Author shows yoga owes debt to forgotten Iowa man

Fri May 14, 2010 5:20pm EDT
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By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Yoga owes its American popularity not to some mystic Indian swami but rather to the toil a century ago of a forgotten white man from Iowa once infamous in the tabloids for his insatiable sexual appetite.

That is the revelation of "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America," a book telling the unlikely tale of Pierre Bernard -- born Perry Baker in Leon, Iowa -- who started to popularize hatha yoga in America a century ago with the help of the Vanderbilts.

These days some 20 million Americans practice yoga, but few have heard of Bernard -- once infamous in the yellow press which derided him as "Oom the Omnipotent" and at one time as well known as circus pioneer P.T. Barnum.

"Yoga was here in America in almost the exact form that we know it today 100 years ago and this fellow with a loose reputation from the middle of the country was the one who made it popular," author Robert Love said in an interview about his book.

"This is the first book that has made the case for Bernard's importance in the history of yoga."

Love paints a fascinating picture of the struggle to make the now popular regimen of exercise and meditation acceptable. Bernard promoted yoga, as well as freedom of sexual expression and women's liberation, at a time when America's social mores were strict and repressed.

"He made yoga safe for Americans and made America safe for yoga," Love said, adding that in the first couple of decades of the 20th century yoga "was so far from mainstream society that it was nearly considered a crime to participate in it."


<p>A man practices yoga by the seaside during early morning in Mumbai May 6, 2007. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe</p>