America's First Yoga Scandal
by Robert Love
The founder of Anusara yoga recently stepped down amid accusations of sexual impropriety with his students. But America's first yoga scandal dates back to America's first yogi. Here's the story of "the Great Oom."
On the morning of Tuesday, May 3, 1910, New York City’s papers carried fresh headlines about a midnight police raid on an Upper West Side yoga school. “He Says He’s A Swami,” the New York Herald wrote. “His Students in Tights,” added a scandalized Tribune. That morning, Pierre Bernard, a yoga teacher from the Midwest, found himself behind bars, enmeshed in a scandal that would tar his name—and the practice of yoga—for decades. By the end of the week, the story of “the Great Oom” was national news.
Bernard was charged with abduction. In the legal language of 1910, he was said to have “inveigled and enticed” one of his students, 19-year-old Zelia Hopp. In truth, Bernard was the young lady’s guru. With the blessing of Hopp’s parents, he had been teaching her basic breath control and hatha yoga postures to help with her heart condition. Hopp was just one of dozens of wealthy disciples who were paying the mysterious stranger to impart secrets from the East—and perhaps a little extra. Was Bernard a doctor? A cad? An authentic guru? When he appeared in court after the raid, the first thing the puzzled judge wanted to know was, “What is this man?”
The Temple of Oom
America’s first yogi was born Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa, in 1876. As a boy, he loved reading, especially books about spirituality, hypnotism, and the occult. In 1889 he met a master of all of these things, a Syrian-Indian teacher of Tantric yoga named Sylvais Hamati. Hamati believed that the body is divine, and the practice of hatha yoga is central to its sanctification. Along with postures and pranayama (proper breathing), his teachings included sex rites, magic, and the worship of the goddess Shakti.
After Baker became Hamati’s follower, the pair moved to San Francisco, where Baker changed his name to Pierre Bernard. He started teaching hatha yoga to anyone who could afford the huge fee of $100 (about $2,300 in today’s dollars). But trafficking in such subversive beliefs during the Victorian age was dangerous business. Bernard and his band of Tantriks were chased from San Francisco in 1906 and from Seattle in 1909, finally regrouping in New York, where he ended up in front of the befuddled judge.
Bernard’s court case was a raucous five-day feast for reporters, and readers across the nation were spellbound. Female witnesses nearly fainted from fright when confronting their guru. Some of the accusations were wild, such as one about Bernard using his spells to run a white slave ring. Others were likely true: tales of blood oaths and lovemaking in a red room outfitted with a raised bed.
On May 23, the New York Grand Jury returned two indictments against Bernard, for abduction and fraudulently impersonating a doctor, and he was sent to New York’s notorious Tombs prison for the next three months.
Cults from the Same Cloth
In the end, Zelia Hopp and the other witnesses refused to testify, and the charges against Bernard were quietly dropped. But the damage to yoga—and anything seemingly related—was done. The next year, a Christian mystic named Evelyn Arthur See was arrested in Chicago and charged as a white slaver. His trial was a virtual replay of the Bernard proceedings. Meanwhile, back in New York City, “esoteric psychologist” Dr. William Latson, who taught Hindu dancing as a way of freeing his female patients from their libidinal restraints, committed suicide in his office.
Combined with Bernard’s notoriety and See’s conviction, the Latson scandal turned public sentiment against yoga and mysticism; newspapers began publishing feature-length exposés blaming yoga for “domestic infelicity, and insanity and death.” The federal government opened official investigations against various swamis and Hindu priests. America was fascinated, horrified, and obsessed with what The Washington Post called “This Soul Destroying Poison of the East: The Tragic Flood of Broken Homes and Hearts, Disgrace and Suicide.” Yoga had become public enemy No. 1.
Bernard eventually regrouped and founded successful yoga schools in New York City and Nyack, N.Y., where he entertained lavishly, raised a herd of elephants, and taught yoga to the cream of high society, including the daughters of Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. But he was never fully able to escape the infamy brought upon him by his trial. As for yoga, it was only after Bernard’s death in 1955 that the practice got its second chance.
Robert Love is the author of The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. Image credit: Bernard Collection, Historical Society of Rockland County.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!