Several decades ago, you would have received a baffled stare if you had asked a stranger what a “downward facing dog” was. Today most strangers would nod knowingly and point you to their yoga studio, where the “downward facing dog” (feet and hands planted on the ground, torso stretched into an inverted “V”) and other poses are common practices for the more than 20 million people who study yoga in the U.S.
But yoga wasn’t always mainstream, as Robert Love informs us in “The Great Oom,” his rollicking and well-researched history of yoga’s early days in America. The spiritual discipline that has colonized America’s gyms and trendy loft spaces was once a fringe practice, its advocates treated as charlatans and, occasionally, criminals. Yoga’s cultural rise is a story of scandal, financial shenanigans, bodily discipline, oversize egos and bizarre love triangles, with a few performing elephants thrown in for good measure.
Mr. Love tells his story through the life of one of yoga’s earliest promoters, Pierre Bernard—known as the “Great Oom”—a zany man whose talent for self-invention rivaled that of P.T. Barnum. Born Perry Baker in Leon, Iowa, in 1876, Bernard’s early and serendipitous meeting with an Indian tutor in 1889 put him on the path to promoting yoga as his life’s work.
The “hatha yoga” that Bernard learned from his tutor emphasized postures (called asanas) as well as controlled breathing techniques and a range of “meditative arts.” His education also included “tantric yoga,” whose goal is to “merge the individual’s soul with the ultimate reality, divinity, or god.” Yoga’s origins reach back to ancient India, where it developed alongside Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Becoming yoga’s U.S. champion was not an obviously wise career move for Pierre Bernard. (He changed his name around 1896 to give himself a more mystical aura.) Over the course of his lifetime, Mr. Love writes, “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.”
But Bernard was a believer. He soon became a lauded hypnotist in 1890s San Francisco. During one demonstration, he used “mind control” to put himself in a trance that he claimed left him immune to pain. As the crowd watched, a doctor pushed pins through Bernard’s earlobes and cheeks and rammed a “large ladies hat pin” through his tongue—or so the newspapers reported. A bloodied Bernard awoke and showed his fitness by promptly hypnotizing someone else.
As Bernard’s reputation grew, he became a sought-after personal guru to wealthy San Francisco residents and established a “Tantrik Order” of disaffected socialites, artists and musicians who lived communally and practiced mystical rites—including yoga, which, Bernard promised, would bring its adherents a direct connection to the divine. Like many a guru before and since, he had his choice of sexual partners, from whom he demanded absolute loyalty and not a little forbearance, given his carefree attitude toward monogamy. Most of the women didn’t seem to mind; one 19-year-old declared herself “cured of her heart trouble and in fine spirits” after a months-long involvement with the guru.
But Bernard’s open sexual practices eventually cause trouble. In an era when hysteria over “white slavery” and prostitution dominated the news, his conduct fed into a “moral panic” (as Mr. Love puts it) fueled by yellow journalists and the purity crusader Anthony Comstock. In 1910, after relocating with his acolytes to New York City, Bernard was charged with having “inveigled and enticed” a young woman “for the purpose of sexual intercourse.” Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the taint lingered, and Bernard—whom newspapers dubbed “the Great Oom” after the common yoga chant “Om”—and his yogic band fled to more bucolic prospects in Nyack, N.Y.
There, with financial support from the Vanderbilt family— especially Anne Vanderbilt, whose daughters studied yoga with Bernard—he established a yoga center on an old Nyack estate. According to Mr. Love, it catered to “the idle wealthy with recreation, parties, and celebrity buzz” and promoted a philosophy of “self-expression, diet, and an attention to inner cleanliness” that included a startling devotion to colonics.
As Bernard’s fortunes improved so did his desire to bring his enterprise into the mainstream. He started calling his Nyack property the “Clarkstown Country Club” and sponsoring theater performances, circus-like entertainments (complete with elephants) and even a baseball team. His marriage to a former vaudevillian performer ensured that he had a partner in charming the needy heiresses on whom his fortunes often relied.
The Great Oom
By Robert Love
Viking, 402 pages, $27.95
Bernard’s luck faltered during the Depression, as did his relationship with the Vanderbilts. The club was soon in arrears. Yoga’s appeal, however, was just beginning to spread. By the 1950s an increasing number of Americans were practicing yoga, seeing it less as a cultish practice than as a means of restoring one’s health in the stressful modern world. Bernard became a Miss Havisham figure, spending his final years alone, wandering around his decaying manse in Nyack. He died in 1955, at age 79, but many of his devotees went on to become teachers themselves and trained a new generation of yoga students who in turn spread the gospel of good health through yoga.
Today yoga flourishes even in the Great Oom’s home state of Iowa, and the yoga industrial complex has broadened to include magazines, books, clothing and celebrity followers. Eager students can study Christian yoga (or “Yahweh Yoga,” as it is sometimes called) and Jewish Yoga, where students replace “om” with “shalom.” What was once exotic is now simply part of America’s multicultural mix.
Mr. Love has the gift of the good biographer: He has sympathy for his subject’s “flamboyant weirdness” but the rigor to present him for what he was. Although yoga was an import, Pierre Bernard was an example of a fascinating American type: the spiritual entrepreneur. His life reminds us that the appeal of spiritual cures that promise practical results is not a new phenomenon; it is an enduring part of our country’s history. If our current pursuit of “wellness” is any guide, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
—Ms. Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.