To celebrate World Yoga Day, we’re sharing an extract from The Goddess Pose, by New York Times bestselling author Michelle Goldberg. The book traces the remarkable, inspirational, truly adventurous life of the woman who brought yoga to the western world. We’re also giving away a beautiful hardback copy, simply enter below for the chance to win! Don’t forget to check the terms and conditions of the draw here.
When Eugenia Vassilievna – the woman who would become Indra Devi – was born in Russia in 1899, yoga was virtually unknown outside of India. By the time of her death in 2002, yoga was being practiced everywhere, from Brooklyn to Berlin to Ulaanbaatar.
Here’s an extract from the book.
No one would have guessed that Eugenia, alternately insecure and headstrong, would one day be admired as a spiritual leader. If anything, she was a bit of a brat, furiously impatient when forced to wait for her servants to clean or iron her clothes. For an aristocratic only child, perhaps this wasn’t unusual, but looking back almost a century later, she writes, “I also want it known that I recognize myself as terribly human, with all the debilities belonging to humanity. I don’t have a trace of sainthood.”
In the summer of 1910, Eugenia’s nanny took her and her cousin, Nicolas, to visit her mother in Sevastopol, a Crimean resort city on the Black Sea. Eugenia thrilled to witness the fans who came to stand outside her mother’s hotel window, the delirious applause at the theatres, and the heaps of proffered flowers onstage.
As Eugenia entered adolescence, the cosy, protective world of her childhood began to fall apart. Her grandfather had a stroke and died when she was twelve, and the constant anxiety that plagued her intensified. Nicolas departed for military school, returning on holidays transformed from a sweet companion into a swaggering, supercilious bully who enjoyed humiliating her by belting out obscene songs. As she lost those around her, her mother’s visits became more and more important to her. Eugenia loved to stand by her side at the piano in her family’s salon, luxuriating in the timbre of her mother’s voice.
In her early teens, Eugenia was allowed to visit Sasha when she was performing in Moscow. They would stay at the famed Hotel Metropol, a sumptuously decorated Art Nouveau palace full of gothic pinnacles and soaring atriums, with ultramodern conveniences such as telephones and hot running water. In the evenings they’d sometimes visit the nearby Bolshoi Theatre. Eugenia remembered the excitement of strolling hand in hand through the city with Sasha, stopping at restaurants and bohemian cafes, and being delighted when strangers recognized her mother. Walking beside Sasha, her own bearing proud and her chin aloft, she felt like a bit of a star herself.
It was in Moscow, during the winter of 1914, that Eugenia first came across the word yoga. World War I had started that July, and on the front, Russian soldiers were dying by the hundreds of thousands. Yet such suffering seemed far away. In Moscow, sleighs plied the snowbound streets, and Eugenia would accompany her mother on afternoon visits to the homes of friends, where they’d drink tea for hours before crackling fires.
One day, at the house of one of her mother’s actor friends, Eugenia slipped away and found his enormous library, with volumes crammed onto floor-to- ceiling bookshelves. On a desk were two that seemed particularly well thumbed. One was by the Indian poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore, who had, the previous year, become the first South Asian to win the Noble Prize in Literature. The second was Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, by Yogi Ramacharaka.
As the title promises, the book deals more with philosophy and occultism than physical practice; one of its chapters is subtitled “Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, Psychometry, Telepathy, etc.—How to Develop Psychic Powers.” It does, however, offer a tantalizing hint of the discipline that would reshape Eugenia’s life. “The care of the body, under the intelligent control of the mind, is an important branch of yogi philosophy, and is known as ‘Hatha Yoga,’ ” Ramacharaka writes. “We are preparing a little text-book upon ‘Hatha Yoga,’ which will soon be ready for the press, that will give the Yogi teachings upon this most important branch of self-development.”
Just as Eugenia sat down to read Ramacharaka’s book, her mother’s friend entered the room. “Aha! I see that you have discovered the most precious book in my collection,” he said. And taking the book from her, he began to read. The dancing light of a nearby fire flickered in the room, and as the actor pronounced the strange, mysterious words, Eugenia’s cheeks burned. Suddenly, surprising herself with her own ardour, she announced, “I have to go to India!”
With a wary look, he closed the book. “You are too emotional, my dear,” he said.