I had never heard of Indra Devi before I first picked up The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. It turns out that she was an enterprising woman who recreated herself multiple times. Born to a Russian teenage aristocrat in Riga, Latvia in 1899, Indra’s given name was Eugenia Vassilievna. As Goldberg says in the introduction to the book: “The narrative of Devi’s life, however, is much more than the story of yoga in the West. Devi was a Zelig-like figure, an esoteric Forrest Gump who seemed to show up wherever tumultuous world events were unfolding. Her story moves through the Russian Revolution, the cabarets of Weimar Berlin, the Indian independence movement, the World War II Japanese occupation of Shanghai, and Hollywood during its 1950s heyday.”
The Goddess Pose is one of the most fascinating biographies I’ve ever read. I spoke with Michelle Goldberg about how and why she wrote about Indra.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: What made you want to write a biography of Indra Devi? Was it when you came across her obituary in the New York Times?
Michelle Goldberg: I wanted to read a biography of her before I wanted to write it. I talk in the introduction about how I was casting around to figure out the real story behind modern yoga. And at some point I came across her obituary in the New York Times. And what I did in the introduction is I thought oh, I’ll just go read a biography of her and that’ll kind of tell me what it is that I want to know. I like learning about history through either individual lives or kind of narratives in that way.
And so then I found out that there wasn’t one. And for years I would tell my agent “Somebody needs to write this book. You should get someone to write this book. It’s not really the kind of thing that I do, but it’s just out there waiting for someone to do it.” And then I finished my second book in 2008. It was about the global battle of reproductive rights. Both of my first two books were pretty intense political books. Obama had just been elected which made me think stupidly that there was going to be maybe a break from kind of constant political warfare, which had been my subject. I was just burnt out on it, and finally I decided I was going to do this book.
PRH: I’d like to talk about the process behind the book and behind the writing. I’m always interested in how a writer structures a biography. Do you think of each chapter as an individual essay or magazine article? Or do you have to take a look at the narrative as a whole?
MG: So in my first two books, the individual chapters I did think of more as magazine articles and that’s just how I know how to think. But it’s very different when you’re writing a biography just because you have to think about a broader arc. And especially in this book, one of the things I loved is the way characters recur in sort of odd areas. And so someone that she meets incidentally while seeing the Russian Revolution ends up kind of changing her life decades later in New York City. I kind of always had that in mind and also always had in mind certain themes and the way her kind of search for a savior or the way she’s kind of…her statelessness, and how that went from being a sort of political to a spiritual condition.
So on some level I did still think of the different chapters…I was trying in each one to create kind of a different world. And that’s why some of them I sort of back into them. For example in Hollywood part of the reason I started with that whole backstory about the buildings she was living in, it’s because yeah, I felt like I was almost trying to create these discrete little – not little, but discrete sort of dioramas or something. But I would say –I don’t know that I have a process as much as…you sort of discover your process while you’re doing it.
PRH: I think that’s the way a lot of writers work. And it’s interesting just now when you were talking about in the Hollywood chapter. I noticed that throughout your book you have so much historical context that’s not just about her life. You talk about silent films in India which of course she was involved in as an actress. But you give a larger context of things that were happening around her. And I’m wondering how you decide which historical context you include, because there must be many fascinating facts you came across while researching that you couldn’t include in the book.
MG: I mean, again, to me it was just kind of what I felt was most interesting, what I felt like I was able to weave in without it being — without it feeling kind of too awkwardly shoehorned in. And then the other thing, to be perfectly honest, is that there’s not…you know, the historical record when it comes to her life is a little bit thin, right?
PRH: Exactly, yeah.
MG: I had her memoir which is kind of incredibly short and selective. The book that was ultimately written about her in Spanish, which again, just from reading it I can kind of tell that she’s the only source in it or the only source for it. You know, I had her CIA files. I had, you know, everything that I could find. I interviewed a lot of people. But it was still thin…in the Shanghai chapter, for example, there were just gaps in what I knew that she was doing in those eight years. So one of the ways I tried to I don’t want to say fill it because it makes it sound like filler, but try to kind of understand her, was to figure out everything that I could about the people that she knew and the place that she lived. And yeah, and the kind of time that she was living in.
And then the other thing I would say is I also see her being interesting not just for her own accomplishments but as I said in the introduction as this sort of like strange sideways guide to the 20th century, you know? And the way she kind of stumbles into all of these cataclysmic world events is one of the things I was most interested about her from the start.
PRH: Absolutely, and that segues into one of my questions which I was going to ask. You don’t always speak positively of her in the book. At one point, in the introduction I think it was, you said “I see her as a complicated, audaciously modern, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes maddeningly irresponsible woman, not as a spiritual exemplar.” So why is that? And do you think it would be hard to write a biography of someone if you were just in complete awe of them and didn’t examine their flaws as well?
MG: I feel like the more you learn about someone, the more demystified they’re going to be for you, for good or for ill. And so I’m not sure if there is a person out there who kind of survives being the subject of a biography with their untouchable aura intact.
MG: I mean in some cases I found it difficult, because I felt like these are things that are not just appalling but actually hard for me to relate to. Kind of like really hard for me to even imagine.
PRH: Like what?
MG: Well particularly the way she treated her second husband, kind of dragging him to India and leaving him while she kind of goes off gallivanting. And for her, that wasn’t even something she felt guilty about. It was something that was kind of completely justified by her own philosophy of non-attachment…but because I am a pretty skeptical person, I feel like that was the hardest part of her mentality to access that sort of unshakable faith.
PRH: In many ways her reinvention of herself is a survival mechanism. I want to know if it was difficult to write about someone who spent so much time looking for the positive in everything. She reimagined things the way she wanted them to be such as when she was happy to be in prison with her mother in Poland because it gave her some precious time to spend with her absent mother, who was always traveling and acting and not around.
MG: I think what was difficult was knowing how much to trust that, right? I mean I think that she to some extent — and I guess everybody is an unreliable narrator of their own lives. And it was so…it was sort of the opposite of the way people write memoirs today, where kind of every trauma is exaggerated and dwelled upon. I think it was such a different way of being in the world. I didn’t always trust it. Like I actually don’t believe that. Well, you see, I don’t really believe that was the kind of an adventure in the way she describes it. I think it was actually kind of harrowing and horrible. And yet at the same time, when I talk to people who knew her, they really did say that they never — I think Shama told me the only time she had ever seen her cry or seem really sad or really express any kind of vulnerability was when her husband died, or when her second husband died. She had achieved a level of detachment that, to me as a secular grasping sort of ordinary, neurotic writer, I just can’t access that state of consciousness.
PRH: What do you think gave her the ability to — I’m putting this in your own words as you say in the book, “observe the world’s flux with smiling detachment?”
MG: I think that it was a spiritual practice that she had cultivated over her entire lifetime, right? That’s kind of a big part of the precept of yoga, at least as it’s been understood in modern eras, in modern times. And she really practiced and mastered that. And so it’s kind of an exemplar of what kind of a faithful yoga practice can do.
PRH: Yes. Yeah. And she was born into an aristocratic family. Do you think she was able to accomplish everything she did over her very long life because of the initial privilege that she had as a very young child?
MG: Yes. Not because — but I should say not really because of having money, because they lost everything pretty quickly. But because she had this aristocratic bearing that never left her. And I think one of the things that’s true in the world is unto those who have much, more shall be given. And so you can imagine when somebody seems like an aristocrat, other aristocrats, whether that means members of colonial society, members of various Indian royal families, all sorts of people just saw her very naturally as one of their own and so would offer her all sorts of hospitalities and would open doors for her. So she always had just a sort of…you know, an almost supernatural ability to make people want to do things for her.
PRH: Yeah, and that’s something that someone who obviously wasn’t born with that kind of background would probably not have access to even, that knowledge.
MG: Right, or that sort of natural bearing.
PRH: Why do you think yoga has become one of the most significant ways of staying healthy and such a cultural phenomenon?
MG: For one thing, I think it really does work, and it really does a lot for people. And I think more than that, I think I kind of hinted at this, it answers a number of needs at once. So on the one hand, it’s kind of exercise or what they used to call physical culture. On the other, the kind of discipline of trying not to let your thoughts spiral out into all sorts of directions is kind of similar to what people practice in cognitive therapy which is effective. But the ritual and the community of classes, I think, give something to people who otherwise don’t have a lot of the consolations of religion in their lives.
And also, I think that finally so much of our sense right now…I think a lot of I don’t want to say emotion, but maybe attitudes that used to be expressed in terms of religion like feeling guilty or unclean or kind of aspiring to perfection, those used to be kind of religious attitudes. And I think we’ve sort of redirected them onto our physical selves? So speaking for myself, right, all of my sense of sin is about thinking in exercise as opposed to sex or impure thoughts or anything like that. And so yoga I think kind of addresses those things right at the root. It’s a way of kind of accommodating ourselves to our bodies. I think it makes sense that there’s a huge sense of sin and guilt attached to bodies and the shape of our bodies, that that would also be like sort of the locust of a sense of cleansing and redemption might be too strong a word. A kind of setting of all that stuff.
PRH: Do you feel more attached to your yoga practice after writing this book, and particularly writing about Indra?
MG: I’d just say that my relationship to yoga has probably changed for other reasons. I had no kids when I started writing the book and now I have two and so it’s just harder for me. So now I go like two times a week, three times a week at most, instead of five times a week. But I think that what’s changed is that, you know, on the one hand maybe my practice is less intense but I have less of…I have a lot less anxiety about the authenticity of yoga which I think that anybody who kind of takes yoga in — you know, a city like New York, and is not a full-blown believer, sort of wonders if how much of what they say is really true and wonders if it’s really okay to be combining Pilates or doing it to kind of indie rock.
You know, there’s I think a constant feeling that maybe it’s being too far adulterated and kind of knowing that it’s always been an East/West sort of modern fusion and a modern phenomenon makes me feel much more comfortable with how it’s being modernized even further. So, for example, I practice at a studio called Prema in Brooklyn and the teachers there who are these amazing women have developed their own sequence that they use. Like several times a week, different teachers there teach this same sequence. I don’t know if you do yoga, but there’s an asana sequence that’s the same every time. And I think it’s possible that before I might’ve thought who are they to think they can make something up? And now I feel like they — like much more strongly that they have every right to innovate in this, and people have been innovating in this tradition a lot.
PRH: And that’s part of what it’s about kind of.
MG: Yeah, exactly. So by doing that they’re actually part of a tradition. They’re not sort of adulterating the tradition.