SF's sexy yoga cult of yore

Meditate on a time when yoga subverted Victorian society in Robert Love's The Great Oom
Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Rockland County

Sometimes a great yoga class can be a relief. Like, that kind of relief. A pelvic floor loosening, an unwinding, a drowsily loving feeling that usually comes after a pleasurable close (naked) encounter with a certain sexy someone. But I little imagined that American yoga got its limber legs in an elite tantric love nest -- that is, until I read Robert Love's The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. The book tells the story of the revered and reviled Dr. Pierre Bernard, who actually started the debaucherous deep breathing in that Sodom of the early 20th century – the city by the Bay.

I called up Robert – Bob to his friends – to get the inside scoop. “It was the great cosmopolitan center of the west,” Love told me of SF's appeal to the young yogi. “The east was physically coming to the west; the swamis from India would land on the west coast, if not directly in San Francisco. It was a welcoming city to new ideas.” Those new ideas would eventually land Dr. Bernard, aka “the omnipotent Oom,” on the wrong side of the law, and secure for yoga a safe berth in the, admittedly expansive at that time, corrupting-to-young-ladies category in the minds of most Americans.

So yeah, new ideas indeed. Bernard (nee: Perry Baker), came from a poor family in Iowa and had already been studying with Sylvais Hamati, a “Vedic philosopher,” for many years before his triumphant arrival in San Francisco. The city was holding it's Golden Jubilee, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Gold Rush, when Bernard staged a performance of the “Kali mudra.” Basically, he put himself in a trance that allowed assistants to run needles through his face, lips, and tongue. And the crowd goes wild!

No, truly, they did. That kind of deep meditation had rarely been seen before in the U.S. -- and certainly Bernard's performance was the first time that such Hindu learning had been exhibited by a honky. Impressed, a lot of the young richies decided to throw their lots in with Bernard to learn his lady-pleasing feats. The “tantrics,” as they were called, moved into penthouse (for "a little more privacy and unobstructed views of the night sky," those devils) apartments on Ellis, Golden Gate, Pine and Jones Streets, where they had, like, the best life ever, studying yoga sometimes and holding mysterious rites always, which may or may not have -- but according to Love's research, probably did -- include casual sex with other tantrics.

Love, who is quick to point out that he's not himself a philosophy scholar and but a casual practicioner of yoga, told me “hatha yoga has a Tantric underpinning philosophically, which is really -- what's the word -- welcoming in terms of bodily function. Its not Victorian. Sexuality is part of life, part of the Tantric philosophy in that it has the potential to be sacred. There's a strong connection between the yoga that we practice today and the Tantric philosophy in India. Its not unlikely that [sexual rites] would come into play.”

Sweet! I mean, immoral! The powers-that-be didn't dig their youngster tripping quite that light fantastic, so they scooted Bernard off and away, as in they ran him out of town real good. He and his eventually alit in Manhattan, where they again commenced wooing the handsome, supple, and financially well endowed, and where they were to get into even bigger trouble for the supposed abduction and pillage of unsuspecting young ladies. Love's research turns up an interesting mix of intense devotion to Hindu principles and signs of careerism and profiteering on the part of Bernard and his inner circle. Plus, they always wore really form-fitting outfits to yoga class. Those heathens!

I predict yoga yuppies love this book. Really, when was the last time their favorite exercise class was considered subversive? And where, oh where, are these yoga love cults nowadays? Enquiring minds... 

The topic fell to Love in a rather occult manner itself. He had just moved into a cottage in South Nyack, New York, when he found mystical symbols engraved into his new home's bones. An Egyptian ankh over the front door, a brass bell with Kali, the goddess of time and change, reclining erected on a wall of the abode. It turns out, he was living down the road from Bernard's old “country club,” the pastoral setting where the troupe had wound up after being ejected from their more cosmopolitan digs on either coast. 

The writer found himself entranced by the connection, although even yesterday he still couldn't give me an unequivocal answer on whether Love was playing it straight when it came to principled yoga teaching. He answers the “genius or fraud” question of Bernard's legacy (one, in fact, posed by the book's final chapter title) with “a resounding yes. [Bernard] was an American go-getter with a spiritual bent who thought that there was nothing wrong with being successful and enjoying life. You can't really call somebody a fraud if they were teaching and standing up for something for 15 years in front of the slings and arrows of society. I think he put his flag in the ground for yoga, and stood by it. That's a dopey phrase, I'm sure you'll clean it up.”

Which should resonate with all you downward facing dog deviants out there; persevere in your eccentricity long enough, gang, and it's bound to rub off on someone. And sorry Mr. Love, I'm no good at cleaning.


The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America

Viking Press. 402 pages. $27.95

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