'The Great Oom' Traces 'Improbable' Life of Yoga Master
Debbie Barchi, Barrington Library director, often gives books as gifts. She reviews here one of five books she plans to give this year. We're running one review each Sunday until Christmas.
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. Early in his young adulthood, Baker 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.
With funding from his powerful friends, including the Vanderbilt and Goodrich families, 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.
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, where it was rumored that sexual orgies and all manner of bizarre and disgusting behaviors took place. The Nativist movement, which grew in strength as the 20th century proceeded, was deeply resentful of any "un-American" teachings.
Church-goers 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.