Yoga master Pierre Bernard moves to Seattle in 1906.

  • By Randy Sue Coburn
  • Posted 3/13/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10327

In 1906, yoga groundbreaker Pierre Bernard (1876-1955) moves to Seattle, where over the next several years he will establish four schools to introduce the physical practice of hatha yoga and complementary spiritual studies. His reputation will be tarnished when he becomes the center of a Seattle-based 1910 scandal, but a century later, the enormous popularity of yoga in the U.S. will be attributed in large part to his early efforts.

When the Student Is Ready

Pierre Bernard, born Perry Baker, was 13 years old when he apprenticed himself to Sylvais Hamati, a Syrian-Indian yoga master. Their unlikely meeting occurred at a time when few East Indians lived in the U.S. and in the even more unlikely locale of Lincoln, Nebraska -- an eerie demonstration of the adage that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

For roughly a dozen years, Hamati taught Bernard the asanas, or postures, of hatha yoga as well as Vedic ethics, psychology, philosophy, health, and natural sciences. After moving with Hamati to San Francisco, Bernard became well known for his repeated stagings of the Kali Mudra death trance, a feat in which he yogically slowed his respiration and lay inert as his ears, nose, and lips were pierced with surgical instruments. Bernard grew wealthy from his demonstrations, lectures, and yoga classes. A number of his male students were rebellious young scions of prominent families; initiates signed blood oaths. Bernard moved his base to Seattle in 1906 due to conflict with San Francisco police, fanned by his free-thinking approach to sexuality and taste for occult trappings.

Scoundrel or Simply Misunderstood?

In Seattle as in San Francisco, dozens of eminent followers were recruited, including Judge John Stanley Webster (1877-1962), who went on to be a Republican congressman. One of Bernard's tantric lodges, as he called his schools, is known to have been on Third Avenue and another on the shore of Lake Washington. But he had his eye on New York, and was living there when he became the center of a juicy 1910 scandal -- charged with, but never convicted of, having "inveigled and enticed" a female student from Seattle into moving across the country and having a sexual relationship with him (Love, 57). Which was tantamount, in the overblown yellow press coverage of the case, to "white slave trafficking."

The Seattle Times carried the news about Bernard in a sensational front page story that recounted his local "escapades." One former student who was anonymously quoted said that "this human viper" offered seven different expensive degrees guaranteed to provide nothing less than "mastery of the universe" ("High Priest ..."). The New York Times coverage referred to Bernard with the belittling appellation of "Oom" -- a corruption of "om," the Hindu mantra used in yoga -- and labeled him "a self-styled god" and "head of the Yogi religion" ("'Nautch' Girl Tells ...").

According to Bernard's biographer, the exaggerations and misrepresentations that characterized coverage of his arrest and subsequent trial were fueled by "an American war against yoga, a decades-long conflict waged by the media, clergy, and even the government" (Love, 5). Bernard eventually re-established an influential New York yoga organization with the support of students who were celebrities and socialites. With his wife, Blanche DeVries (1891-1984), Bernard helped train America's first wave of skilled, modern yoga teachers.


Sources: "High Priest of Tantric Order Operated Here," The Seattle Times, May 6, 1910, pp. 1, 2; "'Nautch' Girl Tells of Oom's Philosophy," The New York Times, May 8, 1910 (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20B1FF63E5D11738DDDA10894DD405B808DF1D3); Robert Love, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (New York: Viking, 2010), 5-66, 339-342.

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