Shattering Stereotypes: Celebrating the Women Pioneers of Modern Yoga

When people on the internet say, “Yoga should be taken back to its roots….”


Also, WHAT?!?!! Listen, I *GET* what they are trying to say, and it’s that we Westerners have screwed with the basics, origins, philosophies, and meaning of yoga and made it into a workout class. I totally get that, I’ve seen it firsthand, and I’ve done it firsthand. 

Yoga started as philosophy, not movement. 

I’d like to remind you I write this blog, Erin Cummings a white, privileged woman on International Women’s Day, these blogs are my opinion sprinkled in with some facts. There’s still so much sh*t I need to work on when it comes to my own work of being a white-privileged female and that is work that will be lifelong. And YES, at yoga studios in general as a whole - yoga is definitely advertised and dominated now by women just like me - cute, funny, charming, jk but in all seriousness its marketed to and seems like its really only for privileged, white, and thin women.

But, I’d like to take this opportunity and this blog post to do something a little different for International Women’s Day, I’d like to share this article (thanks to Lauren Dawson) that celebrates the 4 women who helped transition yoga out of a male-dominated practice. I learned a ton of stuff in this article and the names of these important women, and I’m going to share it with you. 

What’s really interesting about the “yoga should be taken back to it’s roots” comments I hear, there can be many underlying discussions and meanings, but where I see major problems is the lack of women. 

Originally and still is believed by some, that women shouldn’t practice yoga when they are on their period, or at least for the first 3 days of their cycles. The scientific reason for this is if you were to have major cramps or pelvic pain some poses can exacerbate your symptoms - as with any other tweak or injury in life, however, it is also scientifically proven that many poses can help with the relief of these same symptoms.

So, what is with the chip on my shoulder? Well, I have a lot of chips but this one in particular bothers me as a woman, as a female entrepreneur of a yoga studio, and as a practitioner of yoga. I can’t speak for other women, especially other women of color in my studio, but I can speak for myself anytime I hear “we need to take yoga back to it’s roots….” I’m always like damn - that wipes out my entire yoga studio, except for the two dudes. 

While YESyoga isn’t only for women, we clearly have A LOT of women clientele. That’s no secret, that’s marketing and advertising, but really that’s the entrepreneurial business side of end-user profiles and target audiences at work. At YESyoga, we are for the woman who has to make too many f*cking decisions - come to YES where there’s only 1 thing you have to do - decide which class to take, and we’ve made it pretty easy for you.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day here are 4 women who made a huge impact on yoga to shift the balance of power from men to women (for a full article and not my summary, click that link back up top to read.) Once again, huge shoutout to Lauren Dawson, for always being such a great resource of information - she loves it when I mention her in these emails….ha! But seriously, I’m just quoting my sources ya know LD.  

  1. Indra Devi - Born in Latvia, moved from China to California in 1947, she was practicing BEFORE B.K.S. Iyengar wrote “Light on yoga.” From the article: She’d cracked a centuries-old glass ceiling by becoming the first woman—and first Westerner—to study with Indian yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, opened China’s first yoga school, and returned to India to teach yoga to Indians themselves before making her way to America.

What I found interesting about her and this section of the article was that Krishnamacharaya didn’t even want a woman as a student, and had to be talked into it by a royal patron. She was known for a more gentler approach than her male counterparts and was focused on teaching about unconditional love. She lived to be 103 and died in Buenos Aires in 1985 (that’s just two years before I was born.)

  1. Swami Sivananda Radha - Born Sylvia Hellman in 1911 in Berlin, she had a crazy start in life. Two husbands, both killed - one was murdered because of helping Jews leave Germany and the other died of a stroke. She only went to India searching for meaning of life because of what happened and was told to go back home and start an ashram. 

In the article, it states: “We called ourselves Snow White and the seven dwarfs,” she told Yoga Journal in 1981. In time, more and more women found their way to Yasodhara, drawn by courses like “Women and Spiritual Life” and Swami Radha’s strength of character. Today, they outnumber the men. Two years before she died in 1995, Swami Radha named a woman, Swami Radhananda, as her spiritual successor and decreed that a woman should always remain behind the spiritual wheel at Yasodhara. 

The part of the article for Swami Sivananda Radha I loved, was that her guru compared her life to a headstand. “She sees the world in a completely different way, Also, from this perspective, you can’t go anywhere. You can’t walk away.” From there, she developed a practice called Hidden Language Hatha Yoga, and talked about how the pose itself might reveal something about their life.  

  1. Lilas Folan - Dubbed “The Julia Child of Yoga,” she brought yoga into everyone’s living room on PBS in the 1970s. This part of the article cracked me up, and honestly I kinda wonder how many doctors still say sh*t like this today: Folan was herself a young mother when she turned to yoga in the mid-’60s. Not sleeping well wasn’t the worst of her problems. Her back bothered her, and she tired easily. She smoked half a pack of cigarettes a day. She had a fine husband, two sons, a house with a white picket fence, and even a boat, but she couldn’t escape what she describes as a “gloom cloud.” She went to her doctor, hoping to “solve it all with pills,” but instead he prescribed exercise. “You are suffering from a case of the blahs,” he concluded.

She was the original “Peloton” instructor. Think about it, she had to teach and be intentional with her teachings because she was teaching to a camera and couldn’t see her students. They have a whole training for teaching to the camera now - the digital fitness space is now a $21 Billion industry and is projected to get to $82 Billion by 2028 (this includes fitness devices, fitness subscription models, and by end users like gyms and other companies.) The revenue of the yoga industry alone is based on findings from Statista for the US in 2020: $11.56 Billion. 

Folan also recognizes yoga has changed a lot, especially with the athleisure and fitness apparel industries (my assumption based on a quote she made in the article) but she said it’s essentially the same. “It’s not about the down dog,” Folan says. “That’s the outer shell of you and me. It’s about answering the question: Who am I? Who am I really?”

  1. Geeta (Geetaji) Iyengar - OKAY PEOPLE the article literally states here under her name: When Geeta Iyengar (known as Geetaji) began teaching in the early 1960s, very few Indians felt that women should practice yoga, much less teach it to others. She spent a lot of time answering questions like, Will standing on the head prevent a woman from getting pregnant?

…back to the summary of Geeta Iyengar…

She does happen to be the oldest daughter of BKS Iyengar… she was always around yoga, because of her father, but she stood about because she started to specialize in the needs of women practitioners. What I loved about this part of the article was the realistic view that was given and her point of view of a dedicated practice. She and the article says, “‘The demands on me have made it impossible to be completely regular,” she once said. “For men it is different. They can be strict with their program…because there is somebody supporting them.’

So, while I celebrate all of the amazing women at the studio today. I can’t help but also celebrate and thank those who came before me so that I could even own and operate a yoga studio today! Thank you for being a part of my life and I hope to keep letting the next generation of women stand on my shoulders just as these four women have done for me. 

Happy International Women’s Day! 


PS This blog will be taking Spring Break next week too! Hope you enjoy your week ahead. 

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