The Women of Yoga Part I: More than Indra Devi

***Previously published on International Women’s Day 2019 on***

Indra Devi. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To talk about women in yoga means more than postures for menstruation, chandra namaskars, and prenatal yoga (though that stuff is cool, too!). The role of women in yoga is long and complex. And, given the current, cultural discourse, talking about cultural ideologies is complicated at best. So, please, keep in mind, that this is a space to share the possibilities of ideas that move beyond the standard narrative about women and yoga.

Over the weekend, in response to International Women’s Day 2019, the yoga community made devoted proclamations of gratitude toward Indra Devi. Often referred to as “The First Lady of Yoga,” Indra Devi is credited with bringing yoga to the West, particularly for women. She was the daughter of European nobility. And in her career as a yoga teacher, she introduced yogic teachings to powerful political and popular figures such as the Kremlin leadership and Gloria Swanson.

Upon her death in 2002, an article in The New York Times explained, “At a time when yoga was almost an exclusively masculine pursuit, she was his [Krishnamacharya’s] first female student. Like two of his other students, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, both men, she took his essential teachings and built a style of yoga accessible to Westerners. It was characterized by gentleness.”

As a woman who practices yoga, I am deeply grateful for Indra Devi’s work. But we must admit that she is not the only woman who has left an impact on yoga. In fact, she is far from the actual “first lady” of yoga. (We’ll talk more about that in a later part of the series).

We must recognize the efforts of women in yoga that are not centered around only Western ideals. Indra Devi did amazing things for yoga. That cannot be ignored. But she, in many cases, catered to not just whiteness, but also wealth — cultural characteristics that don’t just dominate Western yoga, but also make it inaccessible for many.

In no way do I think Westerners should feel guilty about practicing yoga or exploring its teachings. But we cannot forget that this practice is not Western. Part of honoring the teachings is recognizing its history and lineage. And that includes honoring and celebrating the parts of yoga that move beyond whiteness, wealth, the West, and Indra Devi.

Over the weekend, public figures on Instagram were outspoken about this very topic. Susanna Barkataki, a yoga speaker and teacher, in a response to Yoga Glo’s dedicatory story to Indra Devi, posted “No disrespect to Indra Devi but the way @yogaglo frames her contribution in this post centers whiteness, erases the many Indian women who taught and practiced yoga for centuries, before, during and after Indra Devi’s time.” Barkataki continued in her post, “The information provided not only centers whiteness, but evokes a white savior narrative that is simply false and misleading at best, racist and problematic at worst.”

I find these conversations complicated. And, honestly, sometimes I avoid them. But this I will say: to focalize the conversation on Indra Devi doesn’t just center discourse upon whiteness — it centers it upon masculinity, too, suggesting that only men carried the knowledge and teachings of yoga until Devi’s time.

Was YogaGlo wrong to post about Indra Devi? Not at all. However, the story of women and yoga doesn’t begin or end with Indra Devi. There is much more to say. Devi’s contributions to modern yoga were — and still are — profound. And we cannot overlook that. The thing is, she isn’t the only one. She is just the one we talk about. She is the one who became emblematic because of her dominant cultural characteristics and her fortunate timing in history.

***Previously published on International Women’s Day 2019.



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