Indra Devi, upper left; Anne T. Hill, bottom center (record album cover)
May 12, 1899
Riga, Russian Empire
|Died||April 25, 2002 (aged 102)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
|Other names||Eugenie Peterson|
|Spouse(s)||Jan Strakaty (1930-1946, his death)
Siegrid Knauer (1953-1977, his death)
Eugenie V. Peterson (Russian: Евгения Васильевна Петерсон; May 12, 1899 – April 25, 2002), widely known as Indra Devi, was an early disciple of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and became a renowned yoga teacher. Born in Riga, she also acted in some Hindi films.
Born in Riga, Russian Empire, to Vasili Peterson, a Swedish bank director and Alejandra Labunskaia, a Russian noblewoman, Eugenie attended drama school in Moscow as a girl and escaped to Berlin with her mother as Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. In Berlin, she became an actress and dancer.
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. In 1927, she sailed for India and adopted a stage name that would sound Hindu (using "dev", the Hindi root for "god") and acted in Indian films. In 1930, she married Jan Strakaty, a commercial attache to the Czechoslovak consulate in Bombay.
The famous Yoga guru Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya accepted her as a student, only after the Maharaja of Mysore spoke on her behalf, and in 1938 she became the first foreign woman among dedicated yogis. She met every challenge Krishnamacharya set out for her and was so successful that the guru asked her to work as a yoga teacher, when he learned that her husband was to be transferred to China and she would leave India.
In 1939, she opened a school in Shanghai at the house of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the nationalist leader and a new yoga enthusiast. There were many Americans and Russians among her pupils. More and more people began to call her Mataji, which means mother. Indra Devi was giving lectures on yoga, including free lessons in orphanages.
Following the unexpected death of her husband, with eight years of teaching experience the renowned guru left for the United States in 1947. A year later she opened a yoga studio in Hollywood. Indra Devi gradually developed a style of yoga adapted for the West, including yoga asana, suitable for most Americans, special breathing techniques and diets. At the same time, Indra Devi always stressed that her method relied on the classical yoga of Patanjali.
She taught Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, and Gloria Swanson. Contrary to popular belief, there is no record of her ever teaching Marilyn Monroe. While Monroe did own her book "Forever Young, Forever Happy", there is no proof that the two women met in person. A popular photo that shows Eva Gabor training with Devi in 1960 is commonly mistaken for Monroe.
In 1953 Indra married the well-known German physician Dr. Siegfried Knauer. In the mid-1950s she was granted American citizenship and put her Indra Devi pseudonym in her new passport.
In 1960 Indra Devi opened a yoga school in Tecate México, in Rancho Cuchumá, but closed it in 1970, when her husband Sigfried Knauer died from the injuries suffered in a car accident in Los Angeles California. Mataji was very close to Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a Hindu guru, and traveled often from her Yoga Foundation in Mexico to Bangalore and Puttaparthi.
Later years and death
In 1982 she moved to Argentina. In 1987 she was elected president of honor of the International Yoga Federation (former International Yoga Teachers Federation) and Latin American Union of Yoga under the presidency of Swami Maitreyananda at Montevideo, Uruguay. She died in Buenos Aires.