Book Review: The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg
While perusing the aisles of Powell's City of Books in Portland, OR (as you do EVERY time you visit Portland) I made my way over to the yoga
section. My initial intent was to find a guided journal to log my practice, answer posed questions and reflect on suggested topics. Unfortunately, I couldn't find what I was looking for, but my eyes kept glossing over The Goddess Pose, a biography of Indra Devi.
The First Lady of Yoga
I remember being quickly "briefed" on Indra Devi's monumental contribution to yoga's introduction to the United States in the mid 20th century, as a woman no less. Up until then, women generally were not allowed to train with the yoga masters of India, but Indra Devi found a way. But beyond that, I really knew nothing of her. The Goddess Pose seemed to be calling me as it stared back from the bookshelf, so I spent ten bucks and took it home with me. My yoga journal would just have to come from Amazon.
For a biography that bounces from place to place, person to person, and from one major historical event to another, The Goddess Pose does an excellent job of summarizing Indra Devi's life, while remaining a fairly fast read. The reader is not forced to dwell terribly long on individual facts. You learn early on that Indra Devi (who went through a variety of names, this being her last) was one who never stayed in one place or one mindset for very long, at least in the first half of her life. Goldberg clearly dug deep to find all of the names and places of Indra Devi's life, as there are MANY. That fact seems to be the major complaint I have read about this book. There are many people introduced in this book from a large cultural spectrum and it can be difficult to keep track. One should not expect to just read about her time in Los Angeles working with the stars and making yoga "mainstream". That's actually a very small portion of her story. The book examines Indra Devi's life along a timeline of historical and world events. So it could read like there are ignored gaps of information about her accomplishments between these major events, feeling a bit jumpy literary wise. However, I found that this method of organizing the biography worked for me, diving head-first into one specific time period and place, making it easy for me to imagine the surroundings and keep up with the people of her life at the moment.
And it does seem that Indra Devi truly lived moment to moment. I found myself sometimes getting frustrated with her lack of consistency in life choices and relationships, but then at the same time envious. Her ability to move forward from a seemingly tumultuous childhood and history is something to be admired. Compared to my own life, it would appear that Indra Devi's life was extremely chaotic, complicated, and full of destruction, but yet she seems to have lived in such a peaceful headspace, thus me feeling captivated by this unapologetic and charismatic yogini. The book left me craving to learn more about her and about the yoga of her time, as it is clearly presented by Goldberg that yoga has always been an ever-changing practice.
Which leads me to my next reason for loving this book: the history. Indra Devi's personal history is only a small part of it. Goldberg does a wonderful job of giving mini history lessons about the Russian Revolution, WWI, WWII, the Vietnam war, (just to name a few conflicts) and the history of yoga and where it stands today in comparison. Indra Devi was also an actor, like me, so there was a lot to be read about her life as a young Russian actress fleeing from one place to another to avoid political conflict and war. I was able to connect so much on a personal level as I read about her discovery of yoga after a life of acting and got a few extra itches of self-pride when I recognized names such as Chekhov, Stanislavski and the like.
If you're a true history buff, don't go into this book thinking you will come out as an expert about anything in particular, but one can appreciate the breadth of information included by Goldberg. It was just enough to make me feel more educated without diving into a textbook level of detail.
There were several eye-opening lessons on some of the darker sides to yoga's history, though it seems unavoidable in any body of "practice" or "worship". You learn of gurus who committed crimes or used their power to manipulate the masses. You read of discrimination and unfair treatment, but the potential reader should not be fearful of losing their perspective on the peaceful practice of yoga that we all know and love. It is good to remember that yoga's lotus flower has worked it's way up through darkness and murky waters to the surface, where light and warmth reside. Being mindful of where yoga has been and where it is going
will keep us rooted in the present practice, experiences, and how we approach obstacles day by day.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and I think anyone who practices yoga and wishes to learn more about yoga would benefit greatly from this book. Indra Devi's life is a testament to the everlasting curiosity of the power of our thoughts and mindsets, using our yoga practice to shape and manipulate them so as to live peacefully in the present.
Take a little peek at Indra Devi's life here from Yoga Journal.