Today, Western yoga culture has a reputation as a female-dominated practice. But this turns out to be pretty ironic after a little dose of yoga history.
Did you know that classic yoga was a male-only practice, until the “first lady of yoga” Indra Devi was accepted to study under Sri Krishnamacharya circa 1937? Given that, the efforts to recruit men to yoga by giving the practice an alias like “Broga” is ironic. The fact that most of the time I’m honestly surprised to walk into a yoga class with even a 60:40 ratio of women to men is definitely ironic.
Yoga is a system of beliefs — specifically an eight-limbed path — which includes physical and mental exercises. This belief system was once entirely male and once isolated to India.
So how did we get to to the yoga of today? Let’s travel back in time.
Then: The setting is Myosore, India, and the woman is a stubborn and ambitious young newlywed, known by her stage name Indra Devi, a rising star in Indian films. Her husband, Jan Strakaty, connects her to the Maharaja and Maharini of Mysore (i.e. the ruling/royal family) who are sponsoring a yoga school led by Sri Krishnamacharya. This school teaches boys from a young age to master all aspects of yoga, including the poses (asanas). It was no easy task, but Indra Devi convinced the guru to take her on as his first female (and Western) student. She toughed it out with the boys, so to speak. The rest is history.
She went on to master the practice and launch its westward journey. But the story doesn’t end there. She was among other modern yoga leaders like B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, also working to make yoga more accessible to the masses and help it move to new frontiers.
Devi was fluent in multiple languages, which became a powerful tool in spreading yoga’s messages and lessons. She started her first teachings in Shanghai and then moved on to the United States — leading classes in Hollywood, no less. Simultaneously, her fellow yoga disciples had made a name for themselves. Iyengar essentially invented the use of yoga props to help those of us who didn’t grow up in a school dedicated to yoga asana and need a little tight-hamstring TLC, and he published various yoga texts used by almost all teachers today. Jois is credited with developing the now widely known Ashtanga yoga style. The trio made their mark on the Western world and suddenly yoga was a household-friendly workout. Even during the yoga movement’s progression, Devi remained outnumbered by her male teachers.
Now: Yoga is a mainstay in the both the fitness and holistic health worlds. It’s famous for stress-relief, flexibility, injury prevention, prenatal care, and — of course — stretchy apparel. Many modern women don’t know to honor Devi with the fact that they’re even allowed in studios, much less that the classic poses aren’t catered to their female physique. (Me included, until I completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training!) Meanwhile, many men are unaware that they were once the only ones considered able and suitable for a traditional Indian yoga practice.
If you’ve been to any yoga studio, or tried any type of yoga-inspired class, you’ve benefited from the efforts of Devi, Jois, and Iyengar, stemming from the Krishnamacharya teachings. If you’re a woman, you’re specifically following in the path Devi paved for even allowing women into the practice. Gender aside, we have them to thank for brilliantly mixing East with West and opening space on the yoga mat for both worlds.
Photo credit: Rafael Montilla