During her long life, Evgenia Peterson has radically changed her life several times – from a secular lady to a mataji, that is, “mother”, a spiritual mentor. She traveled half the world, and among her acquaintances were Hollywood stars, Indian philosophers, and Soviet party leaders. She knew 12 languages and considered three countries her homeland – Russia, where she was born, India, where she was born again and where her soul was revealed, and Argentina – the “amicable” country of Mataji Indra Devi.
Evgenia Peterson, known to the whole world as Indra Devi, became the “first lady of yoga”, a person who opened yogic practices not only to Europe and America, but also to the USSR.
Evgenia Peterson was born in Riga in 1899. Her father is the director of a Riga bank, a Swede by birth, and her mother is an operetta actress, a favorite of the public and a star of secular salons. A good friend of the Petersons was the great chansonnier Alexander Vertinsky, who already then noticed the “feature” of Evgenia, dedicating the poem “Girl with whims” to her:
“A girl with habits, a girl with whims,
The girl is not “somehow”, and not like everyone else … “
During the First World War, Evgenia’s family moved from Riga to St. Petersburg, where the girl graduated with honors from the gymnasium and, cherishing dreams of the stage, entered the theater studio of Komissarzhevsky, who quickly noticed a talented student.
The beginning of the XNUMXth century was a time of change not only in the political arena, but also a period of global changes in human consciousness. Spiritist salons appear, esoteric literature is in vogue, young people read the works of Blavatsky.
Young Evgenia Peterson was no exception. Somehow, the book Fourteen Lessons on Yoga Philosophy and Scientific Occultism fell into her hands, which she read in one breath. The decision that was born in the head of an enthusiastic girl was clear and precise – she must go to India. However, the war, revolution and emigration to Germany put aside her plans for a long time.
In Germany, Eugenia shines in the troupe of the Diaghilev Theater, and one day on tour in Tallinn in 1926, while walking around the city, she sees a small bookstore called Theosophical Literature. There she learns that a convention of the Anna Besant Theosophical Society will soon be held in Holland, and one of the guests will be Jiddu Krishnamurti, a famous Indian orator and philosopher.
More than 4000 people gathered for the convention in the Dutch town of Oman. The conditions were Spartan – campground, vegetarian diet. At first, Eugenia perceived all this as a funny adventure, but the evening when Krishnamurti sang sacred hymns in Sanskrit became a turning point in her life.
After a week in the camp, Peterson returned to Germany with a firm resolve to change her life. She made a condition to her fiancé, the banker Bolm, that the engagement gift should be a trip to India. He agrees, thinking that this is only a momentary whim of a young woman, and Evgenia is leaving there for three months. Having traveled India from south to north, upon returning to Germany, she refuses Bolm and returns the ring to him.
Leaving everything behind and selling off her impressive collection of furs and jewelry, she leaves for her new spiritual homeland.
There she communicates with Mahatma Gandhi, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and with Jawaharlal Nehru she had a strong friendship for many years, almost falling in love.
Evgenia wants to get to know India as best as possible, attends temple dance lessons from the most famous dancers, and studies yoga in Bombay. However, she cannot forget her acting skills either – the famous director Bhagwati Mishra invites her to a role in the film “Arab Knight”, especially for which she chooses the pseudonym Indra Devi – “heavenly goddess”.
She starred in several more Bollywood films, and then – unexpectedly for herself – accepts a marriage proposal from the Czech diplomat Jan Strakati. So Evgenia Peterson once again radically changes her life, becoming a secular lady.
Already as the wife of a diplomat, she keeps a salon, which is quickly becoming popular with the top of the colonial society. Endless receptions, receptions, soirees exhaust Madame Strakati, and she wonders: is this the life in India that the young graduate of the gymnasium Zhenya dreamed of? There comes a period of depression, from which she sees one way out – yoga.
Starting to study at the Yoga Institute in Bombay, Indra Devi meets the Maharaja of Mysore there, who introduces her to Guru Krishnamacharya – the founder of Ashtanga yoga, one of the most popular directions today.
The guru’s disciples were only young men from the warrior caste, for whom he developed a strict daily regimen: rejection of “dead” foods, early rise and end, enhanced practice, ascetic lifestyle.
For a long time, the guru did not want to allow a woman, and even more so a foreigner, into his school, but the stubborn wife of a diplomat achieved her goal – she became his student, but Krishnamacharya did not intend to give her concessions. At first, Indra was unbearably hard, especially since the teacher was skeptical of her and did not provide any support. But when her husband is transferred to diplomatic work in Shanghai, Indra Devi receives a blessing from the guru himself to conduct an independent practice.
In Shanghai, she, already in the rank of “mataji”, opens her first school, enlisting the support of Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Song Meiling, a passionate yoga devotee.
After the end of the Second World War, Indra Devi travels to the Himalayas, where he hones his skills and writes his first book, Yoga, which will be published in 1948.
After the unexpected death of her husband, the mataji once again changes his life – he sells his property and moves to California. There she finds fertile ground for her activities – she opens a school attended by such stars of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” as Greta Garbo, Yul Brynner, Gloria Swenson. Indra Devi was especially supported by Elizabeth Arden, the head of the cosmetology empire.
Devi’s method was maximally adapted for the European body, and it is based on the classical yoga of the sage Patanjali, who lived in the XNUMXnd century BC.
Mataji also popularized yoga among ordinary people., having developed a set of asanas that can be easily performed at home to relieve stress after a hard day’s work.
Indra Devi married for the second time in 1953 – to the famous doctor and humanist Siegfried Knauer, who became her right hand for many years.
In the 1960s, the Western press wrote a lot about Indra Devi as a brave yogi who opened yoga for a closed communist country. She visits the USSR, meets with high-ranking party officials. However, the first visit to their historical homeland brings only disappointment – yoga remains for the USSR a mysterious Eastern religion, unacceptable for a country with a bright future.
In the 90s, after the death of her husband, leaving the International Training Center for Yoga Teachers in Mexico, she travels to Argentina with lectures and seminars and falls in love with Buenos Aires. So the mataji finds a third homeland, “a friendly country”, as she herself calls it – Argentina. This is followed by a tour of the countries of Latin America, in each of which a very elderly woman leads two yoga lessons and charges everyone with her inexhaustible optimism and positive energy.
In May 1990 Indra Devi visits the USSR for the second time.where yoga has finally lost its illegal status. This visit was very productive: the host of the popular “perestroika” program “Before and after midnight” Vladimir Molchanov invites her to air. Indra Devi manages to visit her first homeland – she visits Riga. Mataji comes to Russia twice more with lectures already – in 1992 at the invitation of the Olympic Committee and in 1994 with the support of the Argentine ambassador to Russia.
Until the end of her life, Indra Devi retained a clear mind, excellent memory and amazing performance, her Foundation contributed to the spread and popularization of the practice of yoga around the world. About 3000 people attended her centenary, each of whom was grateful to the mataji for the changes that yoga brought to his life.
However, in 2002, the elderly woman’s health deteriorated sharply. She died at the age of 103 in Argentina.
The text was prepared by Lilia Ostapenko.