The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America

The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America

by Robert Love

The amazing story of how yoga came to America-and the charming rogue who made it possible

In Jazz Age New York, there was no place hotter than the Clarkstown Country Club, where celebrities such as Leopold Stokowski mingled with Vanderbilts, Goodriches, and Great War spies. They came for the club's circuses and burlesques but especially for the lectures

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The amazing story of how yoga came to America-and the charming rogue who made it possible

In Jazz Age New York, there was no place hotter than the Clarkstown Country Club, where celebrities such as Leopold Stokowski mingled with Vanderbilts, Goodriches, and Great War spies. They came for the club's circuses and burlesques but especially for the lectures on the subject at the heart of the club's mission: yoga. Their guru was the notorious Pierre Bernard, who trained with an Indian master and instructed his wealthy followers in the asanas and the modern yogic lifestyle.

Robert Love traces this American obsession from moonlit Tantric rituals in San Francisco to its arrival in New York, where Bernard's teachings were adopted by Wall Streeters and Gilded Age heiresses, who then bankrolled a luxurious ashram on the Hudson River-the first in the nation. Though today's practitioners know little of Bernard, they can thank his salesman's persistence for sustaining our interest in yoga despite generations of naysayers.

In this surprising, sometimes comic story, Love uncovers the forgotten life and times of the colorful, enigmatic character who brought us hatha yoga. The Great Oom delves into the murky intersection of mysticism, money, and celebrity that gave rise to the creation of one of America's most popular practices and a fivebillion-dollar industry.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Pierre Bernard (1875–1955) is not a household name, yet most of us are familiar with his life's work—hatha yoga. Author Love (former managing editor, Rolling Stone), spurred on by his own curiosity, spent seven years learning all he could about this mysterious and intriguing figure. Hailed as "the father of yoga in America," Bernard was a lively character—enigmatic yet outrageous. Love takes the reader along Bernard's fascinating journey, from his childhood in Iowa through prequake San Francisco to Jazz Age New York. Every step of the way, the reader becomes a member of Bernard's inner circle, sharing his triumphs and his disappointments. We are, at times, shocked by Bernard's abilities—which include going into deep trances where he is impervious to pain—and, at other times, amused by his antics. Throughout, Bernard is an attention-grabbing character, and Love does a wonderful job of drawing the reader into his world of magic and mischief. VERDICT All lovers of biography will enjoy this book, as well as readers interested in yoga, or occult or esoteric practices.—Sonnet Erin Brown, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.
Janet Maslin
…a lively and idiosyncratic Bernard biography…"Dr. Bernard seems to delight in being a surprising person," Fortune magazine wrote about this protean character in 1933, and Mr. Love entertainingly explains what Fortune meant.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Eastern spirituality and Western commercialism fuse in this flamboyant tale of an iconic American guru. Journalist Love tells the story of Pierre Bernard, a yoga adept from Iowa who made a splash at the turn of the 20th century by enduring bloody piercings and lacerations under trance. His Tantrik Order of disciples in San Francisco and New York soon gained notoriety; after police raided his schools, Bernard was accused of seducing girls and conducting sacred orgies. Delighted tabloids dubbed him “The Great Oom.” Bernard rehabilitated himself in the 1920s with the Clarkstown Country Club, a yoga-themed resort and rehab center for the rich on the Hudson, financed by a parade of heiresses who fell under his sway. Love makes his hero a quintessentially American character who yoked his mystic bent to a brash entrepreneurialism; with the riches he made from his yoga initiatives, he started a chemical company, an airport, a semipro baseball team with a midget second baseman, and a trained elephant act. Love credits Bernard with changing public perception of yoga from dissolute exoticism to healthful normalcy, but this colorful, frenetic tale reminds us that money is America's true religion. Photos. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Former Rolling Stone managing editor Love delivers a spirited portrayal of the colorful life of early yoga impresario Pierre Bernard (1876-1955). It wasn't the Beatles who brought Indian spirituality to America, the author discovered, but a Leon, Iowa, native and autodidact (born Perry Arnold Baker) who established the first yoga centers from San Francisco to New York City. As a teenager, Bernard came under the spell of a Calcutta-born emigre, Sylvais Hamati, a Tantric yogi and itinerant tutor of "Vedic philosophy." During the course of nearly 20 years, Bernard proved his devoted student of hatha yoga-involving postures, breathing techniques and physical cleansing-as well as Sanskrit, the meditative arts, ethics, philosophy and more. In this straight-laced Victorian era, Bernard's advocacy of physical yoga-as opposed to the Christianized forms then in vogue, espoused by the Theosophical Society and others-raised hackles, especially since most of Bernard's students were young women clad in tights. From San Francisco to the Pacific Northwest, his Tantrik Order, featuring blood oaths, secret initiation rituals and cryptic symbols, became wildly successful among the rich and idle, and Bernard eventually relocated to a Manhattan townhouse. Once the vice squad caught wind of the goings-on, Bernard was imprisoned, branded in the newspapers as the Omnipotent Oom and hounded out of town. He and his new partner, dancer Blanche DeVries, relocated to New Jersey, then to a large estate in bucolic Nyack, N.Y. Financed by well-heeled clients such as Margaret Rutherford Mills and the Vanderbilt family, the ashram held circuses, baseball games, classes and functioned as a celebrity rest retreat, until itsglory waned after the war. Structured in thematic sections, Love's work proceeds with a thoroughgoing vitality. "Genius or fraud?" American guru Bernard garners an evenhanded new consideration. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.58(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
17 Years

What People are saying about this

Scott Turow
This story of how the practice of yoga, physically enlivening and based in Eastern spiritualism, has made its way into contemporary American life and thought is fascinating, eminently readable and eye-opening at many levels. (Scott Turow, best-selling author of Presumed Innocent and the forthcoming sequel Innocent)
Hugh Urban
The Great Oom is a fascinating and important book about a fascinating and important individual. Love has done a brilliant job of excavating the life and times of Pierre Bernard, one of the first practitioners of yoga and Tantra in America and one of the most intriguing, controversial and entertaining figures in American history. Placing Bernard within the context of new spiritual trends, occultism and the fascination with India in the early 20th century, Love has shed important new light on the birth of yoga as a spiritual industry in modern America. It's a terrific read. (Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies, Ohio State University, author of The Economics of Ecstasy)
Mark Leyner
I've never 'done' yoga. So what are the odds of me liking a 'yoga book'? Well, to quote the esoteric philosopher, Gomer Pyle—SURPIRSE, SURPRISE!—The Great Oom is . . . great! A guru, a mystic, a con artist, a prophet, an aviator, a charismatic Casanova, Pierre Bernard is as iconic an American operator as Harry Houdini or Howard Hughes or Elvis. Robert Love deploys an unflagging wit and verve as he chronicles the ways in which we attempt to assuage our insatiable cravings for inner peace and carnal pleasure. (Mark Leyner, best-selling author Why Do Men Have Nipples? and Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?)
T.C. Boyle
The Great Oom manages to be as entertaining as a good novel, while at the same time wearing its scholarship lightly. This is a jaw-dropping story unearthed from our recent history, full of sex and scandal and outrage, and its central figure, Pierre Bernard, is the equal of any schemer we Americans have yet given rise to. (T. C. Boyle, best-selling author of The Women and The Road to Wellville)
Robert Sabbag
A striking reminder of the strange worlds to be found when traveling no farther than your own backyard. (Robert Sabbag, best-selling author of Snowblind and Down Around Midnight)
P. J. O'Rourke
This is a great book and nevermind that I'm personally more interested in getting out of uncomfortable positions than into them. Bob Love fascinates me with The Great Oom. America is founded on the idea that somewhere out there—maybe in the West—maybe in the East—there's a secret of happiness. And there is! Yoga made Pierre Bernard happy—or gave him a darn interesting life, anyway. If twisting yourself into a pretzel and breathing funny is a secret of happiness, how hard can secrets of happiness be to find? In Bob's wonderful telling, Dr. Bernard gives us all hope—and a cramp. (P. J. O'Rourke, best-selling author of Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance)
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Over the last few decades, historians have realized the central role that Tantric yoga has played in America's embrace of Asian religions. What we didn't know was what a great love story it was. With The Great Oom, Robert Love has given us a marvelous early chapter of this American epic—in delightful, careful, and critical detail. Here we have none of the usual naivete or prudery and all of the sophistication and clear seeing that such a history demands. (Jeffrey J. Kripal, professor of religious studies, Rice University, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion)

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Meet the Author

Robert Love was the managing editor of Rolling Stone and executive editor of Best Life. He is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Observer, and the Utne Reader. He lives with his wife in Nyack, New York.

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