20 May 2011


Robert Love. The Great Oom: The Mysterious origins of America’s First Yogi. Penguin Books, 2011

A while ago I read a piece in the papers about a vicar who turned a yoga exercise group out of his church hall because he said it was un-Christian. At the time I mentally filed this along with the “political correctness gone mad” type of story. This book puts the vicar’s action into a historical context, and a remarkable context it is too. 
While we may now may think of yoga as just a rather worthy form of exercise, which I tend to associate with things like cold showers, shopping at farmers’ markets and reading The Guardian, this is far from the full story.

‘The Great Oom’ was born Perry Arnold Baker in the small town of Leon, Iowa, in 1876. The only child by his mother’s first marriage, he took his step-father’s surname, Bernard, when she remarried. This second marriage produced five more children. This seems to have produced a sense of isolation for the young Perry, who escaped his crowded home life by, in his own words, “reading eighteen hours a day”

His interest in the occult and the East developed when he moved to Lincoln, Iowa, to work in the construction trade. Here he met a young Syrian scholar, Syvais Hamati, who became his spiritual guide for many years to come. Under his tutelage he learned Sanskrit and began practicing hatha yoga, and studying Eastern philosophy and religions.

With Hamati he moved around the country, eventually settling in San Francisco. Here ‘Perry’ became ‘Pierre’ and he began demonstrating his yogic exercises to an astonished press: demonstrations such as piercing his cheeks and sewing his lip to his nose. At this time a number of Indian gurus and Hindu monks were visiting the US spreading a form of Westernised Hinduism, which saw feats such as Bernard was demonstrating as dangerous and unnecessary for true yoga.

Bernard, however continued with his promotion of hatha yoga, with its ‘dangerous’ physical exercises. The group he set up in San Francisco was soon attracting attacks being some form of sex-cult, and at times it seems Bernard did not go too far out of his way to change this opinion.

By this time he had gathered a group of acolytes, and the stories about his meetings were attracting the attention of the local authorities, and soon they moved to Seattle, then, via Chicago, to New York. Setting up in premises in Manhattan he continued his work with hatha yoga, and expanding his physical and mental exercises. Again, however, the authorities became interested in his work, especially as some of the newer members of his group were scions of New York’s social aristocracy.

Like some later cult leaders, he was accused of kidnapping and hypnotising wealthy followers - particularly wealthy female followers. He was prosecuted and spent some time on remand in the notorious Tombs prison. However none of the charges stuck and he was able to continue his work. It was at this time that the New York tabloids dubbed him ‘The Great Oom’.

He eventually moved the centre of his operations to the small town of Nyack in the Hudson Valley, where to the consternation of the locals he took over a large estate and established what he called the Clarkstown Country Club (CCC). This developed over the years into a spiritual retreat, study centre and library for those with a serious interest in Eastern philosophy, and a cross between the Betty Ford Clinic and The Priory, for detoxing wealthy socialites and celebrities.

Amongst the people who passed through were characters as varied as Gloria Swanson, Peter Seeger, the Vanderbilts, Leopold Stokowski, who organised concerts at the Club, and Noel Coward.

Gradually from being a dangerous sex-magician, Bernard transformed to a business-man, social entrepreneur, country squire, sports promoter, boxing trainer and aviation pioneer. However, he never quite managed to throw off the slight aura of danger and mystery that kept on producing enemies.

His CCC estate grew and grew, becoming a major local employer. Its visitors and residents, as well as studying Sanskrit, eastern philosophy, religion and physical culture, also performed in fantastic circuses (along with four performing elephants, one of which rode a tricycle), put on plays, concerts and elaborate balls, and took part is a range of sports - Bernard was the first person to promote floodlit baseball.

The CCC also became home to a greyhound track (a bit of a white elephant, this), one of the first commercial airports in the USA, and a menagerie of exotic animals. But throughout all this Bernard promoted yoga exercise as part of a healthy way of life, and as more and more stars, celebrities and politicians became drawn into his circle, the more the practice became accepted as healthy mind and body exercise rather than as a sinister cult.

The depression in the 1930s began Bernard and the CCC’s downward spiral; much of the club properties were sold off or rented out, and many of Bernard’s influential clients and guest began to drift away. At the end his club, property, and his books were dispersed, although his widow continued with a small New York studio and drew in a new generation of celebrity clients. Ultimately Bernard’s legacy was the public acceptance of yoga as a mainstream practice.

This book gives a fascinating account of a complex life, and the background to the strange development of hatha yoga from sinister sex-cult to popular suburban subculture. -- John Rimmer

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