'The Great Oom': Yoga's Wild Ride To Respectability Yoga may be practiced by 15 million Americans today, but author Robert Love says its roots in this country go back 121 years — to a 13-year-old Iowan whose life-changing moment happened in Lincoln, Neb. He is the subject of Love's new book, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126610671/126653588" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Great Oom': Yoga's Wild Ride To Respectability

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126610671/126653588" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you started your day with a few down dogs or chatarungas and rewarded yourself with shavasana and maybe a trip to Lululemon, you can thank a man named Pierre Bernard. He's the reason why 15 million Americans practice yoga on a regular basis.

Bernard was born Perry Baker in a small town in Iowa in 1875. He went on to master Hindu philosophy and yoga without ever leaving the United States. And by the time he died in 1955, he'd set the foundation for what is today a $7 billion industry.

Yet during his lifetime, and this is unbelievable:

Mr. ROBERT LOVE (Author, "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America): (Reading) Yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women. It was associated with sexual promiscuity and kicked to the fringes of society.

RAZ: That's Robert Love, reading from his new biography of Pierre Bernard. It's called "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America." And Robert Love is in our New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. LOVE: Thank you, Guy. I'm happy to be here.

RAZ: How was this kid from small-town Iowa even exposed to the ideas that would eventually launch the yoga craze in America?

Mr. LOVE: Well, it was a million-to-one shot, but he actually met a tantric yogi in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1889. Perry Baker was 13 years old and had been sent there by his family to learn the building trades. However, he was interested in nothing but the occult arts and occult literature, and ended up meeting a fellow named Silveus Hamadi(ph), who was a Syrian-Indian practitioner and teacher of hatha yoga and tantric yoga.

RAZ: So this kid, Perry Baker, sort of taken under the wing, under his tutelage, of this Indian emigre. How does that unfold? I mean, does he just start to study under him day after day, week after week, year after year?

Mr. LOVE: He becomes the chela in the guru-chela relationship, which is the guru-student relationship, and basically stays with Hamadi for the next 18 years.

Perry Baker's parents allowed this, and his mother was even kind enough to give him a little stipend to sort of get along while he was in Hamadi's care.

RAZ: And they didn't think it was unusual? I mean, we are still talking about Lincoln, Nebraska, in the late 19th century.

Mr. LOVE: It is completely unusual and wildly, you know, non-conforming to allow your son to be taken away by a Syrian-Indian tutor of yoga in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1889. It goes against most of what America believed at the time.

RAZ: Now, eventually, Baker and Hamadi would go to San Francisco. Perry Baker would, at that point, become Pierre Bernard, the person whose name we now associate with yoga. At the beginning, you describe what he was doing as something akin to a sideshow circus act. I mean, he would sort of perform publicly by pushing pins through his lips and claiming he felt no pain. What was he doing?

Mr. LOVE: He did it as an example of how you could use self-hypnosis to induce anesthesia in a deep enough trance and be operated on. He was selling his course on the occult and hypnotic arts to doctors. And it cost a great deal of money to learn these things from him.

RAZ: Now, it was in San Francisco where Pierre Bernard started something called the Tantrik Order in America. Describe what it was.

Mr. LOVE: The Tantrik Order was a secret society that Bernard concocted. It was a kind of a blueprint for living. He wanted to establish lodges throughout the United States and around the world, indeed, in which yoga would be taught along with Hindu philosophy.

RAZ: And the order sort of gained a reputation for being a den of immorality, that opium was used there, that you had to have sexual intercourse with another member in front of the group to get in. Was there any truth to any of that?

Mr. LOVE: There's no record of truth to the opium charges, and it's not true that you had to have sacramental intercourse to get into the club. However, there is a record that some of this sex, as a part of the tantric ritual, did occur in San Francisco.

RAZ: In 1909, Bernard goes to New York to set up a yoga school there. He very quickly becomes embroiled in scandal that would sort of consume - I guess about a year of his life. What happened?

Mr. LOVE: He was arrested, jailed in the tombs for inveigling a young woman to have sexual intercourse with him. And for a week in New York, he made the headlines. It was there that he was rechristened the Omnipotent Oom, loving guru of the tantrics, by the headline writers in the yellow press at the time.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Robert Love, author of a new biography of Pierre Bernard. It's called "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America."

Now, after the trial, he relocates to upstate New York...

Mr. LOVE: That's right.

RAZ: ...where he spends the rest of his life teaching yoga on this grand estate -and all this because he finds a patron in the Vanderbilt family. Can you explain how that came about?

Mr. LOVE: In 1918, he runs into Anne Vanderbilt, and she becomes very interested in yoga. And such wonderful things happened to the Vanderbilt family through their relationship with Bernard that she ended up bankrolling part of his move to Nyack, New York, where he began to buy land and set up what is basically the first established American ashram.

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

RAZ: Your description of the Clarkstown Country Club certainly does not sound like an ashram. It sounds more like something that resembled a circus, with elephants and baseball games played in drag, and so on. Describe what it was like.

Mr. LOVE: Well, the cream of the crop of American society was interested in Bernard's teachings. There were heiresses from wealthy families, a great war spy named Sir Paul Dukes. There were attorneys, and Bernard put on professional grade circuses and vaudeville entertainments that lasted from tea in the afternoon until dawn. And he did all of this out of a belief that this was part of becoming a well-rounded person.

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

RAZ: Given that yoga is now a multibillion dollar industry - some call it the yoga industrial complex - do you think Pierre Bernard would be proud of what it has become?

Mr. LOVE: You know, I think he would be divided about it because he believed in the guru-student relationship, which means that you really can't divide yourself a thousand times to turn it into a huge thing.

So I think in some ways, he would be offended by it. And in other ways, he would have to take some credit for it because here he was in, you know, in San Francisco in 1900, setting down the rules for how yoga would be taught: four-inch-thick, hair mattresses in a room of equitable temperatures. He was the one who Americanized what he had learned from Hamadi and then taught it to others -who taught it to others, who taught it to others.

RAZ: And without him, we wouldn't be doing it today, probably.

Mr. LOVE: Well, I think he's a missing link in the great story of how yoga moved from East to West. I think he's a real pioneer in bringing yoga to America.

RAZ: That's Robert Love. His new book is called "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in the United States." Robert Love, thank you so much.

Mr. LOVE: You're quite welcome. Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.