Before the modern period, there are stories of great yoginis and female Tantric gurus but with modernity the strangest of candidates wins the prize for first Western yogini. Queen Victoria, the “Empress of India,” a very Christian, and, of course, a very “Victorian” woman, had 18 lessons from the long-lived yogi Shivapuri Baba, who she entertained at court sometime after 1870.
A deeper story of women in yoga begins with another woman of nobility, the Russian, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—one of the most independent thinkers who ever lived. Leaving her husband, she travelled the world exploring divergent religions and occult societies from the late 1840s to the early ‘70s. In this period, she became familiar with yoga. She later introduced it to the world through her popular books. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which fostered East-West dialog. It took the lead in translating and publishing yoga texts. Blavatsky’s successors in the Society, Kathleen Tingley and Annie Besant also promoted yoga (But like Helena, they were disparaging of it, too—it’s complicated!). Besant’s commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras are genius works that remain compelling, and Tingley opened what was arguably America’s first ashram with a “Raja Yoga Academy” in Point Loma, California in 1897. Like many women who followed on the path, Tingley was globally active in helping others and building world peace through teaching, protests, and work in NGOs.
The Bostonians, Sara Bull and Sarah Farmer became good friends during international travel and were among the first true yoga practitioners in the West. They hatched a plan to host the great Swami Vivekananda (who had brought yoga to America in 1893) giving him a platform at their Green Acre conferences.
Wealthy women hosted many Indian Gurus after Vivekananda and there was something of a scare in America about their influence, for no small number of U.S. women gave up normal lives for their gurus. Chief among these was Margaret Noble, who took the name Sister Nivedita, who committed herself to Vivekananda in 1898 to become the first woman to join an Indian monk’s order. She lived the rest of her life in India, becoming a champion of national independence and the nobility of Indian life.
Ruled by the United Kingdom, many women Britons toured India. Mollie Stack came in 1912, learning yoga from a local pandit. After her husband died, she modified what she learned and devised posture sequencing called the “Stretch and Swing” system. Hence, she created flowing posture workouts almost a decade before the “Ashtanga” system, worked out by Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacarya in Mysore.
In Mysore, Krishnamacharya applied yoga to pregnancy and taught the practice to the women of his family as well Indra Devi (see below). His contemporary, Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute outside Bombay in 1924, taught his wife. Sita Devi. She subsequently became the first woman to publish a book on yoga for women, Yoga Simplified for Women of ‘34.
Before Vivekananda came West, Pierre Bernard was trained by a Syrian Tantric in Nebraska beginning in 1888. Bernard later taught his wife yoga. Blanche Devries began to teach some time after 1913 and is the first influential female yoga teacher in America. In 1938, she opened up the first female-owned yoga studio (in New York City). She taught until 1982 and influenced movie star clients and a host of teachers who would influence the practice in later years.
One of these was Rebekah Harkness, though her fame—like Bull and Farmer’s—came from being a great host, rather than a great yogi. She invited B. K. S. Iyengar to America in 1956, and so he made his first visit. Not pleased (he said Americans cared just for three W’s: “Wealth, wine and women”), he did not come again for 17 years, but the precedent had been set. When Mary Palmer hosted B. K. S. in Ann Arbor in ’73, a new crop of powerful female teachers burst onto the scene. Among them was Palmer’s daughter Mary Dunn, plus Patricia Walden, Patricia Sullivan, Rama Jyoti Vernon, and Judith Hanson Lasater.
Iyengar’s yoga was workmanlike, not glamorous, and outside this stream of teachers devoted to Iyengar’s modest style, Indra Devi taught great women of film beginning in 1947. Following DeVries lead, she opened a studio on America’s opposite coast, in Hollywood, where yoga’s promise to “end gray hair and allow neither old age or wrinkles to arise” attracted the backlot’s beauties: Gloria Swanson, Ruth St. Denis and Greta Garbo among others. The Livonian-born Devi showed a communal spirit in her work and toured the world with her skills, landing in Russia, China and South America—where she was much beloved.
One who came to learn from her was already a skilled yogi. Magana Baptiste, a dancer in movies, Miss USA runner-up in 1951, and mother to the great teachers Sherri and Baron Baptiste, opened a gym devoted to bodybuilding and yoga in San Francisco with her husband, Walt, in 1956. Walt, a Mr. America in 1948, taught her the yoga he’d learned from the Paramahansa Yogananda lineage. Magana supplemented this by lessons from Devi in Hollywood and San Francisco—where she hosted her teacher.
Like Sister Nivedita, Devi had been the first Western woman to devote herself to her specific guru (Krishnamacarya), and the Canadian, Swami Sivananda Radha had the same role with her teacher, Swami Sivananda. She saw him in a vision in 1955 and traveled to India to be his chela (student). After taking monastic vows, the Swami routed her back to Canada in ‘56, where she established one of the first Canadian Ashrams, Yasodhara. Significantly, she eschewed any cult of personality by forbidding likenesses of her guru or herself on the estate. Like her mentor, she wrote as easily as she breathed. She founded Ascent Magazine and published close to 30 books in her lifetime.
The explosion of international dialog in yoga was strongly stimulated by Devi (in addition to travel, she wrote books too), but dialog was restrained by immigration law. When the America’s Asian Exclusion Act was rescinded in ‘65, a flood of Eastern teachers came to serve the divine curiosity of the Baby Boomers.
Iyengar yoga came then, too, in the form of his Light on Yoga (in 1966). His practice appealed more to women than Pattabhi Jois’ more athletic Ashtanga form—which arrived in 1975. Ashtanga conscripted mainly male teachers. But when Tim Miller created freestyle vinyasa in the mid-1980s, a door was opened to the spirit of dance. Women then took hold of the flow practice as they had in Mollie Stack’s time.