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'The Great Oom': Yoga's Wild Ride To Respectability

May 9, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Yoga, that mystical art that's become a regimen for 15 million Americans, came to this country from the East.

Eastern Nebraska, to be precise.

That's where, back in 1889, a 13-year-old named Perry Baker met his first yogi, and American-style yoga was born.

The Iowa-born teenager soon remade himself with a new name — Pierre Bernard — and his exploits, and yoga's sometimes-rocky journey to respectability, are chronicled in the new book The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.

Author Robert Love tells NPR's Guy Raz how Bernard weathered early rumors of rampant sex and drug use, and later an arrest, to lay the foundation for an empire.

"He was so far ahead of his time that it is no wonder that he was lost to history," Love says. "People didn't know what to do with him. We want our gurus and our holy men to be soft-spoken aesthetics — here is a true American rough-and-tumble original who happened to be a mystic as well."

Bernard rose to fame after moving to New York — where he was soon arrested and accused of misdeeds with a young female student. The charges were eventually dropped, but Love says the case in a strange way made the young entrepreneur's name:

"He was rechristened 'The Omnipotent Oom, loving guru of the tantrics' by the headline writers in the yellow press at the time. He became a kind of infamous celebrity."

Bernard went upscale and created a yoga retreat outside the city for the chattering classes, where entertainment included drag baseball games and even some circus-like acts.

"It was a wild, weird and wonderful thing that he called the Clarkstown Country Club," Love says, "calling it by this opaque name because yoga still had such a louche reputation."

But Bernard did develop a loyal following, one that eventually built today's $7 billion-a-year "yoga-industrial complex." Yet he's not widely know today, his biographer says.

"I think he is a missing link in the great story of how yoga moved from East to West. And Bernard was merely laughed off as a kind of a footnote. I hope my book at least puts the record straight and sets up an argument for him as a real pioneer in bringing yoga to America."

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The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America
By Robert Love. Hardcover, 416 pages, Viking Adult. List price: $27.95
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