With yoga classes, studios, and instruction popping up by the thousands in playgrounds, private clubs, gyms, libraries, and even church basements, it’s hard to realize that there was a time in America, just a mere generation or two back, when yoga and anything associated with Indian ritual or culture was regarded with deep suspicion and often with outright hostility.
The Great Oom by Robert Love is a fascinating and well researched study of the life and teachings of the Iowan born Perry Baker who early in his young adulthood transformed himself through intense study and practice with Hindu practitioners and teachers into Dr. Pierre Bernard, a man who for decades was considered the foremost expert on Tantric yoga in the United States.
At first Bernard tried to sell Tantric yoga as a kind of side show entertainment, offering his body up for forms of ritualized, public torture, which he, in his self imposed Tantric state, was able to endure without pain or bad side effects As his reputation and passion for Tantric practices grew, Bernard, always a charming and persuasive personality, was able to win more and more friends and supporters. Interestingly, he seemed to be particularly effective in drawing the love and loyalty of the richest of America’s ruling classes. As his popularity grew, he was able to form powerful, lifelong attachments with wealthy allies from illustrious families, such as the Vanderbilts and the Goodriches.
With funding from these powerful friends, he built the first Ashram in America. Located on the Hudson River, the lavish and luxurious Clarkstown Country Club (the CCC) became a Mecca for the wealthy seeking ways to live a happier life and to escape the pressures of their wealth or celebrity. The exclusive club promised and often delivered remarkable results to bored and depressed heiresses and frustrated jazz era millionaires, but there was a price to pay. Bernard expected loyalty, a lot of money, and unquestioning belief in his abilities and his beliefs. The members lucky enough to join the inner circle had to sign an oath, in blood, never to reveal his teachings. Not just the wealthy but hundreds of gifted and famous actors, singers, dancers, and musicians (the world famous conductor Stokowski was only one of a growing number of devotees; the iconic folk singer Pete Seeger lived at the CCC with his family for a time) were all ineluctably drawn to the promise of a life of bliss and joy proffered by Dr. Bernard.
But it was not all smooth sailing. The citizens of the sleepy town that rubbed shoulders with the CCC were deeply suspicious of the “goings on” at the club, which it was rumored included sexual orgies and all manner of bizarre and disgusting behaviors. The nativist movement which grew in strength as the 20th century proceeded was deeply resentful of any “un-American” teachings. Churchgoers feared the influence of Satan in the person of Dr. Bernard and his “cult” following; the local police felt called upon to regularly raid the place to search for white slaves. The newspapers knew a juicy story when they smelled one. Branding Pierre Bernard “the Great Oom”, they hounded him through most of his life.
Scandals, jail time, bankruptcy, betrayal, and divorce all crossed the Great Oom’s path, but he also knew great wealth, power, influence, and joie de vivre. Whether he was a true yogi and sage, master of the greatest mysteries of the universe, or a plausible rogue, able to bilk millions from his credulous followers, there is no doubt that Pierre Bernard had a profound and lasting effect on the practice, understanding, and acceptance of yoga in the United States. Reading The Great Oom takes us on a roller coaster ride not only of Bernard’s rise and fall, but of the fortunes of the American people as they strove to shape their lives and control their destinies through two world wars, the Depression, rebounding prosperity, and huge social change.