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 émigré, 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 its glory 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.