OK quick! What Midwesterner got obsessed with the occult, was tangled up in sex scandals and simultaneously became an overnight sensation bringing yoga pop to the masses?
No, it’s not Madonna! It’s Perry Baker! Who? No worries if you haven’t heard of him, Mr. Baker, or his preferred nom de yog, Pierre Arnold Bernard, was a yoga icon way before our time. In fact, in the early 20th century monsieur Bernard came to be America’s first yogapreneur and is widely responsible for setting the precedent for much of the hoopla (and billions of dollars) surrounding what we know today as the yoga lifestyle (business). In the 30’s! Thankfully, and we imagine due to a direct result of yoga becoming so incredibly profitable today, Bernard’s fascinating story of mysticism and tycooning is once again coming to light with a book by Robert Love entitled “The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.” Perhaps you’ve heard about it – you can even read an excerpt at NYTimes.com.
As the story goes, Bernard posited himself as a yoga “god” of sorts, known to followers and wide-eyed observants alike as “The Great Oom” or “Oom the Omnipotent.” Sure he was a yogi, but PB was a such a successful and shrewd businessman he could put ‘ol megaton balls to shame! We gotta admit, this is truly a captivating tale of yoga, scandals, shyster-y business and Western commercialization. Not much has changed!
Anyway, as we sit on the edge of our zafus, sipping coconut water and awaiting the release of surefire summer sizzler Eat, Pray, Love, we thought it useful to put together a few fun facts about the “father of yoga” the guru dude who helped make it all possible. This message brought to you by
Here you go…
10 Things You Need to Know About Pierre Bernard, America’s First Yogapreneur
1. Birth of a Yogapreneur: Perry Baker was born in Leon, Iowa, in 1876. He soon moved to Nebraska where he began his teenage yoga studies under Syrian Indian teacher named Sylvais Hamati – both the physical poses, and mystical spiritual teachings. Rumor has it he traveled to India during this time.
2. 15 Mins: Pierre Bernard (because ‘Perry Baker’ was just too pedestrian) migrated to San Francisco as many ‘enlightened’ folk do, and engaged in a notorious publicity stunt that set him on his way. Basically he made himself “unconscious” by slowing his breath and then allowed a doctor to sew his upper-lip to his nose. Naturally, people took notice, and Bernard hopped on the jetstream of his newfound fame to launch his first school in San Francisco in 1898.
3. The Tantrik Order: PB created an exclusive members-only yoga club called the Tantrik Order. Unfortunately, San Fran wasn’t hip enough for opium use and allegations that Bernard required “sacramental sexual intercourse” in order to join the group, so they sent him on his merry freaky way.
4. Finding his niche: After a brief stint in Seattle, where we imagine they were just as uptight about sex and drugs (prudes), Bernard found himself in the big city of Manhattan to set up shop and things only got better from there.
5. ‘Love Cult’: What? NY isn’t hip either? sheesh. In 1909 Pierre established a school on 74th Street and it wasn’t long before he was soliciting mistresses and being arrested for kidnapping and basically holding Ms. Gertrude Leo hostage. The “love cult” was splashed all over the papers. But any news is good news right?
6. Nyack nestle: With lack of evidence, charges were dropped and Bernard (and his following which had amassed by now) found what would be there new home nestled up in Nyack, upstate NY – where all the loopies go to roost. Aw, we kid Woodstock. The newly settled group came to be known as the Clarkstown Country Club.
7. Elephant show: Now with his own digs, a new gal (he married showgirl Blanche DeVries), and a herd of elephants, Bernard could finally focus on his life’s work: bringing yoga to the public, especially the wealthy (like the Vanderbilts and trustfunders) and living out his days lecturing on Eastern meets Western philosophies, and being the peoples’ guru. There may have been some more sex and drugs, and a few raids, but those are just little details.
8. A place to call Om: The CCC flourished and became a sanctuary, an ashram, a recital hall for musicians and artists, and an impressive library of Bernard’s own travelogues and scholarly material.
9. He had a few other interests: “At the time of his death in 1955 Pierre Bernard was a bank president, an officer in Nyack on the local Chamber of Commerce, the head of a large real estate holding company and a member of more than twenty societies, including the British and American Philological Societies, the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Asiatic Society. He was also a mason.” (source)
10. One man brand: Pierre Arnold Bernard managed to single-handedly pioneered this yoga beeswax, paving the way for what we know today as a full-fledged industry. And he didn’t even have a talent agent to market him OR a brand of tight pants to promote and proliferate the yogic lifestyle in pop culture!
10a. Pierre passed away in 1955 at age 79.
There, now you don’t even have to read the book. Just kidding! We still highly recommend further reading, whether it be Robert Love’s book or the various websites we scraped up from the interwebs:
NyackHistory.org – There’s a house tour May 15th!
Also, Life at the Clarkstown Country Club will be sold at the event. This is the republication of a book chronicling Pierre Bernard, Blanche DeVries, and their fascinating scene.
www.omnipotentoom.com – the unofficial official site of Dr. Pierre Bernard
Very interesting interview with author Robert Love at Salon.comon on his new book.
Would LOVE to hear everyone’s comments on this guy… what do you make of his story and the connection to yoga today?
Earlier…Kent Katich Eschews ‘Weird’ Yoga to Become NBA’s Guru Yogapreneur
Yogi, You’re A Star! Yoga Talent Agency Launches Website, Makes You Famous
when I first read about him I thought that he doesn’t sound at all dissimilar to some “yoga masters” nowadays….
and I’m looking forward much more to Sex and the City 2 over EPL…anyday!
Thanks, YD! I had never heard of this guy (though love the way his name and experiences foreshadow the other PB, Paul Brunton). I look forward to following your links and reading the book.
Have you read Mark Singleton’s wonderful and groundbreaking book – and labor of love – Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice? It was just published…
I get the impression Bernard was like most of us—a combination of positive and not-so-positive qualities. The problems happen when we forget that we’re all human, after all. That’s what I love about masters like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. They understand that to be ordinary is divine.
JUST finished reading the book & came across your post. Thanks for writing about this — it’s a great read, highly highly recommended! My view is that threading through all the great stories of sex, elephants, celebrities, & scandal are a lot of really interesting thoughts on the cultural character of American yoga — all of which are relevant today. It’s a fascinatingly mixed bag — while “Oom” did much crazy & questionable shit (particularly re money & sex), there was also a lot to admire. The 7,000 volume library on Eastern spirituality; push back against repressive Victorian morality; radical standards re women’s freedom; use of yoga to heal depression & anxiety; creation of a center for experimental art, thought, and play — all really cool & courageously path-breaking for the time. While yoga today seems to have mainly lost the wild experimental edge that “Oom” generated in his heyday, there’s still a lot of diamonds to be found in that enveloping consumerist muck.
” ‘ol megaton balls” tee hee
Well, I guess I’ll be reading the book now for sure. The NYT piece, by itself, wasn’t enough to push me over the edge so thanks for fleshing things out some. What an interesting fellow. A bit of a midwestern, bourgeois, bohemian mix.
Just finished Robert Love’s book, loved it! There had been a big void for me, from the 1890’s until the 1950’s, in the history of hatha yoga in America, and I felt sure that Pierre Bernard’s story would fill that void. This book answered all the questions that I didn’t have time to research myself. Like many of yoga’s modern celebrities and revered gurus, controversy is a part of his story. But this doesn’t change the fact that his influence was huge and far reaching. He built the foundation for hatha yoga in America. When the disciples of Swami Sivananda, Krishnamacharya, and others arrived here, they found a fertile ground for sharing the teachings thanks to the work of Pierre Bernard. Here in Texas, a number of studios have been dealing with the state requiring that we be licensed–how cool to know that PB had to deal with a similar issue in 1910!
I’ve been visiting Nyack, NY for years. I always knew it had a deep yoga history, but not this deep. By the way, Nyack is in the Lower Hudson Valley region, not in upstate NY. Very clsoe to NYC.
Thank you for so graciously telling me “what I need to know” about Pierre Bernard. I was so very “need-ful” of your invaluable and, of course, unbiased information.
Your blog is a great example of the ugly underbelly of the internet–the way it enables any idiot capable of hunting and pecking on a keyboard to make trash available to the masses.
@ David Moen – no one ever said a blog was supposed to be unbiased/impartial. It’s not a newspaper…it’s a BLOG. Duh.
David Moen, I am totally wth you!!! you have said it perfectly!!! Thank you. It takes ignorance and envy, to distore someone or something positive like Yoga and meditation… I truly believe in Kundaliny Yoga n I love shakti.. it changed my life!!!!