CULTURE JUNE 15, 2010
The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America || by Stephanie Syman
Viking Adult, 416 pp., $27.95 || Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp., $28
In January 1898, a young man with extraordinary breath control placed himself in a trance before a San Francisco audience of doctors, journalists, and other distinguished men. With his heart rate imperceptible, and his body apparently lifeless, a large needle was passed through his earlobe, his cheek, his lip, and his nostril—and he did not flinch from his self-induced torpor. A photograph shows him lying with his head tilted slightly to one side, blood trickling from his punctured face, while a respectful and elegantly attired crowd of mustachioed men watch quietly.
This was the Kali Mudra, the death trance, and the guinea pig was Pierre Bernard, the quixotic showman who is the subject of Robert Love’s book. The assembled audience, which included news reporters and a photographer, ensured that Bernard would be famous overnight. The doctors among them gave the spectacle an air of scientific legitimacy. Bernard, who in his adolescence had studied yoga techniques with a mysterious visitor from India, seemed to channel forces that might be harnessed for good or evil, for science or the occult. At a time of great intellectual fascination with—and xenophobia for—all things from the East, Bernard’s spiritual theater was filled with both menace and promise.
The essential elements of that evening’s demonstration—a crucial moment in the history of yoga in America—would define Bernard’s public career for the next half century. It was a mix of circus bravado and immense self-discipline, American hucksterism, and authentic spiritual exploration. Late in Love’s account, we get Bernard’s own perfect summation of what he offered his many disciples: “The purpose of Yoga is to prepare us from getting cheated; to enable us to make better bargains, and to get what we go after!” You can read this in two ways: yoga translated into the crass language of marketing, commerce and self-actualization, or a profoundly American metaphor for Reinhold Niebuhr’s evergreen prayer: “The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” At some level, wisdom is all about getting the best one can, settling when necessary, and never cheating or getting cheated.
Bernard was not christened Pierre, nor was he born a Bernard. He was originally Perry Baker, who entered the world in Iowa in 1876. Early in his teenage years, he fell under the influence of Sylvais Hamati, a wandering tutor of “Vedic philosophy,” who seems to have given the boy the essential groundwork for the study of Eastern religion and yoga practice that would eventually propel Bernard into proximity with the highest echelons of society. His career, which began in San Francisco, continued in Seattle and eventually came to full flower in New York, was a roller-coaster, much of it spent under the intrusive scrutiny of the law and the media. But there were a few decades, especially the 1920s, when Bernard enjoyed the entire smorgasbord of the American dream: wealth, fame, fast cars, adoring disciples, and unfettered access to sex.
The apex of this trajectory is thoroughly detailed in Love’s biography. Anne Vanderbilt, second wife of the railroad tycoon William K. Vanderbilt, was attracted by Bernard’s magnetic powers, as were her two daughters. With Vanderbilt money flowing into his purse, Bernard purchased large tracts of land in Nyack, New York, built himself a lucrative ashram, and served an elite crowd of the spiritually restless, drawn from Manhattan and from around the country. Celebrity guests came and went, including Leopold Stokowski, Helen Hayes, and Maxwell Anderson. The young Pete Seeger spent time there as well, as did a now-forgotten Who’s Who of heiresses, artists, and wealthy neurasthenics. Although the ashram was initially centered around yoga, spiritual study, and communal work, it slowly morphed into an elite pleasure park for rich people, dubbed the Clarkstown Country Club, which offered lectures by the voluble Bernard, but also amateur theatricals, concerts, circus acts, and sports.
Bernard, whose tantric rituals earned him a salacious reputation during his early San Francisco years, went on to be a solidly respectable and entrepreneurial town father of Nyack. The man who was sneeringly christened “the Great Oom” by the tabloids promoted flying and built an airport during the infancy of aeronautics, tried his hand at dog racing, and constructed sports facilities. He hosted celebrity fundraisers during the Depression and the Second World War, and built up a complicated portfolio of local investments. At its height, Bernard’s Nyack community was substantially responsible for much of the local Nyack economy.
Love’s lively, well-written, but ill-proportioned book devotes much of its bulk to the often surreal events at the Clarkstown campus during its heyday, a sometimes tediously detailed and chronological account of the fabulous comings and goings, the glitzy parties, and the internecine romances of the Jazz Age. More interesting, but more difficult for a historian, given Bernard’s powers of deception and obfuscation, are the early years, when the Iowa boy was inventing (and often abusing) his guru persona. And even more important for the reader who is not particularly interested in yoga is some sense of Bernard’s place in the larger cultural landscape.
Love surveys Bernard’s early career as best he can, including a fascinating account of Bernard’s early legal troubles, born of suspicion, Puritanism, and sometimes legitimate worries about his cult-like tactics of suasion. But he touches only lightly on the larger questions. How does America produce these characters, these semi-charlatans with just enough substance to gather serious acolytes? Why is our soil so fertile for the seeds of transplanted or invented religions and spiritual ideologies? Why is the restless democratic character so eager to bond to the irrational, the hierarchical, the mystical?
All too many cultural histories announce ambitions far beyond anything the author can prove: that this flood, earthquake, or assassination defined its age, that some substance, thing, or organization is somehow the Rosetta Stone for understanding why the world is the way it is. Although Love acknowledges the precedents set by Bernard and his followers—they anticipated much of the cultural revolution of the second half of the twentieth century, and were “an early center of multiculturalism”, and created a “forerunner of modern recovery institutions”—he is admirably restrained when it comes to larger claims. Even the book’s subtitle, “The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America,” is partially undermined by Love’s account, which acknowledges the complexity of yoga’s history, and the existence of people such as Hamati, who were circulating yoga ideas well before Bernard built his A-list ashram.
Love is himself a resident of Nyack, and lives in a house encrusted with the mystical symbols of Bernard’s yoga followers. His book was born out of local curiosity, and unfortunately it sometimes reads that way. It is thoroughly researched, vividly written, and often fascinating. But it stays too close to its subject, and too close to Nyack. There are protean American archetypes with which Bernard might productively be compared: Tom Sawyer, getting the neighborhood boys to pay to paint his fence for him, or Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard. The biography might have been expanded in those fruitful directions.
More thorough and in many ways more useful, is Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body, another book chronicling the history of yoga in America. Syman’s account is more methodical, and perhaps not as lively, as Love’s biography. And her chapter on Pierre Bernard is openly indebted to Love’s work, even though they disagree on certain things, such as the date when Bernard first met Hamati (1889 in Love, 1887 or 1888 in Syman). Syman’s history is by necessity more sprawling and diffuse, as she deals with the multiple strands and different definitions of yoga. But it is also a better primer in the subject, and the author is more helpful in explaining the esoterica that distinguishes, say, a right-handed Tantric (transgressing in the mind only) from a left-handed Tantric (indulging in a spiritual practice that culminates in ritual sex).
Syman opens her history at the White House Easter Egg Roll of 2009, at which First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed the crowd to enjoy a wide range of happy, healthy entertainments: “We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.” It is a remarkable vantage point for a retrospective look at a longer and richer history of yoga, beginning a century and a half earlier with the orientalist fascination of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Syman makes the provocative and fascinating claim that Henry David Thoreau, who built a cabin on a lake in Massachusetts in his effort to “live deliberately,” is the “first in a lineage of American Yogis.” And she repeatedly asks (if not always answers) the questions one wishes were more evident in Love’s book: What is a guru? Is he a monk who can teach us how to transcend the beastliness and boredom of human existence? A magician who can unlock the mysteries of the occult? A charlatan or a God-man?
It is odd to have two histories of yoga arrive almost simultaneously. Is there something about the current moment? Has yoga—however one defines it—morphed into something new, and matured into something uniquely American and settled that it demands historical treatment? Syman’s opening scene, yoga at the White House, hints at something extraordinary in its American evolution. The fact that no one in the media had a cognitive dissonance meltdown from this suggests that the age of Yoga Militant is definitely a closed chapter.
Love’s book is a good yarn, but it does not offer a larger perspective. That may be because he, like so many early yoga acolytes, was seduced primarily by Bernard the man rather than Bernard the teacher, who hoped to introduce America to a respectable, homegrown, self-improving brand of yoga. Syman’s book, which surveys yoga from coast to coast, including its rich California history, goes a considerable distance in remedying the local preoccupation of Love’s. But there remains to be written a more comprehensive history of yoga as part of the national susceptibility to, and craving for, spiritual dogmas—and more, the adaptation of these borrowed spiritualities to, or their wholesale fabrication for, the fast-paced, no-nonsense pragmatism of the American character.
Philip Kennicott is culture critic of the Washington Post.