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Indra Devi, 102; Helped Popularize Yoga Around World

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Indra Devi, one of the first Western women to study yoga in India, who later taught it to several Hollywood stars, has died. She was 102.

Devi, who at 99 was still performing demanding yoga poses, died April 25 in Buenos Aires, where she had lived and taught since the mid-1980s. The cause of death was not disclosed.

A charismatic woman who attracted students with her gentle yet insightful personality as much as with the form of yoga she practiced, Devi lived and taught in India, China, the United States, Mexico and Argentina. She brought yoga to industry, prisons and hospitals.

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Born Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia, the daughter of a Russian noblewoman and a Swedish banking official, she attended drama schools in Moscow.

But her academic career came to a halt when the communists came to power in 1917. Her mother took her to Berlin, where she found roles as a dancer and actress with a Russian touring theater.

She became interested in India after reading poet Rabindranath Tagore and a book on yoga that had been translated into Russian. She later called the books transforming.

In 1927, she traveled to India, and using the name Indra Devi, became a star in the Indian cinema. Three years later, she met her first husband, Jan Strakaty, the commercial attache in the Czechoslovak consulate.

Strakaty introduced his wife to the maharajah and maharani of Mysore, who allowed part of their home to be used as a yoga palace. The teacher was Sri Krishnamacharya, the Indian master whose students included two others who would become influential yogis: BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.

Her initial efforts to become a disciple of Krishnamacharya ended in failure. He had never had a woman in his class, much less a Western woman, and strongly discouraged her participation.

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But he took her on as a pupil after the maharajah and maharani of Mysore intervened on her behalf. When her husband was transferred to Shanghai, she stayed in India for another year to continue her studies with Krishnamacharya.

“He was very strict with me, thinking that I would not keep up the regime that he imposed on me,” she told a writer for Yoga Journal years ago.

As part of the discipline, she was ordered to give up coffee, tea, white sugar, white flour, white rice and everything in bottles and cans. She was already a vegetarian, so giving up meat wasn’t a problem, but she later said she missed the coffee.

She moved to Shanghai in the late 1930s and began teaching yoga classes despite the opposition of her husband, who called the practice nonsense, and the discouragement of the Japanese who occupied the city starting in 1937.

Her class grew to 70 people, and she eventually held it at the home of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the country’s ruler, who had developed an interest in yoga, as well as in private homes in the French Concession area.

She also recalled years later teaching at the Metropole Hotel what she called a “prison class,” consisting of the entire staff of the American Consulate in Shanghai, whom the Japanese held under arrest there during World War II.

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She said the officials, who had derided the yoga classes before they were taken into custody, embraced the practice during their incarceration.

After World War II, her husband returned to Czechoslovakia and she returned to India, where she began teaching what were believed to be the first yoga classes taught in India by a Westerner. She also wrote the first of several books on yoga. It was thought to be the first book on yoga published in India by a Westerner.

She returned to Shanghai in 1946 to sell her home and possessions, then took a boat to San Francisco, landing in early 1947. She moved to Hollywood, where she taught such actors as Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones, Robert Ryan and Gloria Swanson.

Devi dedicated one of her books to Swanson, who became a serious practitioner and went on television on several occasions to offer testimony to the advantages of yoga.

Devi also taught yoga at spas run by Elizabeth Arden in Maine and Arizona but rejected Arden’s overture to join the staff, saying that she would not work for anyone.

“She had an early pre-feminist feminism about her,” said Fernando Pages Ruiz, a contributing editor with Yoga Journal who interviewed her on several occasions.

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“Long before the use of ‘Ms.’ became popular, she bristled when people addressed her as Miss or Mrs. She had a long career of going to places where people couldn’t go, and wanted to be treated with respect.”

She married Dr. Sigrid Knauer, her second husband, in 1953, and legally changed her name to Devi when she became an American citizen several years later. Through much of the next 20 years, she lived and taught at an 80-acre ranch in Tecate, Mexico, purchased by Knauer. He died in 1984.

In the mid-1960s, she developed a new form of yoga called Sai yoga, inspired by her interest in the teachings of the guru Satya Sai Baba.

“She had a style that combined the teachings of Krishnamacharya and a devotional style of yoga called Bhakti,” Pages Ruiz said.

“Her class was an extended prayer and devotional experience, coupled with a sequence of standard poses of yoga.”

In 1985, she moved to Argentina, where she opened six studios holding 15 classes a day.

She also became something of a cultural figure in Buenos Aires, holding court in the sitting room of her house and receiving guests that ranged from former President Carlos Menem to the local cabdriver.

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“She really saw your possibilities when you met her,” Pages Ruiz said. “She would see the world of opportunity in you, in what you were going to do and accomplish. She saw meaning in life.”

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