Honoring the First Ladies of Yoga

In India, the mother is considered the first guru, and yet the practice and teaching of yoga was long the domain of men. That changed during the mid-20th century, when several women “midwifed” yoga’s introduction to the West. Today, Friday, March 8, marks International Women’s Day, a fitting time to look at some of yoga’s most influential women.

Born into Russian nobility, Indra Devi (1899-2002) became Krishnamacharya’s first Western student in 1938. He encouraged her to teach in China when her diplomat husband was posted to Shanghai. (Madame Chiang Kai-shek was among Devi’s students.) After her husband’s death, Devi moved to Hollywood, where she opened a yoga studio in 1948. Her book, Yoga for Americans, was one of the first instruction manuals written for a Western audience. Devi later moved to Argentina, where she continued to inspire students until her death at 102.

Vanda Scaravelli (1908-1999) entertained artists, musicians, and intellectuals in her Italian villa, among them philosopher J. Krishnamurti. He introduced her to his yoga teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, and she also studied with T.K.V. Desikachar. Scaravelli focused on the movements of the spine in asana, her approach influencing others, including Esther Myers (1947-2004), whose studio in Toronto continues to teach in Scaravelli’s style.

Swami Radha (1911-1995), a German woman who helped others flee the Nazi regime, emigrated to Canada, then traveled to India to study with Swami Sivananda Saraswati, becoming a sannyasin in 1956. After returning to Canada, she established an ashram in 1963. Now known as Yasodhara, it has affiliates throughout Canada and in the U.S., Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

India has several family yoga dynasties; the U.S. has the Baptistes. Born in El Salvador, Magaña moved with her mother to San Francisco, where she studied dance and met Walter Baptiste, a bodybuilder with an interest in yoga. They married in 1944 and opened a series of fitness studios, concentrating on yoga more than a decade before San Francisco’s youth culture learned to Om. Baptiste and her daughters Sherri and Devi were initiated into Surat Shabda Yoga by Kirpal Singh. Sherri, Baron, and Devi Ananda carry on the Baptiste legacy.

Daughter of holistic health pioneers, Rama Jyoti Vernon studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in Pune, later inviting him and other Indian swamis to teach in her Bay Area home. A leader in the California Yoga Teachers Association, Vernon launched the publication that evolved into Yoga Journal on a typewriter at her kitchen table. She leads workshops and retreats around the U.S., integrating asana with yogic philosophy.

No yoga teacher has been welcomed into as many homes as Lilias Folan, whose PBS TV series aired 1972-1999. She counts many influences but calls Swami Chidananda her “root teacher.” Folan continues to inspire people of all ages and from all walks of life, teaching workshops around the U.S.

This international cast includes only a few of yoga’s leading ladies. Though they may not have branded yoga styles with their names, theirs is the Shakti—the divine feminine and generative power—behind yoga as it is practiced today throughout the West. Jai ma!

Which of yoga’s pioneering women do you find most inspiring?

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