STARRED REVIEW
June 09, 2015

Bringing Yoga to America

By Michelle Goldberg
Anyone who has completed a grueling round of sun salutations may be glad to learn that such exertions were intended for adolescent boys. Yoga, as it was taught to Americans by Indra Devi in the 1950s, was a slower series of postures, yet it was no more “authentic” than the intense hatha yoga of today. As Michelle Goldberg capably illustrates in The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, yoga has always been a bizarre blend of Eastern and Western tradition, particularly in the U.S. Like many other trends, yoga’s popularity began in Hollywood.
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Anyone who has completed a grueling round of sun salutations may be glad to learn that such exertions were intended for adolescent boys. Yoga, as it was taught to Americans by Indra Devi in the 1950s, was a slower series of postures, yet it was no more “authentic” than the intense hatha yoga of today. As Michelle Goldberg capably illustrates in The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, yoga has always been a bizarre blend of Eastern and Western tradition, particularly in the U.S. Like many other trends, yoga’s popularity began in Hollywood.

Devi, the subject of Goldberg’s terrific new biography, arrived in the City of Angels when she was almost 60 years old. Born Eugenia Peterson in early 20th-century Russia, Devi bounced from her war-torn home to Berlin in the 1930s. An actress, dancer and incurable adventurer, Devi soon traveled to a land she’d always dreamed of: India. While there, she put her charisma to good use by convincing recalcitrant yogis to be her teacher. (She also starred in a silent film on the side.) Just before she moved to Shanghai to be a diplomat’s wife, her latest guru told her to devote herself to spreading the practice of yoga. She opened her first studio the following year. When she finally arrived in Hollywood, minus the diplomat, it was 1947. Soon she was teaching the likes of Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Arden. And her story, improbable though it may seem, was only beginning. (She lived to be 102.)

As spectacular a figure as Devi obviously was, Goldberg wisely devotes a lot of her book to yoga itself: the development and popularization of not simply a physical activity, but also a philosophy. For anyone interested in the practice, The Goddess Pose offers an irresistible story of yoga’s unlikely and, yes, even audacious origins.

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The Goddess Pose

The Goddess Pose

By Michelle Goldberg
Knopf
ISBN 9780307593511

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