With yoga doing a booming trade,  its hard to believe that it almost became extinct!

How Western Women saved Yoga from Extinction. 

Yoga is for humanity

Yoga is a healing practice, very closely connected to Ayurveda. Yoga forms a branch of this ancient medicine (2) just as Qi Gong and Tai Chi are branches of Chinese medicine. Yoga is a practice, it’s a spiritual path, it is an exercise, it can be so much more than that. It can be all these things, and it can be just one of those things, but most importantly, Yoga is a practice and should be open to whomever is called to it.

India has given the world many gifts, but the gift of yoga must be one of its finest. Yoga is so much bigger than its birthplace. IT BELONGS TO US ALL!  It literally means to yolk or to bind, to bring together, its heart medicine and world medicine! Yoga is the healing we and the world desperately needs this right now.

Under British Rule

100 years ago, when under British colonization, Yoga, and Indian culture was systemically under minded. Upper casts wanted to be more like the Westerners. Slowly abandoning Yoga, Sanskrit, and other traditional practices. Preferring instead to work in offices and sit in chairs. Lower casts, preforming manual labor, squatted and lived close to the earth. Possessing strong, supple bodies they had no need for yoga.

When yoga was dying

Yoga is one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world, and yet its origins are little known.   Saved from the brink of extinction by a handful of people.  It was the actions of just one woman that helped spread the practice to the west, and subsequently ensuring its survival. What a contrast to now.  

 Survey (1) conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal reports that the number of Americans doing yoga has grown by over 50% in the last four years to over 36 million as of 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012.  70%  Which were WOMEN!

Women were Forbidden  

Furthermore, yoga was only allowed to be practiced by men and women were strictly forbidden. Also, a guru and his student shared a relationship that was a closely guarded secret.  

How did the practice of yoga grow from a secretive system, exclusive to men, and near extinction, to one that is primarily performed by women and thriving in the West today?  The answer to this can be narrowed down to the actions of just one woman and her guru. 

how western women saved yoga

Once upon a time

lived a Guru whose life mission was to introduce yoga to the outside world.   Helping to create such traditions as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Iyengar.   

The Guru

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Certainly, it all began with one single individual, a brahman yogi called TKV Krishnamacharya. Considered the single most important Master of Yoga.  Together, with his four students, they would breathe life back into yoga. His influence so great that it would forever shape, change, and create the foundations of the modern yogic practice.

A Scholar 

A master, with degrees in Sanskrit, Music, Law, and Art. Krishnamacharya is considered a genius, having memorized all the yoga sutras.  

In addition, his tenacity, creativity, research, and dedication saw him take this practice out of obscurity.  Most importantly, mastering, and refining yoga before bringing it to the public stage. 

a student

With a hunger for knowledge he searched out one of the last remaining masters of Hatha yoga. This reclusive guru, Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari,  lived in the Himalayan caves, . For seven years, Krishnamacharya lived the yogic teachings of asana and pranayama.

Foundations and practice of yoga were developed during this time.

His mission

Finally, his time came to leave the Himalayan caves.  Upon his guru’s request, Krishnamacharya returned to civilization with the mission to share the practice of yoga with the outside world. 

Could you imagine a world without yoga?

Early life

Initially, he married and settled in Mysore, where he lived in poverty. Meanwhile, he started to teach Sanskrit and yoga at the College of Sanskrit.  Subsequently, his reputation as a yoga teacher began to grow. In addition, the Maharajah of Mysore, who was a supporter of the arts and passionate about saving India’s dying traditions, heard of him. Once meeting, the Maharajah impressed by Krishnamacharya’s abilities, began to sponsor live yoga demonstrations. 

Below is some rare footage of this time

Exhibitions that shone the spotlight onto yoga.  Showcasing the incredible abilities a solid practice develops. Krishnamacharya’s fame continued to grow, and he was subsequently sponsored to open a school dedicated to the practice of yoga.  ‘Vinyasa Flow’ was developed here.   Influential students would be taught in this school.  Each student becoming a teacher and a master in their own right.  

The Students

B.K.S. Iyengar

B.K.S. Iyengar

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B.K.S. Iyengar is one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world Iyengar’s sister was married to Krishnamacharya.

A sickly and ill child he suffered from influenza, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and accumulative malaise.  When B.K.S. Iyengar was 16, Krishnamacharya, suggested he practice yoga to help his ailing health. 

Due to his physical limitations, Iyengar could only practice with the use of props.   Strap, block, bolsters, and mats, were created. Modern restorative yoga classes and the modification of poses we see today are a result of the seeds he planted. 

6 years of practice followed, and Iyengar began to heal and recover.   However, Iyengar called these his ailments his ‘gifts of unfortunate ill health’.   

Going on to author classic texts, such as ‘Light on Yoga’.   Texts which flavoured yoga in a way that made it palatable for the Westerner.

In conclusion, he not only influenced yoga but created a style of yoga that is restorative and accessible to those with illness and injury,  “Iyengar Yoga”.

K. Pattabhi Jois

K. Pattabhi Jois

Since a young boy, K. Pattabhi Jois was also a student of Krishnamacharya.  He further developed ‘Vinyasa Flow’, connecting breath to the flow of asana.  However, he paid attention to strength, flexibility, as well as, creativity.  In short, this resulted in the practice of Ashtanga yoga.   Pattabhi Jois believed Ashtanga built tapas, or heat. Tapas purified the body, clears illness, and creates longevity.  The personal teacher of the Maharajah of Mysore.  Ashtanga has a large Western following which continues to grow today.

TKV Desikachar

TKV Desikachar and his father Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Son and disciple of Krishnamacharya, TKV Desikachar, as a young man he was never interested in yoga. Preferring to follow his intellectual pursuits.   Eventually, he did follow his father’s path.  In addition, he developed his individual approach to his father’s tradition.  Including pranayama and chanting. Importantly, he has opened centres that share Krishnamacharya teachings to everyone interested and without charge.

This public service is his offering to his late father.

All the above have had a profound, long lasting effect upon yoga. Thereby helping to shape it into the practice we know today.  However,  its the actions of just one student that introduced yoga to the west which inevitably helped to breathe life back into the practice. 

Indra Devi

Indra Devi

Certainly,  Krishnamacharya’s most controversial student, was a  1930’s socialite.  A westerner, and a female, who would go on to forever change the course of this ancient tradition.

Devi’s fascination with India began at 15 when she read a book by poet philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and a yoga instruction book by Yogi Ramacharaka

Her Voyage

Sailing to India in 1927, Eugenie “Zhenya” Peterson adopted a stage name that would sound Hindu.   Her mother was a close friend of the Maharajah.  During one of Indra’s visits, she saw these public exhibitions.  Inspired, she asked to be a student of Krishnamacharya, who promptly declined her.

The Maharajah intervened

However, after the Maharajah of Mysore spoke on her behalf, Krishnamacharya begrudgingly invited her to be his student.  It was 1938.

Tenacious & devoted

This went against the grain of how he thought yoga should be taught.  Therefore, Krishnamacharya hoping to make her leave,  made life hard for Indra.  Indra had to live in the furthest quarters and thus, subsequently having the longest walk.  In addition, she had wake at 4 am, before anyone else.  Furthermore, she was only allowed to eat food that was grown above the ground and in the sunlight.   Still she refused to give up, despite no one else having to meet these ridiculous expectations. 

A sure sign of her tenacity, and character, instead she embraced the challenge. She adopted the food and local customs. With time the local people grew to know and love her, and sung her praises.  

how western women saved yoga

The Guru changed his mind

Initially, like everyone else, he was staunchly anti-woman.  However, Indra opened his eyes to the possibilities.   Krishnamacharya admired her strength.  He found her to be a serious student,  a good person.  He shifted in his initial position and became a big supporter of women, deciding to teach her properly.    

Subsequently ridiculed and scolded by teachers and scholars alike.  To which he replied

‘If we do not encourage women the great Indian tradition of yoga will die’.

Krishnamacharya  understood that in order to save yoga,  he  needed to challenge AND break away from tradition.   Furthermore, he had the foresight to know it would be western women who would save yoga from extinction. 

He went on to teach Indra for one year straight.  Then she eventually become a teacher herself, and krishnamacharya asked her to  introduce yoga to the west.   Indra was not just the first woman to learn yoga, she was also the first westerner!  

Yoga is introduced to the west

She returned to the USA in the late 1930’s, and opened the first yoga studio in California. Where Hollywood stars, such as Greta Garbo, were taught and embraced the tradition.  

After which she to Mexico, where she lived for many years.   Once again Indra adopted the customs and the language.  Similarly, the local people grew to love and respect her.  A trailblazer, she opened an ashram. Attracting people from all over the world and offering teacher training, for the very first time.    

From here, yoga survived, the practice grew, its followers grew, and more and more women embraced it.  

Furthermore, women also became teachers, and in turn, taught other women. Finally, embraced by the West, yoga not only survived, but has continued to thrive.   And the rest, as they say is history.

Sources and References



DVD Yoga Unveiled Evolution and Essence of a Spiritual Practice.





Professor T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar



Iyengar Yoga



Indra Devi, Mother of Western Yoga

K. Pattabhi Jois Biography


7 Awesome Vintage Fitness Photos




Get Yogi With It



Copyright: Catherine Argyros ,The Barefoot Doctor I Wellness I Heart Driven Services 2020

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