Yoga emerged as a discipline on the Indian subcontinent about 5000 years ago, a product of the combined teachings of ancient Hindu scripture, Jain and Buddhist practices. Before propagating like dandelion seeds in the form of a class at every local gym, yoga was originally taught as a philosophical approach to living that included certain physical prescriptions — the poses — in its teachings. Over the course of its history, the body practice has been one of the most easily exportable components of yoga, followed distantly by breathing practices (pranayama) and meditation.
There were many factors that contributed to the persistence of this culturally specific and ancient practice. A Westward push by Indian masters such as Swami Vivekananda, who in 1893 brought yoga to the Chicago’s Parliament of Religions, as well as efforts within India by Swami Sivananda and T. Krishnamacharya, would ensure that yogic information would merge with calisthenics and other practices. These specifications of the sequence and use of asanas or poses, began to evolve in the hands of main students and disciples — people like BKS Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois, and TVS Desikachar — who became directors of their own yoga schools or “lineages” of yoga philosophy and practice. At its inception, yoga as we know it now was handed down from one man to another for the first 4920 years of its history.
Indra Devi, née Eugenie Peterson, broke this pattern. Born in Latvia and raised in Berlin, Peterson became a dancer and actress, pursuing training in both of those fields. On a parallel track, she developed a fascination with India when she read the poetry of Tagore as an adolescent. As soon as she was able to, she traveled to India and adopted the stage name “Indra Devi,” quickly rising to fame in Bollywood. Her success in the already bustling Indian film industry in the 1920s would bring her into the same rooms as elite individuals, such as the Czech financial attaché, Jan Stratansky, whom she married in 1930.
Her partnership with Stratansky would prove to be fateful, as yoga, especially yoga asana was considered to be raja yoga or the royal yoga. It was precisely their privilege and connections that would bring the couple to the Maharishi’s palace, where T. Krishamacharya himself, the so-called father of modern yoga, had been enlisted to teach yoga to a select group of students. She expressed an interest in attending the classes, but Krishnamacharya refused, on the basis of her sex and ethnicity. Though it is not entirely clear why, her perseverance eventually mollified the yoga master, who not only provided her instruction in yoga but taught her how to teach, a model that would carry on for another century into the modernity of the corner studio’s yoga teacher training program. In a single move, Indra Devi broke the taboo against both women and Westerners learning and teaching yoga.
Yoga was becoming popular amongst the very elite outside of India and when the couple went on work assignment to China. During their tenure there, she gave yoga classes to intimate groups in the sitting room of Madame Chiang Kaishek, wife of the populist leader. Upon their return to India, she went on to write and publish her first book about yoga became known as the first Westerner ever to teach yoga in India, shattering yet another ceiling. After her husband died, she emigrated to Hollywood, and opened the first studio in Beverly Hills. Classes were frequented by Hollywood stars, who after World War II were open to imported methodologies to improve their own craft.
When she became an America citizen she legally changed her name to Indra Devi. This was the name she became known around the world, all the way from Russia to Argentina, where she died at the age of 102 having taught for decades and opened 6 studios. She had inhabited spaces from where women and Westerners were typically excluded, and in this final chapter of her life, she started breaking down different barriers, finally introducing royal yoga to somewhat more regular people. Though it is easy to see that we have come a way from 1947 when Greta Garbo might have been the only one who could afford a private class with Indra Devi, we still have much road ahead in bringing yoga to everyone who needs it. Perhaps it’s time for the next Indra Devi.
Enter Nicole Cardoza. A refreshing face to grace the pages of Yoga Journal, Cardoza breaks a barrier just by being present as a woman of color. This is not to single out Yoga Journal, who have been putting in an effort to diversify their mostly white, slim, female cover models. If yoga apparel brands, studio packages, and Instagram challenges seem to pander to a particular post-Indra Devi yoga demographic, it’s not just your impression. It is a reflection of what is often happening in studios.
A psychosocial and demographic study of yoga practitioners in the U.S. and England (the two largest yoga communities in the diaspora) published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine concludes that “these studies present a picture of the typical yoga practitioner as female, upper socioeconomic status, educated, middle-aged and White. The predominance of this profile among yoga practitioners selecting to practice is likely due to a combination of opportunity and culture.” Researchers controlled for other factors including age, health-level, and sexual orientation. The picture that emerges is that of a new norm in which yoga students and teachers are now overwhelmingly Western and female. What hasn’t changed much since Indra Devi is the privilege.
As any of us who have walked into a yoga class can attest, most of the representation in the room is white and female, even in places with far more diverse populations and the optics are part of the limitation. The study concluded that lack of role models is one of the contributors to far reduced popularity amongst non-whites, as well as geographic and economic inaccessibility. Again, if you check the link to any local yoga center, you’ll notice most classes happen before or after work, many running over an hour in length. Add that to the cost of parking, child care, missed work, and upwards of $20 drop-in fee, and yoga becomes prohibitive to many.
Before any of us fall into the rabbit hole of blaming studios (who struggle to pay their overhead) or yoga teachers (who even in the best of cases have unsteady incomes and rarely any benefits), we must take a step back and realize the situation is ancient and deep-seated. The whole system is self-perpetuating in its existing model and if we want to spread the benefits of yoga, we have to move outside of this box. One might even despair and think: let it be that way — let’s allow the yoga industry to both flourish under the loving wing of white privilege and be beholden to it, too. Why bother changing anything?
The answer is also found in the demographic health study. Yoga practice consistently proves itself beneficial to all order of cardiac, vascular, nervous, and even gastric disorders. It provides healthy aerobic stimulation necessary in every stage of life. This particular study even cites the positive impact of yoga on mental health, with one big standout: yoga has been shown to work effectively in cases of body dysmorphia and disordered eating, one of the most difficult psychological conditions to treat. So yoga is at once this salve for the things that ail us all, not just white yuppies, but it’s also sold in a way that structurally excludes entire categories of people, especially low-income kids.
The inaccessibility of yoga as it’s taught today is a side result of this study and we may feel frustrated that there is no way to turn its fixed data into variables. We can’t alter demographics, but then tucked in between the good (yoga’s benefits) and the bad (undemocratic dissemination) was a simple phrase that put it into better perspective: “Yoga practice is strongly and consistently linked with education.” No, we can’t relocate the yoga studio from one neighborhood to another; we can’t cut the price of lessons as we know them because studio owners and teachers also have to live. What we can do is combat the irregularity of yoga’s spread by bringing it into the spaces that exist beyond its current reach, to empower those who can teach it there to do so.
Back to Nicole Cardoza. I imagine that if she could, she would personally bring yoga and its principles to every elementary school in the country. Instead, she figured out a more efficient method when she founded the non-profit organization Yoga Foster, devoted to bringing yoga techniques and practices into the hands of educators at public schools all around the country. The organization’s website features teaching resources and training videos, all made accessible to subscribers for a low monthly fee. Currently, Yoga Foster serves teachers in every state as an instructional hub that essentially recreates the classroom teacher as also a yoga instructor, to the great benefit of both the students and classroom management.
This approach, to bring yoga to the mountain rather than the mountain to an unsuitable yoga class, has allowed Cardoza to translate the benefits of yoga into age-appropriate results. The wonderful confluence of children’s education and yoga is synergistic, with teachers who use Cardoza’s platform reporting improved concentration, better coordination, and greater equanimity than typical for the six-to-twelve-year-old set.
These benefits can’t be overstated and have led to Cardoza being recognized in both yoga publications and Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. Rightfully so because Cardoza isn’t simply producing a peaceable lesson plan; she is changing the plan altogether. Introducing populations of children to yoga at an early age in effect changes the question of accessibility because now all of these future adults know it exists, know it to be a “tool for self-inquiry,” as Cardoza puts it, and this is how we start to have representation within and, eventually, demand for wellness education. The end result is not just to give the power to the teachers to transmit this information without requiring the exigences of privilege, but to give it to the children themselves, that they will grow to advocate for it for themselves and others, to fully inhabit the space of yoga, and ultimately make for all. This is how we change the demographics.
Unsurprisingly, Yoga Foster is not Cardoza’s only great idea. Her website identifies her first and foremost as an entrepreneur. Browsing through her various offerings, she appears a sort of Uber-educator, one as capable of speaking to a room full of adults who need some career coaching, as she could quiet down a different room full of grade-schoolers with some engaging breathing exercises. Recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Cardoza has achieved recognition because not only has she mastered the crafts she has set out to — teaching yoga, motivational speaking, career coaching, consulting — but at still a young age she is helping to redefine yoga instruction for non-privileged future adults concurrently with guiding career opportunities for non-privileged current adults.
There is a connection between these seemingly disparate worlds. It is her own personal experience that fuels Cardoza’s double passion for empowering female entrepreneurs with advice and underserved kids with yoga. As a young adult starting out, Cardoza craved the wellness that yoga brought her but it was not affordable to her at that moment. Her own dance to bring herself afloat as a professional woman of color and to keep yoga in her life connected her to these projects, both of which fulfill her motto/manifesto: to be all for the “reclamation of wellness.”
Once the homegrown medicine of ascetic Indian men and now, too often, an exclusive privilege, yoga has been scientifically and anecdotally shown to produce beneficial and preventative effects on those who practice it. Children, who are primed to learn good habits to carry them through, derive clear gains from practicing yoga. Nicole Cardoza figured out a way to make the spread of this beneficial discipline far more egalitarian, using technology and the pedagogical skills of low-income school teachers to provide dozens of kids a very well-rounded education, one that addresses their socio-emotional regulation in a world of high stress, low support, and many demands.
Cardoza’s very presence in the conversation is crucial to opening up this side of education to all. In representing demographics typically excluded from yoga consumption, she is a constant reminder that the days of raja yoga are past. We are all deserving of lower blood pressure, better self-regulation, and greater self-appreciation. An activity that requires no more equipment than simply a body to become aware of, lungs to fill with breath, and a mind to calm, should not be beyond the reach of anyone.