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March 2, 2017

In the heyday of post-WWII Hollywood, Indra Devi found an audience she could bend to her will. Her clients included the bored housewives of Hollywood heavyweights and starlets like Greta Garbo. She taught them yoga, planting its first seeds in mainstream America. Then she waited 50 years for them to flourish.

Michelle Goldberg tells the story of the “first lady of yoga” in a new book, “The Goddess Pose, ” which captures Devi’s Forrest Gump-like propensity to live parallel to some of the most important moments of the previous century.

Born Eugenia Vassilievna in 1899, Devi was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather’s close ties to the czar forced the family to flee to Germany after the Bolshevik revolution.

Several years later, as she and her mother, an actress, tried to leave Germany at the start of World War I, they were arrested crossing the Polish border. Goldberg points to her incarceration as an illustration of how Devi possessed a lifelong ability to “glide along the surface of earth-shattering events.”

Even in jail Devi focused ferociously on the bright side. Having been abandoned by her mother as a child, she looked upon those years as a Polish prisoner as an opportunity to spend time with her beloved mother.

Devi’s spirituality was always central to her life’s purpose. Her privileged childhood at the turn of the 20th century was steeped in supernatural teachings. “Between 1881 and 1918, ” Goldberg explains, “more than 800 occult books appeared in Russia.”

Theosophy, a popular occult science that largely grew out of large-scale, public magic shows, grown in America with Russian roots, became Devi’s focus early in her adult life. The mystical melding of “modern rationalism with ancient wisdom” appealed to her.

After a Theosophy gathering in Holland where she was introduced to a young man being hailed as the “Indian Messiah, ” Devi made a decision to travel to India herself. In November of 1927, age 30 and unmarried, she did so alone by ship.

She endeared herself to English expatriates and became an actress, at the beginnings of Bollywood. When she was cast in a starring role, the director gave her another new name: Indira Devi.

After World War II, Devi discovered the practice of hatha yoga under the instruction of a famous Indian guru named Krishnamacharya. Hatha yoga incorporated movement into meditation.

Krishnamacharya only accepted Devi as his first female student after she diligently returned to his ashram day after day, her charms eventually winning him over.

But Devi was restless. She returned to Europe, but soon decided she had a choice to make. Either she’d return to India and continue her studies, or she’d go to America. She bought two boat tickets, one to each place, and then at the last minute chose to set sail for New York.

There she met a fashion designer who introduced her to Gloria Swanson, the aging Hollywood actress who had just won the Oscar for “Sunset Boulevard.”

Swanson became a student, and even posed for photos with Devi in various yoga positions for her first book, finally published under the name she’d have for the rest of her life, “Indra Devi.”

Devi went on to teach many of the Hollywood elite, and led pilgrimages to India for luminaries including John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Devi, having no idea who they were, referred to them as “Mr. and Mrs. Lemmon.”)

But the restless Devi wasn’t done. Married twice, and twice widowed, Devi decided to move to Argentina in her 80s. She began visiting convicts in prison.

As this small, white-haired lady stood before each roomful of surly inmates, she repeated a single demonstration. A prisoner would stand up and hold out his arm. Devi would heap praise on him.

Each time she’d try — unsuccessfully — to force down his arm. Then, a second time, she’d ask him to hold out his arm again. This time she’d heap insults on him. Every time, after the insults, she’d be able to lower this arm with ease.

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