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The History Of Yoga In America: Part 3

by Ben HoshourMarch 7, 2013

Click here for Part 1 & Part 2


The seminal American figure in the exclusionary period was an outrageous character, Pierre Bernard (1876–1955), whose life story seems ready-made for a HBO mini-series. It includes bizarre love triangles, ménage à trois, tantric sex, Vanderbilt heiresses, private detectives, spies, circus elephants, baseball, and heavyweight boxing. Syman devotes her longest chapter to this only-in- America tale, and Robert Love his entire book. As pleasure reading, I highly recommend The Great Oom.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 3Bernard

Love’s narrative begins, improbably, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the young teenager Perry Baker met an immigrant yogi named Sylvais Hamati and became his protégé. From Hamati, Baker-cum-Bernard learned Sanskrit, Tantra, and Hatha, including advanced pranayama techniques such as “Kali-mudra,” the simulation of death by slowing one’s breathing and heart rate to imperceptible levels. In 1898 Bernard performed this feat of “self-hypnosis” in San Francisco to an audience of doctors who used needles to pierce his earlobe, cheek, lip, and tongue to prove the occurrence of auto-anesthesia. In California, Bernard also organized the Tantrik Order (T.O.), a secret society complete with blood oaths, vows of silence, and seven degrees of knowledge. Amalgamating Tantra, Theosophy, and Rosicrucianism, Bernard minted his own esoteric traditions and initiated ingénues in tantric rituals. As Hugh Urban shows in Magia Sexualis (2006), Bernard and several counterparts in Europe began the process by which Western sex magic fused with Tantra and the equally unrelated Kama Sutra to become the “yoga of sex.”

In 1909, after parting ways with Hamati, Bernard moved to Manhattan and began teaching Hatha techniques to clients from the theater world. His secret ritual life inevitably attracted the attention of the vice police, who raided his address the next year (the first of many times) and arrested him in his velvet T.O. high priest ceremonial robe. Congress had just passed the Mann Act, and the city district attorney hoped for a white-slavery show trial. The “Loving Guru” languished for over one hundred days in jail until the prosecution dropped its charges. Throughout his career, Bernard possessed a Houdini-like ability to elude the law, a prowess exceeded only by his knack for liberating stifled female socialites of their nervousness and inheritance. Many of the true-life events in The Great Oom read like soft-porn versions of Edith Wharton plots.

To escape the scrutiny of law enforcement and the yellow press, Bernard shifted his base of operation to Nyack, in the Hudson Valley, in 1918. There, with his wife and business partner, former Broadway dancer Blanche DeVries, Bernard created the Clarkstown Country Club (C.C.C.). Bankrolled by impressionable women from the Vanderbilt family, the club grew into a major success. Bernard rebuilt his reputation and invested in real estate, the chemical industry, banks, and stocks. He built a stadium for his minor league baseball team and produced air shows at his airport. As one local man told a reporter: “Nobody knows if he’s got religion, but everybody knows he’s got money” (p. 237). Before the Great Depression drove the C.C.C. into decline, it boasted a glittering membership of Manhattan bluebloods, bohemians, celebrities, and high-profile artists such as Leopold Stokowski. The C.C.C. was something like a cross between an ashram and the Bohemian Grove: a summer camp for the idle rich who wanted to overcome addiction or boredom. Robert Love calls the place an “institutional bridge” between Brook Farm and Esalen, and a forerunner to rehab retreats and lifelong learning centers (p. 343). Dues paying members practiced early morning Hatha, performed chores on the dairy farm, and attended afternoon music and dance classes that culminated in a season-ending professional-level circus. On summer evenings, Jazz Age vacationers gathered in the club auditorium to hear Pierre lecture on Indian philosophy—or, as Love nicely says, Veda and Tantra filtered through “an energetic Midwestern American” (p. 326). The “Guru of Nyack” (or “Dr. Bernard,” as he preferred to be called) amassed a library of Sanskrit and Orientalist scholarship unsurpassed by any university in America. Although he never traveled abroad, he corresponded with Indian scholars and even financed a short-lived Vedic research center. As the years passed, Bernard deemphasized sex magic and Americanized his yoga even more. Like Walt Disney, he used the word “Imagineering” to describe his can-do approach to life and business.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 3Despite having so much sex with so many women, Bernard apparently produced no children. However, his extended family included an equally extraordinary yoga figure. His estranged nephew Theos Casimir Hamati Bernard (1908–47) earned global fame as the first Westerner to gain entry to the temples of Lhasa. This real-life Indiana Jones story is discussed by Love, detailed more fully by Douglas Veenhof in White Lama (2011), and covered exhaustively by Paul Hackett in Theos Bernard, the White Lama (2012). While in the limelight, Theos produced Hatha Yoga (1945), the first American sourcebook on the physical discipline.

Despite the former fame of the “White Lama” and the “Omnipotent Oom,” the initial mainstreaming of yoga in America owes more to women, Syman argues. Blanche DeVries trained a cohort of teachers at her Hatha studio for women in Manhattan after separating from Pierre in the 1930s. Many of her students subsequently moved to Los Angeles, which became, after WWII, the leading center for Hatha in America. The city’s first postural studio belonged to another sui generis figure, Indra Devi (1899–2002). Latvian-born Devi traveled to India as an aspiring young dancer and actress, starred in early Bollywood films, married a Czech diplomat, met the raja of Mysore, and through him convinced Krishnamacharya to take her on in 1937 as his first Western and female student. Ten years later, Devi set up shop on Sunset Boulevard, where she feminized Mysore yoga and promoted it as a gentle, natural way to deter illness and delay aging. Devi introduced Hatha to Hollywood actresses such as Greta Garbo and Jennifer Jones. Gloria Swanson wrote the testimonial introduction to Devi’s first yoga book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy (1953). For movie stars and housewives alike, Devi made posture practice accessible. She did not push Pantañjali, pranayama, or subtle physiology.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 3

Devi’s gynocentric yoga did not lead directly to today’s yoga, notwithstanding the similarities. In the 1960s, as detailed by Syman, yoga in America convulsed and bifurcated, becoming either more mind- or more body-oriented. Indian swamis immigrated freely again, and many Western celebrities like the Beatles took the “hippie trail” to the subcontinent. The Transcendental Meditation (TM) taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became a global phenomenon. TM instantly supplanted Kriya Yoga (the discipline taught by Yogananda, which included a modicum of Hatha) as the most common form of yoga in America. Meanwhile, building on the experimentations of Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, the erstwhile professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert married psychedelic drugs to Hinduized yoga and created a new sacred science of chakras-cum-neurotransmitters. At Woodstock, before the rock ‘n’ roll, Swami Satchidananda guided audience members in a mantra chant and told the drug-addled crowd that they could get high with their minds. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka Hare Krishnas) recruited members from the same demographic. Simultaneously, in the opposite direction, Krishnamacharya’s star student Iyengar promulgated a rigorous, anatomically precise method of Hatha, complete with custom props. He presented his bodily version of yoga as the fullest expression of Pantañjali. (On the mind-body spectrum, one can imagine Vivekananda on one end, Iyengar on the other, and Yogananda in the middle.) With help from Yehudi Menuhin, Iyengar became the great global popularizer of Mysore yoga. His authoritative Light on Yoga (1965) offered Westerners the first comprehensive how-to guide for postural practice, fully illustrated. Many Americans trained with Iyengar at his academy in Pune, and many more borrowed freely from his book to devise studio classes and instructional programs for daytime television.

In dramatic fashion, Syman portrays a tug of war in the 1970s and 1980s over the soul of American yoga—a contest between the denominational and the physical, between Hindu-inspired devotees and Iyengar-based exercisers. Both sides lost in the short term. TM peaked in the 1970s, then precipitously declined; into that void came the meditational Siddha Yoga of Swami Muktananda. He, like many immigrant gurus of the period, was eventually disgraced by allegations of sexual impropriety (a topic explored more fully in Thomas A. Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes’ Gurus in America [2005] and Lola Williamson’s Transcendent in America [2010]). The new American Hatha avoided scandal, but its reputation suffered by dint of association. A fringe movement in the crowded world of fitness and self-help, it languished in relative obscurity in the “cultural wilderness,” Syman says (p. 267). Hatha could not compete against aerobics, the dominant exercise trend of the 1980s.

Click here for part 4

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 3

Ben Hoshour
Ben Hoshour
Ben Hoshour has been a spiritual seeker and a religious philosopher for over 15 years. He is a student-practitioner-teacher of Saiva Tantra and is currently under the tutelage of Christopher (Hareesh) Wallis at the Mattamuraya Institute, Christopher Tompkins at Shaiva Yoga, and Paul Muller-Ortega at Blue Throat Yoga. He lectures and teaches in San Diego, CA and is the process of finishing his first book on the history and development of the Tantric tradition. He also specialized in the Tantric roots of Hatha Yoga and the history and origina of Modern Postural Yoga.
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  • em

    This article is a completely plagiarized summary of Robert Love’s book, The Great Oom. Next time you want to publish unoriginal ideas at least attempt to use different language, maybe the occasional original advective. If you want the real deal just go straight to the source. This blogger has been discredited in my opinion. Regurgitating word-for-word someone else’s work is blasphemy. Duh.

    • yogamatt

      Is it really?? I had no idea.

      Is it word for word?

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