International Women’s Day 2019 is fast approaching on March 8th. This year the campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter, recognising that a balanced world is a better world. The day asks us to think about how we can help forge a more gender-balanced world by raising awareness against bias, taking action for equality and celebrating women’s achievement.
So we thought it would be a fitting occasion to look at the history of women in Yoga, and celebrate the achievements of the women (and men) that helped transform Yoga from a traditionally male practice in India to the balanced, inclusive (and often predominantly female classes!) we find in the world today.
50 years ago women were strongly discouraged from practicing
Surprisingly few people know about the extent of this transformation that has taken place during our current lifetimes. Whilst it is not accurate to think of women as once completely barred from the practice and teaching of yoga, it is commonly recognised that until about 50 years ago women were strongly discouraged from practicing and in the Vedic Tradition they were not allowed to become priests.
The Vedic Tradition refers to the teachings and experiences of various lineages of sages living on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times. The Tradition influenced contemporary Hinduism but during this era the religion wasn’t organised in the way we think of today, so no one persons way of thinking was controlled or guided by a set system of beliefs. However there was clearly a serious gender imbalance that was later addressed by a few inspirational key figures.
Indra Devi, the First Lady of Yoga
One such person is Indra Devi, who was a Russian yoga teacher and an early disciple of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Devi’s journey with yoga is an interesting and inspirational one; she was born Eugenie V. Peterson in Russia, and worked as an actor before finding a fascination for yoga at age 15. She sailed for India and adopted the stage name Indra Devi (“Dev” derives from the Hindi root for “god”), which she used to perform in Indian films, developing her career in “Bollywood”.
As her passion for yoga grew, she petitioned the famous Yoga Guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to accept her as a student and owing to Devi’s determination and dedication, she became the first woman and first foreigner among his pupils in 1938. She studied alongside B.K.S.Iyengar and K.Pattabhi Jois (who would also go on to become prolific yoga teachers) and proved to be so successful in her training that Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya later asked her to work as a yoga teacher.
Indra Devi went on to teach in China and later the United States of America in 1947, becoming the first person to bring yoga to Hollywood, where its popularity has grown phenomenally. She became known as Mataji by her ever-growing followers – Mataji being the Hindi name for mother.
Geeta Iyengar, the world’s leading female yoga teacher
Another notable woman in yoga is Geeta Iyengar, eldest daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar (who studied alongside Indra Devi, advocated women in the practice and was the founder of the worldwide Iyengar Yoga method). Geeta Iyengar was described as “the world’s leading female yoga teacher”, and she adapted her father’s method of yoga to the specific requirements of women.
She developed specific asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and sequences for different stages in a woman’s life, for example menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum and menopause. She died on 16 December 2018, two days after her father’s birth centenary, aged 74.
“Women are smarter than men”: B.K.S. Iyengar
So it is perhaps ironic that yoga in the West is often seen as female-dominated, considering the history women have had in the practice, and its hard-earned journey to equality and world recognition. One quote from a student of B.K.S. Iyengar mentions him expressing the opinion that women are smarter than men. When asked about his reasons for saying this, he replied “because so many more women practice yoga!”
Whatever stage your journey with yoga is at, we’re spending this week celebrating our access to this life-changing practice. Also, it’s a great reminder to be thankful for those inspirational women that were responsible for making important steps towards equality.
Yogi2Me are proud of our men and women practitioners, so for this year’s International Women’s Day, we’re keeping #BalanceforBetter in the forefront of our thoughts, from gender-balanced practice to balanced postures to balanced minds and a better world.
Get an exclusive 20% off until Sunday 10th of March 2019, with the promocode WHORUNTHEWORLD when your book your private session with Yogi2Me.
—– Written by Laura Franek, from the Yogi2Me teacher community. Laura is a caring and compassionate teacher who loves sharing the strengthening, healing power of yoga and making it accessible for everyone. She loves working with all ages, and finds happiness watching people’s development in skill and confidence, encouraging them to challenge and centre themselves, deepening their practice and journey in yoga.