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The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America Hardcover – April 29, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Eastern spirituality and Western commercialism fuse in this flamboyant tale of an iconic American guru. Journalist Love tells the story of Pierre Bernard, a yoga adept from Iowa who made a splash at the turn of the 20th century by enduring bloody piercings and lacerations under trance. His Tantrik Order of disciples in San Francisco and New York soon gained notoriety; after police raided his schools, Bernard was accused of seducing girls and conducting sacred orgies. Delighted tabloids dubbed him The Great Oom. Bernard rehabilitated himself in the 1920s with the Clarkstown Country Club, a yoga-themed resort and rehab center for the rich on the Hudson, financed by a parade of heiresses who fell under his sway. Love makes his hero a quintessentially American character who yoked his mystic bent to a brash entrepreneurialism; with the riches he made from his yoga initiatives, he started a chemical company, an airport, a semipro baseball team with a midget second baseman, and a trained elephant act. Love credits Bernard with changing public perception of yoga from dissolute exoticism to healthful normalcy, but this colorful, frenetic tale reminds us that money is America's true religion. Photos. (May)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Few Americans practicing hatha yoga today will have heard of Pierre Bernard, the “first American yogi.” Journalist Love only found out about the notorious mystic and chimerical genius nicknamed the Great Oom when he and his wife moved to Nyack, New York, and discovered that they were living on what was once part of Bernard’s lavish country club-cum-ashram. Love diligently researched the forgotten tale of how yoga, once demonized as obscene and dangerous in the States, became a popular path to health, while retrieving the rollicking story of a true American original. Born in Iowa in 1876, the future guru found the unlikeliest of mentors, a yoga master from Calcutta. Once he became adept at yoga’s most dramatic practices, Bernard, a brilliant, charismatic, and fearless entrepreneur, weathered scandals, legal battles, and jail to create a Jazz Age empire that attracted the rich and famous. Yoga was the magnet, but Bernard’s upscale bohemian commune also offered semipro baseball, theatrical productions, circuses, and sexual freedom. Bernard concurrently managed banks, became an “aviation czar,” broke hearts, and made enemies. Love writes with all the zest, wit, and empathy his protean subject deserves as he tells this dazzling tale of a self-made man of holistic convictions and archetypal flaws. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (April 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067002175X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021758
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #767,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Mark Michaels & Patricia Johnson on May 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Great Oom is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Tantra and Yoga in America, and it should delight the general reader as well. Pierre A. Bernard was an extraordinary and paradoxical individual, perhaps both genius and fraud, and his life story has implications that extend far beyond his role as "the father of American Yoga." Robert Love is both a thorough researcher and a superb storyteller. He has done a brilliant job of illuminating a life that was heretofore shrouded in mystery.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jancee Dunn on May 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I had never heard of Pierre Bernard before I read this book; now I'll never forget him. This meticulously-researched history of the early days of yoga in this country has everything: scandal, drama, sex, eccentric characters, performing elephants..I read it in one gulp.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By David H. Peterzell PhD PhD on June 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well I've read two amazing new books on yoga this year. One is Deborah Adele's "Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice," which covers long-neglected keys to yoga practice (see my review). The other is Robert Love's "The Great Oom." Add me to the list of people who loved this book!

The main topic (Pierre Bernard and his determined efforts to teach and sell hatha yoga in early 20th century America) will probably be fascinating to anyone interested in yoga or US history. And Robert Love knows how to tell a good story, that's for sure. I was amazed at the quality of the writing from start to finish.

As others have noted, Bernard appears in the book as a mysterious, resourceful, strange figure. Imagine some combination of Citizen Kane, PT Barnum, Harry Houdini, and Deepak Chopra. He strikes me as being the prototype for a wide variety of powerful and flawed (or perhaps misunderstood) gurus who seem to turn up with great frequency on the American spiritual scene. I'm still astonished at the remarkable twist of fate that brought Bernard and Hamati (his teacher) together, and the powerful intent that enabled Bernard to overcome dark and profound obstacles, despite challenges to him and his tantric/yogic vision.

The book weaves an intricate tapestry, with each thread representing its own remarkable subplot. Some of my favorite threads/subplots included :
1) The appearance of the reknowned Theos Casmir Bernard, Pierre Bernard's famous nephew, who was himself a legendary early practitioner/scholar of yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. And while Theos' appearance in the story was perhaps not a surprise, his story was completely unexpected;
2) The cameo appearances of Paramahansa Yogananda and other esteemed yoga practitioners from India.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Albert Baime on May 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book is about a lot of things: a wonderfully quirky main character, a new spiritual movement, sex, mischief, and scandal. But in its own weird way, it's really about...America. A page turner indeed.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Deborah Barchi VINE VOICE on July 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Great Oom by Robert Love is a fascinating and well researched study of the life and teachings of the Iowan born Perry Baker who early in his young adulthood transformed himself through intense study and practice into Dr. Pierre Bernard, a man who for decades was considered the foremost expert on Tantric yoga in the United States.

At first Bernard tried to sell Tantric yoga as a kind of side show entertainment, offering his body up for forms of ritualized, public torture, which he, in his self imposed Tantric state, was able to endure without pain or bad side effects As his reputation and passion for Tantric practices grew, Bernard was able to win more and more friends and supporters. Interestingly, he seemed to be particularly effective in drawing the love and loyalty of the richest of America's ruling classes.

With funding from these powerful friends, 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. Not just the wealthy but hundreds of gifted and famous actors, singers, dancers, and musicians were all drawn to the promise of a life of bliss and joy proffered by Dr. Bernard.

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, which it was rumored included sexual orgies and all manner of bizarre and disgusting behaviors. The newspapers knew a juicy story when they smelled one. Branding Pierre Bernard "the Great Oom", they hounded him through most of his life.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Michael Harrington on January 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
'THE GREAT OOM' is an impeccably researched, little known story of the man who started the yoga movement in American. The tale is quite remarkable, told with stereotypical scholarly detail, loaded with facts, full of information and great quotes. The story speaks for itself, though it appears to me that the writings don't reflect someone who actually has a deep, direct experience of authentic tantra yoga.

The journey tells of Iowa born (1876) Pierre Bernard, who became the underground engine of tantric yoga in the late 19th and early 20th century America. Bernard, who was dubbed quite derogatorily by a savvy writer of the day, with the catchy moniker: 'The Great OOM', lead an amazing life.

His tantric philosophy comes out in the many quotes and point to the authentic wisdom Bernard embodied. The book is like a Leekey archeological find, an amazing artifact and a solid 4 star read. The history built around this one man was well crafted by the author and editor. The subject matter is of great allure to the culture of our time.

Not unlike today's popular hatha yoga teachers, the pseudo gurus, who run into boundary issues related to sensual desire though simultaneously deliver deep wisdom, Bernard's charismatic personality, sagely charm and spiritual powers held sway over his many followers. Just like the modern hatha yogi's today who stray into inappropriate sexual liaisons, Bernard's insights were dimmed by the adoration of young, beautiful female students. In essence, he had direct experience and deep inner knowing but THE GREAT OOM's belief in the female admirers God-like reverence of him allowed his ego to usurp his best intentions, catapulting him into myriad disasters.
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