About a year ago I began to chat and email Roma Blair – the founder of the IYTA (International Yoga Teachers Association). The more I discovered about Roma the more in awe I became… I read her book: Roma from Prison to Paradise (as told to Rachel Sayers and Karin Cox) twice.
Roma is an absolute inspiration to me and to many, many others who were fortunate enough to have had a connection with her. This Tuesday (Nov 5) at 90, she passed away. True to her fun-loving, glamorous nature she has requested a pink coffin for her funeral. I personally am so privileged to have spent time chatting with her and for having the opportunity to write a story about her fascinating life – this first appeared in the IYTAs magazine: International Light.
NINETY is merely a number to Australia’s Mother of Yoga, Roma Blair. But it won’t stop her having a massive party for her 90th birthday in July.
That’s because every day is a celebration for Roma – who has lived through the trauma of being interned in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, enjoyed an illustrious career as a model and is credited for bringing yoga to ordinary Aussies.
At a stage of life when most people might be tempted to hang up their leggings, Roma is still practising yoga morning and night, despite suffering a fall, which has left her with a metal rod in her thigh.
And Roma is still the epitome of glamour.
For our interview she’s wearing a chic mint-green pant suit with diamond stud earrings and beige boots.
‘I’ll never dress like an old woman,’ she says.
‘I like to think and feel young.’
It is because she endured unimaginable suffering for three years in two Javanese POW camps, that she is so determined to enjoy every moment of her life.
‘Each morning I know I am lucky to be awake and I will have a happy day,’ she says.
Roma’s positive philosophy is to be patient with people and to give and do a lot for the ones you love.
But it’s not always been easy for this vivacious, auburn-haired Yogi…
The moment Roma entered the world she was born with a caul (a rare amniotic membrane covering her face).
‘You’ll never need to worry about this baby,’ the matron told Roma’s mother, Ivy. ‘She will be a most unusual child.’
Apparently a caul is auspicious and the prediction proved true – but Roma believes it has been her life that’s been unusual, not her.
One of five children, she lived a relatively carefree, happy childhood. And after winning a beauty contest, she embarked upon a lucrative career as a photographic model.
During this time she fell in love with dashing businessman, amateur boxer and ballroom dancer, Leo Ossendryver.
Leo worked in the family business, selling Persian carpets and when he and his family relocated from Sydney to the prosperous Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) Leo assured Roma that once they were settled she’d join them.
It was only after Leo had left Australian shores they discovered single women were not allowed to enter the Dutch East Indies.
The only way Roma would be able to join Leo was if they were married.
So Roma became Australia’s first proxy bride – using a little known Dutch custom.
Two simultaneous ceremonies were arranged – one at the Dutch Consulate in Sydney and the other in Jakarta. Two “stand-ins” replaced the bride and groom at their respective locations
Leo’s Uncle Nikko stood in for Leo in Sydney, while Leo’s brother Maurice was a rather less attractive substitute for Roma!
Their unique wedding made headlines across the Australian media.
And the next day, Leo sent a telegram to his new wife:
Congratulations, we were married today!
It was an unorthodox start to what would prove to be a challenging marriage.
Once Roma arrived in the tropical paradise of Bandung in West Java she was lavished with attention from both her husband and his family. And soon she fell into a relaxed routine of waking late, being dressed by maids, sharing breakfast with the family, and a late afternoon sojourn to the markets with her sister-in-law, Noeline.
Within a couple of months she was pregnant and it seemed life in their bubble of paradise couldn’t get any better.
She felt safe and protected from the ravages of World War Two, which had been going on for the previous three years.
‘We’d been certain the Japanese wouldn’t make it this far,’ Roma recalls. But the honeymoon ended abruptly on March 8, 1942, when the Japanese launched an air attack and occupied Java.
Western men were sent away while the women and children rounded up and taken to a guarded camp.
Luckily Roma managed to stay with Noeline and her three-year-old nephew, Arnold. But it was the start of a tortuous three-year imprisonment.
Both women would give birth to children in the camp. Noeline had a daughter, Shirley, and Roma, had a son, Arnold.
Roma was determined to smuggle in any kind of fresh food she could for her tiny son, knowing if caught, she risked a beating.
Brave Javanese traders hovered outside the barbed wire fences. On one occasion, Roma tucked a couple of coconut cookies into her clothes. But just as she approached the cell, she received a sharp blow to the back of her head from one of the guards.
By the time the guard had finished his assault, several of Roma’s ribs were broken, her head was shaved and she was covered in bruises.
But even this didn’t deter her and a few months later she smuggled in a root of ginger for her malnourished son. This time her actions resulted in solitary confinement. Afterwards Roma came to the conclusion that Arnold needed his mother more than he needed the scraps of food she’d been smuggling.
But starvation and beatings weren’t all Roma had to deal with. The women were expected to work long hours in the paddy fields until their feet became swollen and peeled from being immersed all day in the mud and water.
Infections, disease, malnutrition and rodents were rife in the camp, as was the constant threat of death. And then just as they thought things couldn’t get any worse, Roma and Noeline had to watch helplessly as little Shirley succumbed to fits and fever before finally passing away in the camp.
The weeks, turned to months and months to years. And finally in April 1945, a spy managed to smuggle a radio into the camp – and the women learnt the war was nearly over.
Soon after, Roma, Noeline and their two sons were rescued and reunited with Roma’s family in Sydney. But the horrors of the camp still remained. Arnold was painfully shy and as tall as his 13-month-old cousin. To him Camp was the only world he knew and adapting to the outside world was a challenge.
Eventually he and Roma were reunited with Leo – who had also endured internment in Singapore. But Arnold had to get to know his dad, while Leo was mourning the loss of his father who had died in the camp.
The following year the family moved to South Africa to make a fresh start. But the memories and nightmares continued.
Leo found it difficult to let go and Roma was plagued with health issues including agonising stomach cramps. Eventually after exhausting all medical treatments, a Chinese doctor recommended yoga.
It wasn’t the first time Roma had heard of this Eastern practice. In Camp, she’d been captivated by one of the older women, Madame Kaufmann, practising yoga. At the time Roma was drawn to the calmness and stillness she’d sensed from the woman.
So with a mix of trepidation and curiosity, Roma set out for Manie Finger’s, (Yogeswarananda) studio in Pretoria.
Instantly, Roma took to his gentle manner and simple instructions and began to attend classes almost daily. It wasn’t long before her health improved and within a year she was almost completely free of pain.
Yogeswarananda also taught Roma about the spiritual side of yoga, encouraging her to study the Bhagavad- Gita.
Under his guidance, Roma began to surrender her problems to the universe.
Sadly Leo wasn’t able to move forward as easily and they separated.
Roma didn’t give herself any time to wallow, instead she threw herself into her work as a model, and in 1954, the media dubbed her South Africa’s busiest model. But despite the glamour and glitz, Roma desperately missed home, so in 1957 she made the heartwrenching decision to leave South Africa – and her son, Arnold, then 16.
‘I hoped I was doing the right thing leaving him behind,’ she recalls. Arnold was happy in South Africa and remained with his father.
During her first year in Sydney, Roma stayed with her mother and brother and then moved to Potts Point in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. She continued to model but knew that approaching 40, she’d need to find another career.
At the time, not many people in Australia had heard of yoga and Roma was keen to spread the word about this amazing practice, which had changed her life.
Yogeswarananda was convinced Roma was a natural Yogi and teacher, so using her savings, Roma established a studio in Pitt Street, central Sydney.
It didn’t take long for the students to come – including one girl, Joy McIntosh who Roma thought showed particular promise. Roma began to coach Joy and a number of other students for teaching positions.
At the same time, Roma used her networking skills to promote yoga to a wider audience. She wrote a regular yoga column for The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror and began teaching yoga to the girls at the June Dally-Watkins School of Deportment.
By 1962, The Roma Blair School of Yoga was a huge success and Roma took her teachers to shopping centres across the state to demonstrate the art of yoga.
Then after a TV interview, Roma was asked by Bruce Gyngell to do a mid-morning exercise show on Channel Nine: Relaxing with Roma. The segment proved so popular it was run seven-days-a-week. And then another show commissioned for the early morning slot – Wake up and Live.
Roma managed to juggle her burgeoning TV yoga career, teacher training and classes with a glittering social life and another romance – with another Leo. In January 1962 they had an extravagant wedding.
Soon afterwards, Roma published her first book: Yoga in Pictures.
And Roma’s success in promoting yoga in Australia came to the attention of Swami Satyananda, who invited Roma to attend the first World Yoga Convention in Monghyr, India.
While there, she was bestowed the name Swami Nirmalananda, meaning ‘pure’ and ‘bliss.’
And at 43, Roma became Australia’s first female Swami.
Satyananda’s intention was clear – Roma was to spread the message of yoga from door to door and shore to shore in Australia – which, of course she did admirably!
In 1967, believing Yoga needed standardisation, she established the: IYTA – International Yoga Teachers’ Association.
‘I am very proud of it,’ she says. ‘It was my brainchild and the fact I’m still acknowledged and remembered makes me feel good!
The IYTA was designed to teach the teachers and provide a network of yoga contacts worldwide. That year, Roma organised the first World Yoga Convention in Australia at Camp Yarrimundi, Richmond. She also wrote another book; Yoga for the Family and with Joy McIntosh, produced two records: Learn to Relax and Wake up and Live.
Three years later with the Australian IYTA thriving, she set up a branch of the IYTA in Singapore.
But Roma’s love of Yoga began to cause cracks in her marriage and eventually Leo Kogos and Roma went their separate ways. For Roma it underpinned the message from the Mahabharata: no-one belongs to me; I belong to no-one.
And so Roma focused her attention on the IYTA – developing Teacher Training, regular workshops, conventions and a magazine for members – International Light.
Then in the early eighties, Roma met businessman, Joe Lubrano and fell head-over-heels in love.
In 1982, they moved to Gold Coast, Qld, and they couple began to work with a local charity group, The Giraffes – so called because they stuck their neck out for others.
But after a wonderful 15 years together, Joe eventually succumbed to a brain tumour, leaving Roma heartbroken.
Roma has now moved into a quieter phase of her life.
‘It’s time for me.’ She says. ‘But I still have time to do things and to be there for people.’
Her son, Arnold is still in South Africa and the two have a close relationship. Roma is particularly close to her granddaughter, Arnelle.
He parents and siblings have passed away, but Roma says she is surrounded by love.
She is no longer formally involved with the IYTA, but remains an avid reader of International Light and maintains her daily yoga and meditation practice.
She is amazed by just how popular yoga has become and delighted with the work still carried out by the IYTA. ‘I think the IYTA is wonderful,’ she says. ‘It really is the best thing I ever did.’
Roma celebrated her 80th with an extravagant party – finishing the night with her party piece – the splits! But sadly her days of doing the splits are now over.
Earlier this year she fell, injuring her leg, but despite having a rod in her thigh, she still practices a series of standing postures, followed by sitting poses and a 20 minute meditation – twice a day.
And as for her 90th?
‘The theme,’ she tells me, ‘is pink. Everyone needs to wear something pink, whether it’s a scarf or an entire outfit.’ And Roma will definitely be dressing up for the occasion.
Her brown eyes sparkle and her skin, barely lined, has a rosy glow – which she attributes of course to yoga (and to the moisturiser she applies regularly!).
‘That’s one of the good things about getting old,’ she laughs. ‘You have lots of time to moisturise!’
Her other beauty tips are to avoid the sun, remove make-up at night and never dress like an old woman!’
As she heads off to meet friends for lunch, I know there is no chance of that…
Roma’s life is detailed in the book: Roma – from Prison to Paradise, by Rachel Syers and Karin Cox, 2004, New Holland.
This story is based on information from the book and an interview with Roma Blair.
Roma’s tips for yoga teachers:
* Never think you know it all, as none of us ever do.
* Always be on time and dress presentably
* Don’t tell your class your troubles – you’re there to help your students and not yourself!