By Sangeetha Saran
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.
Philip Goldberg proposes that the more than 18 percent of people today who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and the 24 percent that believe in reincarnation, were directly persuaded to this viewpoint by the influence of Indian spirituality and Yoga.
Philip Goldberg writes in the forward that the book could have been 1,000 pages long, and in some places, it feels as if it is. Spanning from the Beatles to positive psychology to the rapper 50 Cent, Goldberg makes a brief case for the principles touching each subject. Topics directly related to Yoga comprise roughly a third of the book, and the short chapter style (each subchapter is no longer than two or three pages) make it easy to read for five minutes at a time. “American Veda” provides the reader with thousands of fascinating facts, such as that the Hard Rock Cafe’s “Love All, Serve All” message came from its co-founder’s guru, whom he credits with saving his life. The book is a fount of information, but not a page-turner.
Fortunately, there is a happy medium. “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America,” aims to show the far-reaching effects of Yoga through interesting characters playing a role in its development. The title refers to the subtle body, one of a series of psycho-spiritual constituents of living beings, according to mystical teachings. Like Goldberg, Syman traces the roots of the movement to Thoreau , and like Love, she covers the tabloid-frenzied exploits of American Yogi Bernard, but she covers other subjects in an easy, readable style as well. She refers to the modern, multifaceted Yoga craze as plastic or “marshmallow” Yoga, which can assist in everything from back pain to pollution. More anthropological in tone than either of the other two books, Syman doesn’t shy away from perceived negatives in the Yoga experience.
All three of these books are intriguing, from the standpoint of demonstrating how arguments about Yoga in America today have existed throughout its time here. An interview with Syman following the release of her book discusses her finding “an 1898 New York Herald article about Yoga which could have almost run verbatim in 1998… a trend story about how the “fashionable set” was doing Yoga,” and debates about “exercise” versus “authentic” Yoga. Charges leveled at Yoga today are apparently not the new insights that critics presume.
If you read only one of these books, make it Syman’s. However, if you have an interest in truly understanding the culture that surrounds Yoga in America, there is a place for all three of these books on your shelf.
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