A lot of the time when we talk about the most influential people of yoga, we’re given a list of men – and understandably so right? Patanjali did write (or commentary on, however you want to look at it) the Sutras. Similarly, Krishnamacharya did modernize a traditional philosophy and popularize it into becoming what we know it as today. But we all know, behind a strong man is an even stronger woman pushing his ass out of bed each morning. So let’s discuss for a change the influential women of yoga.
Do they get the title of ‘creator’?
Well, no – not technically.
But we can say for absolute certainty that the yoga practice we know today would not be what it is without these badass women.
This name you may have heard before. Indra – dubbed the First Lady of Yoga – is a direct student of Krishnamacharya, though Krishnamacharya would have had it otherwise. Indra Devi was actually born in Russia as Eugenie Peterson, and traveled to India in her twenties quickly becoming infatuated with Indian culture (can we blame her?). It wasn’t until the Maharaja of Mysore spoke on her behalf that Krishnamacharya took her on as a student, alongside B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabi Jois, becoming the first foreign woman to study with the legendary Guru. She actually moved to China and taught yoga there (some say the first yoga class ever) before moving to Hollywood California and opening a yoga studio on Sunset Boulevard in 1948.
To understand Blanche Devries’ contribution to yoga we first must discuss her husband, Pierre Bernard, an experienced Tantric Yoga teacher and practitioner. It is said Pierre began his yogi studies in the late 1880s eventually traveling to Kashmir and Bengal before founding the Tantrik Order of America in 1905 or 1906. He continued to spread his practice through cities across the US becoming credited as the first American to introduce yoga philosophy and tantra to the American people. He eventually married Blanche, and in 1924 they created the Clarkstown Country Club, where yoga was taught to affluent and influential clientele. Eventually Pierre was forced to stop teaching as his tantric practices were considered more and more scandalous in the 30s. Blanche however continued to teach yoga in New York well into her 80s.
On October 5, 1970 PBS aired their first episode of Lilias, Yoga and You, a yoga-for-exercise program that began in Connecticut and would later continue to run across the entire US until 1999. Lilias began practicing yoga in 1964 studying under T.K.V Desikachar, B.K.S Iyengar, and Angela Farmer. Time magazine has called her the “Julia Child of Yoga” and she continues to be regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and respected master yoga teachers alive today.
Geeta, the eldest daughter of legendary teacher B.K.S Iyengar, began studying yoga with her father from an early age. She quickly began teaching yoga after graduating high school in 1961 even began standing in for her father when he would travel on his international teaching trips. In 1984, when her father retired, she became the co-director of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute while beginning her own international teaching practice. She has since been described as the ‘world’s leading female yoga teacher’ as she adapted her father’s methods for teaching while being specific towards the requirements of a woman. She created specific asanas, pranayama, and sequences for different stages in a woman’s life including menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. Much like her father, she was adamant about the ability of yoga to unify the body and mind.
Saraswathi is the daughter of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of the Ashtanga yoga lineage. She is the mother of Sharath Jois, now director of the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Institute in Mysore. Saraswathi began studying under her father at the early age of 10. After Krishnamacharya gave her a personal blessing to begin teaching, a rare honor in Indian-Yogic tradition, she quickly started a yoga revolution in India by becoming the first woman to teach men and women together, and include even Westerners.
The list certainly doesn’t stop there. As yoga has adapted over time in the West, more and more women are reshaping this ancient practice to become the life-changing tool that it has become for many of us today. Keep practicing with women. They’ll continue to empower and transform this practice for decades to come.