The Great Oom
The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America
By Robert Love
(Viking Adult, Hardcover, 9780670021758, 416pp.)
Publication Date: April 29, 2010
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The amazing story of how yoga came to America-and the charming rogue who made it possible
In Jazz Age New York, there was no place hotter than the Clarkstown Country Club, where celebrities such as Leopold Stokowski mingled with Vanderbilts, Goodriches, and Great War spies. They came for the club's circuses and burlesques but especially for the lectures on the subject at the heart of the club's mission: yoga. Their guru was the notorious Pierre Bernard, who trained with an Indian master and instructed his wealthy followers in the asanas and the modern yogic lifestyle.
Robert Love traces this American obsession from moonlit Tantric rituals in San Francisco to its arrival in New York, where Bernard's teachings were adopted by Wall Streeters and Gilded Age heiresses, who then bankrolled a luxurious ashram on the Hudson River-the first in the nation. Though today's practitioners know little of Bernard, they can thank his salesman's persistence for sustaining our interest in yoga despite generations of naysayers.
In this surprising, sometimes comic story, Love uncovers the forgotten life and times of the colorful, enigmatic character who brought us hatha yoga. The Great Oom delves into the murky intersection of mysticism, money, and celebrity that gave rise to the creation of one of America's most popular practices and a fivebillion-dollar industry.
Robert Love was the managing editor of Rolling Stone and executive editor of Best Life. He is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Observer, and the Utne Reader. He lives with his wife in Nyack, New York.
Yoga may be practiced by 15 million Americans today, but author Robert Love says its roots in this country go back 121 years â�� to a 13-year-old Iowan whose life-changing moment happened in Lincoln, Neb. He is the subject of Love's new book, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. More at NPR.org
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A Booklist Top Ten Biography of 2010
"Full of titillating detail, Love's account is exemplary popular history, tracing the intersection of influence, taste, and charisma in the propagation of practices that were originally esoteric, tantalizing, and scandalous."
-The New Yorker
"Pierre Bernard is a truly Gatsby-like character...and Love's portrayal of him has the savor of fiction."
-Megan Doll, The San Francisco Chronicle
"Entertaining and enlightening . . . This compelling history features movers and shakers from the worlds of entertainment, art, high society, finance, and industry."
-Mitch Anderson, Yoga Journal
"Part cultural history, part biography, part yarn-Bernard brings a suitably irreverent eye to Bernard's story and his less than purely spiritual appeal."
-Claire Dederer, Slate
"A striking reminder of the strange worlds to be found when traveling no farther than your own backyard."
-Robert Sabbag, author of Snowblind and Down Around Midnight
"If you're reading this after performing the downward dog in the morning, you likely have Bernard to thank . . . His wild and sprawling life . . . was one of those classic 'only in America' tales that has largely been forgotten until now."
-Tim Perone, The New York Post
"Over the last few decades, historians have realized the central role that Tantric yoga has played in America's embrace of Asian religions. What we didn't know was what a great love story it was. With The Great Oom, Robert Love has given us a marvelous early chapter of this American epic-in delightful, careful, and critical detail. Here we have none of the usual naivete or prudery and all of the sophistication and clear seeing that such a history demands."
-Jeffrey J. Kripal, professor of religious studies, Rice University, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
"The Great Oom is a fascinating and important book about a fascinating and important individual. Love has done a brilliant job of excavating the life and times of Pierre Bernard, one of the first practitioners of yoga and Tantra in America and one of the most intriguing, controversial and entertaining figures in American history. Placing Bernard within the context of new spiritual trends, occultism and the fascination with India in the early 20th century, Love has shed important new light on the birth of yoga as a spiritual industry in modern America. It's a terrific read."
-Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies, Ohio State University, author of The Economics of Ecstasy
"Robert Love's entertaining biography depicts a bold and successful liar . . . [who] learned well the lesson of all successful purveyors of self-help from the Buddha to Bikram Choudhury: . . . target the very rich."
-The New York Times Book Review
"Thoroughly researched, vividly written, and often fascinating."
-The New Republic
"... rollicking and well-researched history of yoga's early days in America ... Mr. Love has the gift of the good biographer: he has sympathy for his subject's 'flamboyant weirdness' but the rigor to present him for what he was."
-The Wall Street Journal
"A lively and idiosyncratic Bernard biography . . . [with] wonderful anecdotes [and] prodigious research . . . Best known as the Omnipotent Oom, [Bernard] is a colorful, still-marginal figure who was prescient about the popularity of yoga in American life. He was also a headline-making swami-entrepreneur who defied his bland Iowa origins to become one of the most renowned eccentrics of the Jazz Age. And the legacy of his program and his acolytes is still with us."
-Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Throughout, Bernard is an attention-grabbing character, and Love does a wonderful job of drawing the reader into his world of magic and mischief. All lovers of biography will enjoy this book, as well as readers interested in yoga, or occult or esoteric practices."
"The story of how the practice of yoga, physically enlivening and based in Eastern spiritualism, has made its way into contemporary American life and thought is fascinating, eminently readable and eye-opening at many levels."
-Scott Turow, best-selling author of Presumed Innocent and the forthcoming sequel Innocent
"I've never 'done' yoga. So what are the odds of me liking a 'yoga book'? Well, to quote the esoteric philosopher, Gomer Pyle-SURPRISE, SURPRISE!--The Great Oom is...great!...Robert Love deploys an unflagging wit and verve as he chronicles the ways in which we attempt to assuage our insatiable cravings for inner peace and carnal pleasure."
-Mark Leyner, best-selling author Why Do Men Have Nipples? and Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex?
"The Great Oom manages to be as entertaining as a good novel, while at the same time wearing its scholarship lightly. This is a jaw-dropping story unearthed from our recent history, full of sex and scandal and outrage, and its central figure, Pierre Bernard, is the equal of any schemer we Americans have yet given rise to."
-T.C. Boyle, best-selling author of The Women and The Road to Wellville
"This is a great book and nevermind that I'm personally more interested in getting out of uncomfortable positions than into them. Bob Love fascinates me with The Great Oom. In Bob's wonderful telling, Dr. Bernard gives us all hope-and a cramp."
-P.J. O'Rourke, best-selling author of Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance
"...a spirited portrayal of the colorful life of early yoga impresario Pierre Bernard... 'Genius or fraud?' American guru Bernard garners an evenhanded new consideration."