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BOOK REVIEW: The Great Oom - The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America

Andrew W. Griffin
"The Great Oom" by Robert Love
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By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report,editor

Posted: January 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America  by Robert Love (Viking) 2010

As someone who has taken a keen interest in the history of “alternative” and “fringe”American culture from the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, it was serendipitous to run into a wonderful new book about yoga’s introduction into the U.S. by a scandalous and misunderstood man known as Pierre Bernard.

The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America is a fascinating story that had to be told eventually, and thankfully a thoughtful and thorough writer and biographer such as Robert Love was able to share Pierre Bernard’s amazing and truly American story in a readable and entertaining fashion.

Bernard nicknamed “The Great Oom” by sensationalist newspapers but was actually born as Perry Baker in a small Iowa town.

Baker,according to Love, “was a small-boned,delicate-looking boy – elfin in appearance – and a voracious reader. Though his formal education never progressed beyond grade school, he once bragged that as a teenager he buried his face in books “eighteen hours a day,” retreating into the world of occult literature to escape from the crush” of a growing family.

By that point, in the 1880’s,  his mother had remarried and Baker became Perry Bernard. Sent to Lincoln, Neb. to school he soon ran into a guru named Sylvais Hamati who took the willing pupil under his wing and taught the teen hatha yoga, which his teacher said was healthful,as were ancient Indian techniques involving the “meditative arts” and various breathing techniques which Buddhists and Hindus in India and the Orient had learned for centuries.

Bernard,writes Love, was ready to take his newly-adopted yogic skills to anyone willing to learn. This was an era where people were looking for answers be it via Theosophy or spiritualism or other fringe religious ideas. Bernard was clearly a man of his time when the latest elixir or health craze was all the rage (i.e.Kellogg and The Road to Wellville).       

It should be noted that Bernard was considered good-looking, charming and a bit of a conman. But the bored ladies of high society found something in the young guru’s mysterious “yoga,” particularly in San Francisco and later in New York.

But not everyone was awestruck by this mystical hustler bringing Eastern ways into polite society. Bernard ran afoul of yellow journalists and self-appointed “morality police” like U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock who saw The Great Oom as a Professor Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes.

But the wily Bernard is able to stay a few steps ahead of the Victorian-minded purity police of the time and opens schools where students would able to learn and “expound on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Vedas, and the Tantras, as well as Sanskrit language and science” with a “revolving faculty …(of)credentialed professors from India.”

Bernard was well on his way to making yoga and the ancient Indian ways acceptable to people in the West.

Ultimately,Bernard and his followers relocate to bucolic Nyack, N.Y. and open a Chautauqua-esque property called the “Clarkstown Country Club” where intellectual discourse was the norm and exotic animals like elephants were as common as house cats.

It should be noted that Bernard was beloved by many women and his seemingly hedonistic lifestyle was not without episodes of jealousy and loss.

Still,the upper classes of New York society, including the super-wealthy Vanderbilts,would make it up to Nyack to learn more about yoga or Eastern health methods or simply join a baseball team that Bernard help start during the carefree Jazz Age.

But with the Depression on its way, hard times befell Bernard and his yoga camp. Eventually his followers would move on, leaving Bernard mostly alone until his death in the mid-1950’s. And while Bernard was largely forgotten beyond Nyack in the following decades, Love has helped reintroduce this amazing American to interested readers.

Writes Love: “The man who was born into the world as Perry Arnold Baker had outrun his enemies for half a century. He had outfoxed the police and outlasted the critics, and achieved the goal of his life’s work: yoga had taken root in America.”

Loving Love’s book as much as I did, I hope that a talented director takes a stab at turning the story of The Great Oom into a feature film. It’s a great tale and atrue one, to boot.

Butin the meantime, I urge folks to read The Great Oom. It’s reads like a great story of old and explains the legacy of yoga and how acceptable it is now in Western society.

We have Pierre Bernard to thank for that.

Grade- A

Copyright 2011 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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