Women in Yoga: A Short History

This entry was posted on Mar 8, 2018 by Charlotte Bell.

Women in Yoga

Walk into almost any yoga asana class and the first thing you’ll notice is that the overwhelming majority of students are women. For at least some of yoga’s history, practice was the purview of men, and women were expected to focus on home life. But contrary to a longstanding myth, historical evidence shows that in some circles, women have been yoginis all along.

Popular yoga lore claims that women weren’t allowed to practice yoga until 50 years ago. There is, in fact, historical evidence that in the Vedic tradition, women were discouraged from practice, and were not allowed to become priests. But depending on how you define yoga, the idea that women were barred from practice and teaching is not accurate.

According to an article by Ramesh Bjonnes, titled “Women and Yoga: Dispelling a Myth,” women have been allowed to practice yoga for thousands of years, at least in the areas of India where Tantric Yoga was prevalent. If you consider yoga to be more than simply postures, and instead include chanting, ecstatic dance and meditation—all part of the yoga tradition—women have been practicing for a very long time.

Consider this, from Bjonnes’s article:

“The Bauls of Bengal are ecstatic singers, dancers and meditators who have wandered all over India since the Middle Ages. Many of the Baul ecstatics are women, and some of them became well known yoginis and gurus, including the well known-teachers Ananda Mai Ma, Arcanapuri Ma, and Laksmi Ma.

“The number of female yoga adepts may have been considerably higher in India’s past, however, when Tantra was more commonplace. Acclaimed yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein writes in his book The Yoga Tradition:

“‘Allama Praphudeva [a tantric yogi from the Natha tradition] was a contemporary of Basava (1120-1168 CE) and the head of an order that included three hundred realized practitioners, sixty of whom are said to have been women.‘”

Pioneering Women in Yoga

Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, was credited with introducing yoga and Vedanta to the world outside India when he spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. But it wasn’t long before curiosity about yoga began to spread in the U.S., among both men and women.

Here’s a very short, and by no means exhaustive, tribute to three pioneering women whose love of yoga led them to share the practice in the early days:

  1. Blanche Devries is credited with opening the very first female-owned yoga studio in the country. Taught by her husband, famed (and controversial) yoga teacher Pierre Bernard, Devries began teaching yoga sometime after 1913. She opened her studio in New York City In 1938. She taught until 1982 and influenced movie star clients and many teachers who would influence the practice in later years.
  2. Indra Devi is probably the best known of the progenitors of modern yoga in the West. Born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia in 1899, Indra Devi became entranced with India after reading several books on Eastern philosophy. She eventually moved to India and, after developing a heart issue, asked T. Krishnamacharya to teach her. At first he refused on grounds that she was a Westerner and a woman. Eventually he agreed to teach her, and later supported her in her aspiration to teach. In 1946 she opened a yoga school in Hollywood, CA, that attracted many of the movie industry’s luminaries. Indra Devi passed away in 2002. On a personal note, my very first yoga teacher, June Bains, was a direct student of Indra Devi.
  3. Lilias Folan may not have been the first yogini in the U.S., but it’s arguable that she was the first to share the benefits to the vast mainstream. Often called “The First Lady of Yoga,” Lilias taught yoga to PBS fans across the country for almost 30 years. Lilias’s show, “Lilias, Yoga and You,” began in Cincinnati in 1970. Three years later, it was picked up by PBS and broadcast nationally until 1999. Since then Lilias has written three books, including the popular Lilias! Yoga Gets Better with Age.

Since these pioneering women brought awareness of yoga to the West, many, many more wise, creative female teachers have brought yoga to the more than 36.7 million practitioners in this country (according to a 2016 study). According to the same study, conducted on behalf of Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, 72 percent of U.S. yoga practitioners are women.

Many years ago, a senior Iyengar teacher/colleague of mine remembered B.K.S. Iyengar expressing the opinion that women are smarter than men. When asked about his reasons for saying this, he replied. “Because so many more women practice yoga!” Whatever the reason for the prevalence of yoginis these days, it’s inspiring to think about where today’s pioneering women in yoga, and those to come, will take the practice we love.

If you’re interested in the topic of women in yoga, here are some articles to check out:

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.