Yoga is ancient, but that down dog? He’s just a pup. Journalist Michelle Goldberg says that we’re all speaking with our feet in our mouths when we say our yoga practice, particularly asana, is thousands of years old.
“Probably the greatest myth is when you do these poses, when you do sun salutations or the warrior poses, that that there’s some sort of continuity to what yogis were doing 3,000 years ago on the banks of the Ganges, and that’s just not true,” Goldberg said in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Wait, what?? You mean all of the poses on Instagram aren’t passed down from yoga’s ancient gurus? We know, shocking. We’ll give you a minute to recover.
Seriously, though, the origin of yoga is a pretty interesting topic for various reasons, if not mostly because we all too often blanket explain away the magical ancient history of yoga practice that has withstood thousands of years and is still going strong. That’s not exactly how things went, Goldberg says.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her book tells the fascinating story of how Devi, a woman born Eugenia Peterson in Russia in 1899, was inspired by a book on the Indian practice of yoga (which was written by an American), and then brought the practice to the West, which was then exported back to India, which was then brought back to the West. (Which is now being brought back to India, who wants to bring it back to the world. It’s all very confusing and cyclical you see.)
Devi studied in India with T. Krishnamacharya where she learned more about the physical postures. Krishnamacharya, as some of us might already be aware, is considered the godfather of the physical practice we know today, as the teacher for both B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and the father of T.K.V. Desikachar. In the 1950s, Devi famously took her knowledge of this modern yoga practice to Hollywood where she taught celebs like Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe who have been immortalized as yogis thanks to fab photographs like this one:
And this one:
There’s much more to Devi’s extraordinary life and The Goddess Pose sounds like a super interesting book and definitely one to add to your summer reading list if you’re looking to dig deeper into yoga’s modern history. Here are just a couple snippets of Goldberg’s intriguing interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. You can listen to the whole interview below.
On Devi discovering yoga:
GROSS: So Indra Devi was born in 1899 in the Latvian city of Riga. Her mother was 16 when she gave birth. She was an aristocrat. And the first time that Indra Devi hears about yoga was in Moscow in 1914 after World War I had started, when she found a book about yoga in the library of one of her mother’s actor friends. What was the book and who wrote it?
GOLDBERG: Well, the book was “Fourteen Lessons In Yogi Philosophy And Oriental Cultism.” And although Indra Devi, or, as she was then-known, Eugenia Peterson, had no way of knowing it, the author was not an Indian yogi, he was an American New Thought pioneer. He went by the pen name Yogi Ramacharaka, but his real name was William Walter Atkinson. And he had been part of the New Thought movement at the turn of the century in the United States, which was sort of the grandparent of many different strains of American sort of mind-over-matter thinking. Probably the most famous descendent of it is Christian Science. But a lot of New Age thinking, a lot of ideas about how the mind controls reality and how kind of harnessing our thoughts will allow us to harness our destinies originated in New Thought. And then, you know, there’s elements of that in yoga philosophy as well, and the two sort of merge. The New Thought writers were very, very interested in yoga. Some of them, like William Walter Atkinson, passed themselves off as Indian yogis. And so what’s fascinating to me is that Indra Devi discovers this book. She thinks that it’s a sort of dispatch from this otherworldly land. You know, and it kindles a fascination with India that will carry her throughout, you know, almost a century. But really it’s Indian wisdom as refracted through a sort of American self-help writer. And I think that exemplifies, again, the sort of mash up that we see both in her life and her thinking, but also in yoga as it’s come to us today.
On Devi and the Krishnamacharya influence on modern yoga practice:
GROSS: She studies in India with Swami Krishnamacharya, and he brought together breathing and movement in yoga, is that right?
GOLDBERG: Well, there was a number of people who were working along the same lines. I mean, basically, this was a time when there was a worldwide craze for what was then called physical culture – you know, essentially physical exercise. And there was a number of people in India who said, well, we have our own traditional Indian version of physical culture. And, you know, this was during the Indian nationalist movement. They said, you know, we have this in our own tradition. We have a superior version of physical culture called yoga.
And what they did is they took some practices that had been part of the kind of mystical yogic tradition going back to medieval times. They combined them with physical practices that came from Indian wrestlers, you know, particularly kind of what they called dands or push-ups. They took elements from a gymnastics system that had become popular with the British Army – so kind of British Army calisthenics and gymnastics. And they took elements of traditional Indian gymnastics, things that had not before been seen as part of any sort of a religious or spiritual tradition. And there was a number of innovators who were kind of mixing all of these things together.
Now, Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence at the Mysore Palace. And the maharajah of Mysore was this very progressive nationalist figure who, you know, really wanted to unite the best of the East and the best of the West. And so he sponsored Krishnamacharya to run a yoga school in the palace. And Krishnamacharya, because a lot of his students were young, royal boys, created a system that would, you know, sort of capture their – you know, the animal energy of an 8- or a 9- or a 10-year-old boy. And so, you know, he put in things that if you do yoga now are really familiar to you. You know, the jump-backs and the chaturangas, which is the sort of half push-ups, and these very fast, flowing movements that we call vinyasa.
Listen to the whole interview below or at NPR.org.