Friday, June 18, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different: Reading Robert Love’s The Great Oom as a Yoga Insider

Robert Love’s The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America recounts the funny, freaky, fascinating tale of Pierre Bernard – a.k.a., the “Omnipotent Oom,” a taunting label slapped on him by the “yellow press” (the equivalent of today’s rabid talk radio) of the day. If you’re a yoga enthusiast or history buff, buy this book – and if you’re not, consider reading it anyway, because you may find yourself happily sucked in to a really interesting story.

The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in AmericaBernard was born in the small town of Leon, Iowa in 1876. Through some strange synchronicity, as a young teen he connected with one Sylvais Hamati, who was one of the less than 800 Indian immigrants who came to the U.S. during 1820-1900. And not only that: Hamati was probably the only one of these 800 (there’s no way of knowing) who also happened to be a full-fledged Tantrik Yogi.

Bernard studied Tantrik Yoga with Hamati up to 3 hours a day for 18 years. He was, to say the least, totally into it: by 1898, when only 21 years old, Bernard had developed enough mind-body control to perform public demonstrations in which he would go into a deep, death-like yogic trance. Then, he would have doctors stick huge steel surgical needles through his earlobes, cheek, and tongue. After that, they would sew his lips together with thread.

ICK. Pretty stomach turning, really. But also amazing. The towel around Bernard’s, Love writes, would “turn dark with blood.” He would stay in his trance. The thread and needles would be removed from his head. Then, he would stop the bleeding, come out of his trance, and be perfectly fine.

Weird. But when you stop to think about it, frigging amazing. Yogis today certainly aren’t doing anything like that (not that we would necessarily want to . . . ). But. Still. Love also reports that Bernard could “slice his finger deeply with knife or razor” until blood “spurted” – and then, without any external intervention, stop the blood and heal the wound instantly.

Let’s pause for a moment here to note something that you won’t find in your regular book review: that is that Love, who’s a very accomplished journalist, for the most part writes about Bernard/”Oom” in a highly detached and ironic way. Which makes for an entertaining and often quite humorous read. But it’s a very, very different perspective from that of a dedicated yoga practitioner.

This means that some really juicy stuff – such as the deeper medical and cultural implications of understanding yoga as a mind-body practice that might empower one to spontaneously heal deep flesh wounds – is completely ignored. Love writes about Bernard’s demonstration of this “Kali Mudra,” or yogic death trance, like it’s a carnival sideshow – just some sort of freaky joke. (Interestingly, it’s in a sense an updated version of how Hatha yoga was often viewed during the late 19th century, when it was commonly portrayed as either an evil Indian occult art or a form of contortionist sideshow entertainment.) The fact that the ability to spontaneously heal like that is weird, mind-blowing, and inexplicable from the perspective of mainstream science – not to mention our cultural understanding of reality – is completely lost because Love is so good at writing the story as spoof.

More serious minded practitioners may be put off by Love’s often mocking tone. In the end, he does seem to genuinely admire Bernard’s personal audacity and counter-cultural influence. But he also has a really, really good time making fun of the weirder aspects of “Oom” and his followers – who, as the story moves on, may sound discomfortingly like a contemporary cynic’s view of yoga devotees today (e.g., dilettante women who find “life boring, with too much time and money” on their hands).

But this needn’t be a barrier to reading, enjoying, and learning from the book in one’s own way. For me, this meant reading with something of a dual consciousness: enjoying the book on its own terms, while also recognizing that this is very much an outsider’s view of yoga. So as I read, I would also reinterpret Love’s story – which has never been told before and is truly interesting and valuable – from a practitioner’s perspective, looking for interesting subplots and untold stories embedded in this prodigiously researched work.

In a forthcoming post, I’ll talk about one such subplot that, while certainly in the book, can be interestingly reinterpreted from more of an insider perspective: that is, the shift from a fascination with the occult and “sex magick” to a dedication to using yoga as a path to holistic health and the spirituality of everyday life.

Illustrations: Book cover link to; Oom in Kali Mudra death trance; 1935 map of Oom's Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, NY, from the Nyack News & Views.

For more information on the Great (a.k.a., Omnipotent) Oom, check out this website: - "where the philosopher can dance and the fool may wear a thinking cap" (love that quote! - a motto of Oom's Clarkstown Country Club).


  1. I love this book and find it fascinating. I find it fascinating because in what he was teaching, the Great Oom wasn't really that far off from some of the tantric yogis I met at the Kumbh Mela this year.

  2. Linda: Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think that "Oom" embodied some of the weirder (at least for our culture) dimensions of yoga that go back to its deeper Indian roots - but have been largely whitewashed out of how we understand it in the U.S. today. My next post on the book will go into this issue a bit more.
    But speaking of the weirder aspects of yoga -- amazing synchronicity - I had just read the latest post on YOUR blog & was thinking about commenting while I was driving to pick up my son from soccer camp. I came back to find that YOU had just commented on MY blog -- OK, wow. Weird. Love it.