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Segesman, Margrit Elisabeth (1905–1998)

by Fay Woodhouse

Margrit Segesman, n.d.

Margrit Segesman, n.d.

One of the first European yoga teachers to establish a yoga school in Australia in the 1950s, Margrit Segesman arrived in 1954 and remained in Australia for the rest of her life. She was naturalised as an Australian citizen in Melbourne on 18 October 1968. Born on 22 April 1905 in Berne, Switzerland, Baroness Margrit Elisabeth Von Segessemann was the daughter of an aristocratic Swiss banker.

In 1921 Margrit (known within her family as Gita) contracted a virulent form of tuberculosis and began treatment in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps in 1922, remaining there for six years. During her illness, Margrit’s interest in breathing and relaxation techniques branched into an interest in the expansion of consciousness, a subject she had discussed with Carl Jung when they met in the 1920s. He suggested the study of yoga and yogic philosophy and reading The Science of Breath by Yogi Ramacharaka.

As well as studying philosophy, she developed her own progressive yoga relaxation technique that she later incorporated into her classes. These techniques enabled her to face the radical treatment such as gold injections and lung cauterisation she endured. While still in the sanatorium, Margrit devoted her free time to the study of yoga. Eventually her condition improved and after leaving the sanatorium in 1928, she embarked on a world tour, after which she settled in Paris working as a house model for Lucien Lelong and Dior.

Following the Second World War, during which she had worked to smuggle refugees into Switzerland, Margrit was diagnosed with arthritis, a devastating blow that increased her determination to rid herself of this affliction. To this end she resolved to pursue her interest in yoga and to the distress and shame of her family, she set off on a treck to India. After spending time in Indian ashrams, she found her guru at Rishikesh on the Tibetan border and spent about five years living in a cave as an ascetic:

For years I knew nothing else but meditation, raja yoga, hatha yoga, the intense practices of kriya and tantra, [and the] study of cosmology and evolution.

Margrit chose not to divulge the name of her guru, so his name is unknown and remains a matter of speculation. Although content with her life, in 1953 her guru sent her back to civilisation to prepare for teaching. Part of her mission in returning to the west was to ‘break the guru tradition’. Adjusting to a normal life could not have been easy and she told the story of having to grow her hair and put on weight before attempting to sail to the other side of the world. It is understood her guru chose Australia as her ultimate teaching destination.

When she embarked on her voyage in 1954, Margrit planned to travel to Sydney, but mistakenly stepped off the boat in Melbourne instead. She remained in Melbourne, sensing this was where she was meant to be. From the 1930s, various lecturers and demonstrators had toured Australia and introduced enthusiastic audiences to yoga, preparing the way for the establishment of Melbourne’s first yoga school.

Yoga practice and philosophy, introduced to America and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, was finally introduced to the ‘new world’ in the 1950s. Margrit Segesman was not the first European yoga teacher to arrive in Australia. The Russian born Michael Volin arrived from Shanghai in 1949 and began teaching in Sydney in 1950. In the same year on the other side of the continent, the larger than life, colourful figure of Dr Serge de la Ferrière arrived in Australia and began teaching in Perth and Albert Mueller, a German immigrant began classes in Adelaide in 1955. In addition, Australian born Roma Blair, who studied yoga in South Africa, returned to Australia in 1957. While in Melbourne she attended classes with Margrit then Michael Volin’s classes before she established her own school in Sydney.

Margrit began teaching yoga in the evenings in her apartment in St Kilda while she worked during the day as the manageress of a fur salon in Melbourne. When she set up her school, she found Melburnians were keen to embrace yoga which was still considered to be very ‘new and exotic’ for Australia. However, following a radio interview about her relaxation technique, Margrit was inundated with students and so took the step to full-time teaching.

The Margrit Segesman School of Yoga relocated from St Kilda to the ‘Paris’ end of Collins Street. On 22 September 1960 the Gita School of Yoga opened at 21 Alfred Place, Melbourne. When she moved her school, she also chose a new name for it. The Gita School of Yoga took its name from two sources: the Bhagavad Gita, part of the Hindu epic, the Mahabarata; and because it was her ‘pet’ name in childhood.

The Gita School of Yoga was Australia’s first full-time yoga school with its own permanent premises, offering classes each week day and night. Students remember having to step carefully along a narrow pebbled path to arrive at the front door – effectively beginning their class with a walking meditation. Once inside, a sense of quiet and calm pervaded the school. A Gita class then, and now, consists of limbering, ten basic yoga asanas with many variations, breathing practices and relaxation.

As more and more students enrolled at Gita, additional teachers were needed. Margrit soon selected some of her students to become her first teachers. Adopting the apprenticeship model, a student teacher would observe classes for a year or more while taking instruction from her before they began to teach their own class. At the same time Michael Volin and Roma Blair were also instructing new teachers. As more teachers spread throughout Australia, Margrit and Roma were aware of the need for a national representative yoga body. In 1967 the International Yoga Teachers’ Association (IYTA) was established to support the increasing number of Australian teachers.

Throughout the 1970s, as the interest in yoga broadened, Gita’s classes increased in popularity. Margrit continued to teach hatha yoga, esoteric philosophy, meditation and relaxation classes as well as training new teachers. Thirteen years after opening the school, in 1973 she published Wings of Power, a book that is part memoir and part philosophy. It remains in print and provides written instructions for her Progressive Yoga Relaxation and a number of guided meditations.

Although she only had the use of one quarter of her lung capacity, Margrit Segesman embraced and taught all aspects of yoga and yogic philosophy. A youthful looking 50-year old when she began teaching in Melbourne, she was a nevertheless a ‘firey achiever, full of dynamic will and vision’.

The image of her as a severe woman of steely determination is not misplaced; this impression was often gained from reading her memoirs, Wings of Power. While outgoing, determined and persuasive in her manner, she did not suffer fools gladly and stories of students sent from her class for no apparent reason linger. Others remember her lively sense of humour and ability to laugh and have lots of fun. Above all Margrit Segesman saw herself as a woman sent by her guru to teach to Australians the practices and philosophies she believed in. At the same time she insisted that there should be no glorification of her achievements, urging people to ‘follow the teachings not the teacher’. With her indomitable spirit, she epitomized the benefits of the physical and spiritual path she followed. Of medium height with an abundance of nut-brown curly hair, Margrit dressed fashionably and elegantly, very much the European baroness! Her elegant external apparel was worn in stark contrast to the simplicity of the black leotard and tights worn in her classes.

With her sparkling eyes and youthful walk, to her students Margrit’s energy seemed boundless. In accordance with the formality of the 1960s, Margrit was initially addressed as ‘Madame von Segesseman’. Over the decades she softened the form by which she was addressed to ‘Miss Segesman’ and finally, simply, ‘Margrit’. She also changed the spelling of her name, simplifying it to ‘Margrit Segesman’. In July 1983 Margrit retired to Vermont. Prior to her retirement due to ill health, she spent several years preparing two students, Lucille Wood and Di Lucas, to assume responsibility for the school. Margrit Elisabeth Segesman died on 25 May 1998. She is remembered as a dynamic woman of great determination, pivotal in bringing yoga to Australia where today it is a mainstream activity.

Original publication

  • obituary from GITA website, 2013

Additional Resources

Citation details

Fay Woodhouse, 'Segesman, Margrit Elisabeth (1905–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/segesman-margrit-elisabeth-16646/text28546, accessed 20 February 2019.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2019

Margrit Segesman, n.d.

Margrit Segesman, n.d.

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Segessemann, Margrit Elisabeth
Birth

22 April 1905
Berne, Switzerland

Death

25 May 1998
Vermont, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation
Key Organisations
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