The Polish Women of Yoga
#language & literature
full-width, The Polish Women of Yoga, Malina Michalska leading a yoga class, Warsaw, 1969, photo: Jakub Grelowski / PAP, center, malina_michalska_1969_pap.jpg
Yoga came to Poland with the help of women. And there are many stories about them… Supposedly, one woman poured water from the Ganges River into the Morskie Oko Lake and taught the Dalai Lama himself. Another enchanted poets and combined yoga with ballet.
How did yoga get to Poland?
Before we begin our story about these extraordinary women, let’s return to the first years of the 20th century. Although yoga is now a cornerstone of a millennial lifestyle, its popularity in Poland began much earlier. In 1909, a book with one of the longest titles in Polish history came out: Rozwój Potęgi Woli Przez Psychofizyczne Ćwiczenia Według Dawnych Aryjskich Tradycji Oraz Własnych Swoich Doświadczeń Podaje do Użytku Rodaków Wincenty Lutosławski (Development of Willpower through Psycho-physical Exercises According to Ancient Aryan Traditions as Well as My Own Experiences I, Wincenty Lutosławski, Give to My Countrymen). Its author, a philosopher and columnist, was the uncle of Witold Lutosławski, the famed composer. The author created this pioneering work as a result of his deep search for a method of improving his health, as he suffered both physically and mentally – he was plagued by a weakened system and neurotic disorders. Lutosławski tried out conventional medicine, massage, hypnosis, even prayer. All for naught.
Only after spending hours in the British Library, one of the best libraries in the world, did Lutosławski find a path to psychological and physical healing. The answer turned out to be asanas, yoga poses, as well as pranayamas, breathing exercises. ‘We bring rhythm to life – soon it will be full of harmony’, wrote Lutosławski in Development of Willpower…
What’s interesting is that his London research was not Lutosławski’s first brush with Hindu practices. At the tail end of the 19th century, he took part in a Chicago meeting with Indian Hindu monk Vivekananda, who introduced Hinduism to the ‘West’. At the time, Lutosławski described the participants as ‘cult members’. A few years later, one could say, yoga saved his life.
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The esoteric bug
Lutosławski will return later to this story. The philosopher was definitely a pioneer when it comes to propagating a Hindu-influenced lifestyle, a combination of abstinence (from alcohol, nicotine and some types of food) and physical and breathing exercises. Yet the real link between the culture that created Gandhi and Poland was Wanda Dynowska.
Dynowska first got the mysticism ‘bug’ as a child. Eustachy and Helena Dynowskis’ home often hosted writers and artists. Thanks to them, Wanda met Tadeusz Miciński, one of the most expressive poets of the Young Poland movement – he was fascinated by Gnosticism, mysticism, spirituality and was a member of the pre-World War I Warsaw Theosophical Society.
His interests shaped young Dynowska’s worldview; as a teenager, she already believed in reincarnation, and devoted her time to lectures about esotericism and religion. In later years, her childhood fascination will turn into a path that delivers her before Mahatma Gandhi.
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First, however, Dynowska’s interests led her to theosophy. During World War I she joined the Italian Theosophical Society, believing that it would be possible to create something similar in Poland. She asked permission from Annie Besant herself, the president of the International Theosophical Society. Supposedly, in order to meet with Besant in Paris, she pawned her own jewellery. In Paris, she met the famous philosopher Krishnamurti. From Besant she received written permission and returned with a unique amulet: a light-green peridot of considerable size. Before Dynowska and Besant, it belonged to Helena Bławatska, the Russian founder of the Theosophical Society as well as a writer and occultist.
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Her theosophical interest went hand-in-hand with her research into Hindu texts. It’s important to know that theosophy included an interest in various religions and forms of spirituality. In 1935, Dynowska visited India for a theosophists’ convention. Certainly she didn’t expect that the country she journeyed to would become the place where she would spend the rest of her life. When the war began, she attempted to return to Europe, yet her attempts at receiving a visa for any European country were fruitless. She returned to India, which soon became her second homeland. There, in the second half of the 1930s, she became acquainted with Gandhi, and their friendship and ideals of freedom bonded the two. He’s the one who gave her the name Umadevi, or Luminous Spirit.
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After the death of her guru in 1948 (in her letters, she referred to him as ‘Bapu’, or father), Dynowska turned her attention in full to the Polish-Indian Library that was recently founded in Madras. In concert with Maurycy Frydman, a Polish Jew who immigrated to India at a similar time to Dynowska, she accomplished incredible feats: as an editor, translator, copyeditor and publisher, she completed dozens of works related to culture and religion in India, including – obviously – writing about yoga.
The Polish-Indian Library published works from Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Helena Bławatska and Vivekananda. Dynowska also translated one of Hinduism’s famous religious texts, the Bhagavad Gita, which was published in Madras under the title Bhagavad Gita: Pieśń Pana (Bhagavad Gita: The Lord’s Song). The library’s crowning achievement, however, was the monumental, six-tome Antologia Indyjska (Indian Anthology), dedicated to Sanskrit and containing Gandhi’s texts. In 1960, then-bishop Karol Wojtyła received a copy of Antologia from Dynowska. Legend states that she told him he would become the first Slavic Pope.
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What’s interesting is that her work as a disseminator of culture also included Polish culture – Dynowska translated (among others) Jan Kochanowski’s poetry into English. In one of her letters, she described her work as a ‘bridge, built out of books, between the souls of India and Poland’. The Polish-Indian Library, the brainchild of Polish immigrants, existed for almost three decades and was instrumental in spreading Indian culture in Poland.
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Wrapped in a sari, a traditional Indian dress, with a bindi painted on (a sacred Hindu dot on the forehead, or the chakra of the third eye), Dynowska-Umadevi was eccentric enough to cause unease in Polish authorities. Poland was at the time under communist rule, and the government saw her as a French spy, keeping a close eye on her two visits back to her homeland: in 1960 and 1969 (both times she was on an intensive tour around the country, spreading the word of her spiritual gurus).
After her first visit, Dynowska began working on behalf of Tibetan orphans, deciding to visit Dharamshala, which became the headquarters of the 14th Dalai Lama after a failed uprising against China. At the time, Umadevi had become closer to Buddhism, and the Polish-Indian Library took to publishing texts related to Tibet. When Dynowska arrived in Dharamsali, Tibet’s spiritual leader was only 25 years old. When he visited Poland in 2008, during his speech in Gdańsk he named Dynowska as his ‘adopted mother, thanks to whom he became a vegetarian’. For Dynowska, working with Tibetan youth as well as publishing works about Tibetan culture and religion were the last things she ever did. Her failing health led her to move to a Roman Catholic convent in Mysore, but she refused to take her medication. She passed away peacefully and mindfully, like a ‘true yogini and mystic’, as Leon Cyboran, the Polish Indologist, said of her.
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There are at least two versions of the story of how Dynowska spent her last moments: one states that she died in a contemplative asana. The other version comes from Reverend Marian Batogowski, who claimed that the dying Umadevi asked for last rites and a Mass offering. In the biography of such a distinguished person who helped facilitate intercultural dialogue, these details don’t change much. Dynowska was never dogmatic, and she viewed religion as, above all, a path to spiritual peace. She didn’t tether herself to any one creed, and in her Indian apartment, Hindu gods stood side-by-side with the Virgin Mary. She was a woman of two cultures, preaching freedom and respect for all cultures. Reverend Adam Boniecki spoke of her as ‘incredible and deep, multi-cultural (…), charming, warm, connected and smart’.
She was not only a propagator of yoga as a spiritual path, but an extraordinary activist as well, passionately creating bridges between India and Poland. Supposedly, in the spirit of ‘marrying Poland to India’, she poured water from the Ganges River into the Morskie Oko Lake, gifted the Dalai Lama with a stone from the Tatra Mountains (which he kept on his desk for years) and earlier, during the Interwar period, she lobbied to recognise the Wawel Chakra.
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The previously mentioned Wincenty Lutosławski was a friend of Kazimierz and Halina Michalski. As a teenager, their daughter Malina (officially, Maria Aleksandra) met the author of Development of Willpower… and had the opportunity to become enchanted by the physical and spiritual exercises he proposed. It’s likely that Lutosławski fascinated Malina Michalska, and unknowingly influenced her future. Yet before she was to become famous for propagating Hatha Yoga (a style of yoga more focussed on the physical rather than the mental side), she was a successful dancer, acrobat and theatre actress.
She studied under Halina Hulanicka, who was herself interested in exotic dances from India and Egypt. Michalska performed in an operetta with solo performances at the Polish National Opera, while after the war, her acrobatic background allowed her to perform in circuses and variety theatres. Back then she also turned to pedagogy: in 1957, she opened a Dance Gymnastics Studio in the capital’s Old House of Culture. Michalska experimented with movement, soon including yoga in her studio’s programme. This she discovered, much like Lutosławski, during a health crisis.
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In 1960, to support herself after post-operation complications, she sought out other methods of regaining her health, and this search led her to Tibetan medicine, as well as the Indian system of physical and breath exercises. She learned of Tibetan medicine from Cyryl Krasiński, a member of the Benedictines. Where did her knowledge of yoga come from? Undoubtedly, at least in part from Development of Willpower…, written by the man she’d met in her childhood. At the beginning, asanas were only an eccentric addition to ballet, but gradually came to push out all other forms of dance education in Michalska’s school.
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Soon they became the basis of her teaching. After a few years of teaching, her studio was added to the International Yoga Fellowship Movement, and the Indian Ambassador in Poland himself handed Michalska a safe travel pass. One of the studio’s students, Maria Diatłowicka, remembered her studies:
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The exercises left me in an excellent state of mind, which for many years I attended under the students’ favourite teacher, Malina Michalska. (…) The classes took place by the Old Town Square, and afterwards I returned home through Krakowskie Przedmieście and Nowy Świat, full of energy.
In 1969, the dancer and yogini was the protagonist of a clip from the Polish Film Chronicle (the episode was titled Elastic Spine). In a brief two-minute clip we hear as the yogini speaks in a calm, hypnotising voice: ‘to fully relax, we must have a sense of heaviness…’. While demonstrating a difficult asana, she moves her hand ‘pliable like a snake, to wrap around my waist like a stylish belt’. From the recorded materials in the Documentary and Feature Film Studio in Warsaw, we discover that Michalska’s exercises can cure diabetes, kidney diseases, asthma and rheumatism.
On tape we see Michalska, at the time already over 50, moving with ease between different positions (‘Malina was a rubber woman,’ Maria Terlecka wrote in Stolica magazine). In the film, she is portrayed as the capital’s yoga celebrity, who educated thousands of people in the way of Hatha Yoga – as we hear in the chronicle, this included ‘doctors, actors and lawyers’. Among the women inspired by Michalska, there was Anna Świrczyńska. The poet, who apart from studying yoga was also a vegetarian, dedicated a few poems to her chosen exercise, such as in Genialne Ciało Jogi (The Brilliant Yogic Body):
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I’m bored now of my body / Useless so many years / I try to train it (…) It’s dull / (…) it will never become / a brilliant yogic body
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Malina Michalska’s crowning achievement was her book Hatha-joga dla Wszystkich (Hatha Yoga for All) released in 1972 under the National Coalition of Doctor’s Publishers (in the series ‘Health for All’). The book includes guides related to one’s psychological state, proper dress, correct breath; it also includes 60 illustrated asanas. Michalska herself posed to demonstrate all of the poses. Although Hatha Yoga is a more ‘European’ form of yoga, (that is, relying more on the physical than metaphysical side), Michalska didn’t shirk from the spiritual aspects of the exercises:
The path of yoga, through the highest concentration and meditation, can lead to a state where you lose your ego, where the UNIVERSE, the WORLD and YOURSELF become ONE [author’s emphasis].
The book interested Wisława Szymborska, among others, who in her humorous and sceptical way reviewed the book on the pages of Życie Literackie (Literary Life) weekly. Although her own sports interests lay mostly in boxing, the poet carefully read Michalska’s instructions, jocularly writing:
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A sceptic who attempts exercise number 25 still has time for some impermissible secular and worldly thoughts: what exactly am I doing? (…) In this moment the sceptic will decide to untangle himself from the Kukkutasana. Let’s trust that he’ll manage without the help of an ambulance.
Szymborksa also noticed, in her own witty way, that Michalska’s book isn’t for everyone:
Those who are exhausted and stressed don’t have time for these exercises, and those who do, certainly aren’t exhausted and stressed enough.
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As literally as Dynowska ‘brought India to the Wisła’, Michalska only did the same metaphorically, as her she never set foot on the Indian sub-continent, despite her long years of yoga practice. The word ‘only’ may be inaccurate here, as Michalska’s work in popularising Hatha Yoga is impressive. For many years, fascinated Poles kept her book on their shelves.
In 2018, actress Marta Malikowska became interested in Michalska’s story. The yogini’s biography was the starting point for creating Malina, a performance, concert and meditation session in one. In the spectacle, dancer and choreographer Karolina Kraczkowska and singer and tuba player Maniucha Bikont perform alongside Malikowska. The actress wanted to study the relationship between practicing yoga and creating a role for a play, while also asking questions important to her: about the relationship between yoga and feminism, the modern need for ritual as well as… how to lie down, sit and breathe. Malikowska named the space Świątynią Niewidzialnego Różowego Jednorożca (The Sanctuary of the Invisible Pink Unicorn). Art critic Piotr Morawski wrote of the performance under the ‘matronage’ of Malina Michalska as a theatrical work ‘of incredible care and delicacy’.
Dynowska and Michalska had a similar catalyst in their lives; one book, two different paths. Their spiritual journeys took them to different sides of the world, but their shared passion changed lives, on a physical and cultural level. Yoga may have since gone global, but their pioneering efforts are not forgotten. Even now, after the passing of their ‘brilliant yogic bodies’, the bridges and connections these two yoginis forged still hold.
Originally written in Polish, October 2019, translated by AZ, Jan 2020
Sources: Joga – Droga do Transcendencji, A. Świerzowska, Warsaw 2009; Niepokorne Córy II Rzeczpospolitej i PRL, J. Molenda, Warsaw 2016; Hatha-joga dla Wszystkich, M. Michalska, Warsaw 1973; Lektury nadobowiązkowe, W. Szymborska, Warsaw 2002; O Wandzie Dynowskiej (Umadevi – Bogini Światła), K. Tokarski, joga-joga.pl; e-teatr.pl; dwutygodnik.com; focus.pl
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