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