Women of Yoga
To honor Women’s History Month in March, the focus is on the Women of Yoga.
Yoga, an ancient practice that originated with men in India, is now practiced more by women worldwide. The early yoga teachings comprised mostly of breath and meditation were practiced and handed down by men. Legend has it that the sun salutations originated with middle school boys who needed a way to burn off their energy. When yoga came to the West in the early twentieth century, a gender shift occurred. More women than men responded to the practice. During the past twenty years, there has been a significant increase in the practice of yoga by women in the West. It is mainstream with the benefits understood, practiced by adults and children of all ages, races, and cultures in many styles and venues.
How did a practice that originated with men become a practice that is now 80% women? Articles, books and movies reveal how this transformation occurred since the start of the twentieth century. There are women responsible for bringing yoga to the West at the request and encouragement of yoga masters from the East. Gratitude to these women and swamis for the gift of yoga that allows beings to be more alive and comfortable in their minds and bodies.
Who are these women that spread yoga in the West? What do they have in common?
Indra Devi (1899-2002)
Born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia in 1899, she became the first female and first Westerner to study yoga. She traveled the world connecting with people of all backgrounds and was an actress and dancer. Having an interest in Eastern spirituality since her teens, she sailed to India, studied and lived there twelve years. She legally changed to her stage name Indra Devi. Encouraged by yoga master T. Krishnamacharya to teach yoga, she arrived in the United States and taught yoga to famous mid-century Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe. Although she studied with Krishnamacharya in the 1930s where Iyengar or Ashtanga yoga were practiced, Indra Devi brought a woman’s perspective to her yoga teaching. Using her dance background and deep respect for nonsectarian spiritual teachings, she taught students to breathe and move within and between poses in a gentle devotional style. Coming from a place of unconditional love, she taught until nearly her 103rd birthday.
“Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish and loneliness.”
Swami Sivananda Radha (1911-1995)
Born in Berlin in 1911 and having lost two husbands, Sylvia Hellman, later known as Swami Sivananda Radha, visited Swami Sivananda Saraswati in India in 1955 to gain insight into the meaning of life. Unexpectedly her guru requested she “start an ashram or school in Canada for the divine teachings of yoga” and also not work for money. Although initially her disciples were men, women soon discovered her courses, such as “Women and Spiritual Life” and Swami Radha’s strength of character. She guided people to understand themselves and appreciate their personal strength. The ashram, Yasodhara, still exists in British Columbia spreading the Swami Radha’s teachings that combine ancient yogic texts with present day techniques of jounaling and dream analysis. Using a gentle meditative style of practice named Hidden Language Hatha Yoga, she had students pick a pose. Then she asked them what its name brings to mind, how they feel moving into the pose and what the pose reveals about their life.
"Silence allows you to watch your mind and become aware of the thoughts that you may be acting on unconsciously."
Lilias Folan (1936- present)
As a young mother, Lilias Folan started yoga for exercise in the mid 1960s as a way to heal her back, overcome fatigue and a feeling of gloom. She took yoga classes at the YWCA near her Connecticut home and visited ashrams in New York where she met notable swamis, who were bringing the yogic wisdom of India to New York. During a tour of India in the 1970s, Lilias Folan talked to a monk who said it was up to her to take yoga back to the United States “and run with it like a football.” Initially she didn’t understand the consequences of his remark. However, after moving to Cincinnati, her yoga skills were discovered. She popularized yoga on the 1970s PBS series “Lilias, Yoga and You” followed by “Lilias! Yoga Gets Better with Age” in the 1980s and 1990s. Her yoga style caught on because people felt she was talking directly to them with easy directions and lessons learned. She taught women and men of all ages, physical abilities on TV, unable to see their responses. Her intention was a passion to make yoga available to anyone interested, so that yoga "would be Americanized and still keep its heart.”
"What the mind has forgotten, the body remembers long after."
Geeta Iyengar (1944-2018)
While many are familiar with B.K.S. Iyengar, there is less recognition of Geeta Iyengar (also known as Geetaji), his eldest daughter. She watched her father's yoga training from birth. As a child, she was not healthy and suffered from typhoid, diphtheria and nephritis. At age ten, her father began teaching her yoga as a means to heal. By age 15, she was teaching yoga to her school friends and later her father’s students while he was away. This was the start of Geetaji continuing her father’s work along with her brother. Geetaji specialized in the needs of women at different stages of life and wrote books that empowered women. Fearless and truthful, she encouraged women of all ages to practice yoga. She proclaimed that “nobody is exempted from doing yoga and there are no excuses for not doing yoga. How useful is yoga can only be understood by practicing.”
"We are missing the gold if we do asanas as a physical practice only."
It is notable that Indra Devi and Swami Sivananda Radha were encouraged to bring yoga to the West by their yoga masters. In a chance conversation between a monk and Lilias Folan, she was advised to take yoga to the West because in India they had gone as far as they could and now it was time to take it to the United States. B.K.S. Iyengar personally trained his ill daughter to practice yoga as a means to heal her sick body. These women all followed through with their passion for yoga. Whether the message was to teach yoga, start an ashram, or run with the teaching of yoga like a football, the message was clear to get the word out to the world about yoga. This was the social media of that day. Each of these women taught yoga in their own style. Yet they all maintained the heart of the yoga teachings. What a treasure to have yoga in many locations and online today. The yoga styles may vary, but the message from the ancient yogis and these four yoginis is the same. Using breath and movement in poses and between poses is a gift at any age, a means to personal growth, whether it’s practiced in person, TV, or online, and there are no excuses for not doing yoga because the usefulness of yoga can only be understood by practicing yoga. Kudos and Gratitude to these Yoga Women of History!
Inspired by and based on the Yoga International article, In Loving Gratitude: A Tribute to 4 Women Who Revolutionized Yoga, Anna Dubrovsky,