about yoga in americaBy Dr. Paul Jerard, E-RYT 500

The rich history of Yoga in America has been mined for material by a number of writers recently, and has produced several surprisingly diverse publications. “The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America” (2010) by Robert Love, “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” (2010) by Stefanie Syman and “American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West,” (2010) by Philip Goldberg all address the same general topic, but focus on different aspects of the experience.

The books span in focus from narrow to impossibly wide (the Western world) with varying degrees of success. “The Great Oom,” details the story of Pierre Bernard, sometimes known as ‘the first American yogi,’ originally from Iowa. He learned Yoga from a Calcuttan master and established orders in San Francisco and New York, where he was raided by police and questioned on morality charges numerous times. Bernard was supported emotionally, financially, and instructionally by the women who were his disciples and at times, his practice had a definite cult of personality. His success culminated in opening a Yoga-themed retreat and rehabilitation center on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York in the 1920s.

The wealthy of the day, including Vanderbilt family members, came to the Clarkstown Country Club, as it was known, to study under Bernard and his followers. He became the savior and major employer of the town, running a chemical company and an airport, as well as a semi professional baseball team. Bernard even purchased an elephant, which he used in novelty “acts” at the club. The book provides an intriguing look at a true American success story: an entrepreneur with a knack for self promotion, a flair for drama and the “right place at the right time.” Occasionally, the story is bogged down by lengthy descriptions of the social intricacies of Bernard and his group, but the book provides a window to a character most people know little about. It does not, however, provide insight on the effects of the introduction of Yoga in America.

That is the goal of “American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.” Rather than use a single influence like Bernard as a thread around which to weave the narrative, Goldberg uses thousands of smaller examples to support his hypothesis that without realizing it, Americans have adopted Vedantic principles and swallowed some of the eastern principles whole. Yoga in America is here to stay.

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