How Yoga Came to America Via Russia

YogaA recent interview on NPR’s show Fresh Aire featured Michelle Goldberg, author of a book on yoga as it is known in the United States.

Her book traces the modern Western practice of yoga to a Russian woman named Indra Devi, who was born in 1899 with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. Devi became interested in yoga after reading about it in book written by an American new-age thinker. She studied the practice in India before introducing it to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai and, in 1947, bringing it to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.

So if Goldberg is correct, then yoga as we now know it in a zillion studios is about as authentically Indian as Taco Bell is authentically Mexican. Who would have taken seriously a yoga teacher named Eugenia Peterson. Indra Devi just sounded so much more exotic!

Goldberg explains that not only was the teacher not exactly the real deal but the yoga that Peterson brought from India was probably not terribly similar to the yoga that had been practiced in the dim and distant past along the banks of the Ganges,

There’s no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. That might be a little disillusioning to some people, [but] what I hope and what it ultimately meant to me, is we don’t have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of our modern practices because like anything … it’s a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

That means that those sun salutations that Don Draper was dragged into doing in the final episode of Mad Men were just about as traditional as the advertisements that poured out of the man’s imagination.

I’ve written about yoga before, explaining my mixed feelings on the topic. At its heart, I think my biggest beef with yoga is its pretensions to be something that it is not. When it turns out that the modern versions of evangelical Christianity are every bit as “ancient” as is yoga (as practiced in the U.S.), I feel a great deal more spiritual than I did before.