'The Great Oom': Yoga's Wild Ride To Respectability

The Great Oom
The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America
By Robert Love. Hardcover, 416 pages, Viking Adult. List price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt

Yoga, that mystical art that's become a regimen for 15 million Americans, came to this country from the East.

Eastern Nebraska, to be precise.

That's where, back in 1889, a 13-year-old named Perry Baker met his first yogi, and American-style yoga was born.

The Iowa-born teenager soon remade himself with a new name — Pierre Bernard — and his exploits, and yoga's sometimes-rocky journey to respectability, are chronicled in the new book The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.

Author Robert Love tells NPR's Guy Raz how Bernard weathered early rumors of rampant sex and drug use, and later an arrest, to lay the foundation for an empire.

"He was so far ahead of his time that it is no wonder that he was lost to history," Love says. "People didn't know what to do with him. We want our gurus and our holy men to be soft-spoken aesthetics — here is a true American rough-and-tumble original who happened to be a mystic as well."

Bernard rose to fame after moving to New York — where he was soon arrested and accused of misdeeds with a young female student. The charges were eventually dropped, but Love says the case in a strange way made the young entrepreneur's name:

Robert Love i i

hide captionRobert Love teaches journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School and is the national affairs editor at Reader's Digest.

Nicole Hlinka
Robert Love

Robert Love teaches journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School and is the national affairs editor at Reader's Digest.

Nicole Hlinka

"He was rechristened 'The Omnipotent Oom, loving guru of the tantrics' by the headline writers in the yellow press at the time. He became a kind of infamous celebrity."

Bernard went upscale and created a yoga retreat outside the city for the chattering classes, where entertainment included drag baseball games and even some circus-like acts.

"It was a wild, weird and wonderful thing that he called the Clarkstown Country Club," Love says, "calling it by this opaque name because yoga still had such a louche reputation."

But Bernard did develop a loyal following, one that eventually built today's $7 billion-a-year "yoga-industrial complex." Yet he's not widely know today, his biographer says.

"I think he is a missing link in the great story of how yoga moved from East to West. And Bernard was merely laughed off as a kind of a footnote. I hope my book at least puts the record straight and sets up an argument for him as a real pioneer in bringing yoga to America."

Excerpt: 'The Great Oom'

The Great Oom
The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America
By Robert Love
Hardcover, 416 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $27.95

Pierre Arnold Bernard, the first American yogi and a spiritual hero to members of the Lost Generation, was conducting a tour of his property for Joseph Mitchell of the New York World-Telegram. "A place of mystery," Mitchell called it. "On summer afternoons townspeople crowd about the estate and look through the edges as the solemn students of Sanskrit go through their Oriental calisthenics. Small boys dare each other to go through the gates."

In 1931, when Mitchell trained his eyes on him, Bernard was fifty-six years old and at the pinnacle of his influence, commanding the loyalty and devotion of four hundred elite, educated followers. These men and women came to his ashram on the Hudson River, two hundred acres of leafy real estate in Nyack, New York, that included a zoo, a yacht, airplanes and a dozen mansions that Mitchell could only describe as the "English countryside estates one sees in the moving pictures." Bernard had made his fortune teaching yoga, and his students made up a Who's Who of American life: college presidents, medical doctors, ministers, a spy or two, theologians, heiresses, a future congresswoman, famed authors and composers — some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world. Doctor Bernard, they called him, and like a benevolent physician he ministered to their needs, body and soul. He sheltered them, entertained them and gathered them together to teach them the art of living. They stood on their heads for him, worked in his fields, sang in his theatrical productions and performed in elaborate, professional-level circuses for his approval. Some of them came to delve deeply into hatha yoga and the philosophy behind it, some for romance and fresh air, some for the Bernard cure, having been abandoned by hospitals and mental institutions. These he literally led back from ruination — from ledges of despair, lethal addictions and Great War nightmares. How he managed to do this has remained his closely guarded secret. Bernard's gravitational pull was far more powerful than his appearance. His grey-blue eyes, close-set above a long, tapered nose, gave his countenance a perpetually skeptical cast. He was not classically handsome, but a natural athlete, at ease on the tumbling mats and baseball diamond and possessed of fantastic stores of energy. He could be learned or crude or nineteenth-century courtly, but to shake his hand was like touching a high voltage current. To Joe Mitchell, Bernard looked like nothing less than an American success story, a hero of the Great Depression, rambling over his landscaped acres in his tweeds.

Pierre Bernard may have been one of the more celebrated Americans of the 1920s and 1930s, but early in the century he bore the burden of notoriety as "the Omnipotent Oom, Loving Guru of the Tantriks" the very model of the licentious, greedy Svengali. In those days he was labeled a big-city charlatan, a fraud, a seducer of young girls, a spiritual con artist. He was accused of orchestrating sexual orgies, performing abortions, hypnotizing wealthy female benefactors (and beautiful poor ones, too), and fleecing veterans of their savings. The police raided his yoga schools and clubs on numerous occasions, and the Federal government kept his dossier on file. His nickname, the Great Oom, was an epithet that would stay with him for life.

Still, that was then, twenty years past, and now, in the first terrible years of the Great Depression, Bernard was as wealthy as a maharajah. His name appeared in the social pages next to Katharine Hepburn. His American yoga school, the weird, wonderful creation he called the Clarkstown Country Club, was just as famous as he was.

But who was he, really, this uneducated savant who could lecture extemporaneously for three hours on the similarities between the philosophies of ancient India and the Gnostic heresies of the early Christians? This same man was known to stage a three-ring circus, manage a semi-pro baseball team, train a world-class heavyweight boxer, repair a Stanley Steamer automobile and whoop it up on fight nights at Madison Square Garden with nicotine-stained reporters. This last was where he was most at home, some said, shouting, swearing, happily chomping on a cigar. Who was this man of such wild contradictions, a name as familiar to headline writers of the 1920s as Charles Lindbergh? The answer depended to a large degree on who was doing the asking.

"Dr. Bernard seems to delight in being a surprising person," wrote Fortune magazine in 1933, applauding him as a "shrewd, level headed businessman," whose banks and businesses were thriving while the nation descended into economic depression and panic. "Dr. Pierre Bernard, one of the outstanding citizens of Nyack, a classical scholar of considerable attainment," wrote the New Yorker, was a supremely talented teacher known for his ability to break down complex philosophical tenets into man-in-the-street advice. The Great Oom was so thoroughly embroidered into every aspect of American life, in fact, that he inspired film villains and a cartoon character. To describe the box office magic of W.C. Fields, the New York Times invoked Bernard's nickname and hailed the film comedian as "the Omnipotent Oom of one of the screen's most devoted cults."

From The Great Oom by Robert Love. Copyright 2010 by Robert Love. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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