Why Americans Love Yoga

It has taken a century and a half to discover the secret to its appeal.

Yoga is a triumphant American survivor. Where other esoteric or foreign-born spiritual practices have veered off course, endured only in the margins of society, or failed altogether, yoga has thrived. Theories abound as to why Americans have taken to yoga. Maybe it’s because yoga, with its quiet poses and careful breathing, provides the perfect ballast to stressful American lives. Maybe it’s because yoga offers a cure for American body-hating Puritanism. Or maybe it’s because yoga offers spiritual transcendence, an hour at a time, all within the confines of your yoga mat.

Yoga started out on the edges of American life, the province of poets, seekers, dreamers, drifters, bohemians. It has journeyed to the center of things, to our neighborhoods, our gyms, our schools. Now, with the practice settled into the mainstream, it’s fitting that we have two new histories of yoga in America that seek to understand how and why so many of us ended up here, blissed out in cobbler’s pose. Reading these books, I wonder whether the secret of yoga’s lasting allure is maybe more obvious, and more down to earth, than we devoted practitioners might like to admit.

As the title of her exhaustive historical survey telegraphs, Stefanie Syman trains her eye on the body as the engine of transcendence in The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga. The subtle body—the yogic system that identifies energy pathways up and down the spine and throughout the body—provides the, well, skeleton for Syman’s book. She astutely shows how yoga’s versatility as a practice has helped it adapt to ever-conflicting historical currents.

From the very start, the American reception of yoga was a blend of rhapsodic spiritualism and harder-nosed skepticism. In 1857, inspired by the burgeoning Orientalist intellectual movement, Emerson published a poem titled “Brahma” in the very first issue of the Atlantic magazine. Emerson’s poem played with the yogic idea of nondualism: Everything is god; difference is illusory. “Sunlight and shadow are the same,” he wrote. Prefiguring mainstream impatience that remains to this very day, the New York Times called the poem an “exquisite piece of meaningless versification.” Needless to say, that didn’t impede the transcendentalist fascination with the mystical East.

In Swami Vivekananda, a Western-educated Hindu teacher from Bengal who came to Chicago in 1893 for the World Parliament of Religions, Americans got the kind of charismatic spokesman who can help make spiritualism more accessible. Vivekananda’s talks focused on the religious aspect of yoga, which dealt with how to use meditation to become closer to god. He didn’t teach the more physical practices—in other words, the poses—which are commonly called hatha yoga. This wasn’t a cynical whitewashing of yoga for the American masses. In India, yoga has countless streams and forms, and the physical practices were not as widespread as the more overtly spiritual practices. Vivekananda was a hit. A cadre of New Englanders with an appetite for the spiritual and the ascetic set up conferences and camps where he could hold forth.

But America still awaited a native-born early adopter, who would find a more popular pitch for proselytizing yoga. He was Pierre Bernard, a showman, yoga adept, and social climber who built a yoga empire at the turn of the last century. In The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America —part cultural history, part biography, part yarn—Robert Love brings a suitably irreverent eye to Bernard’s story and his less than purely spiritual appeal. Pierre Bernard was born Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa, in 1876. When he was 13, he was shipped off to live with a distant cousin in Nebraska. There, young Perry, bright and personable, met up with a South Asian by the name of Sylvais Hamati. It was a serendipitous intersection, given that, as Love notes, “fewer than eight hundred Indians in total immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1900.”

Perry, already an avid reader of the occult literature that was a common preoccupation of the day, signed on to study with Hamati and spent the next few years of his life immersed in Tantric yoga. Hamati’s Tantric tradition emphasized secrecy and a ritualized relationship between student and teacher. Perhaps most important—and in opposition to the teachings of Vivekananda—Tantra emphasized physical practice. “Bernard read Vivekananda’s work and took from it what he needed,” Love writes, “but he stuck fast to his opinion about the value of physical yoga.”

Teacher and student moved out to San Francisco. By 1898, Perry Baker—now known as Pierre Bernard—was on the eve of making his name in spectacular fashion. At a gathering of 40 doctors and other distinguished guests, Bernard performed the Kali Mudra, or death trance. Using techniques taught by Hamati, he put himself into a state of unconsciousness. Once he was knocked out, he showed no response as a doctor stuck enormous needles and pins into various sensitive parts of his body. Bernard’s demonstration won him instant national fame, or at least notoriety.

His yogic journey took him from San Francisco to Seattle to New York City, picking up followers at each stop. He served as medicine man, hypnotist, teacher of physical culture, ringleader, sexual revolutionary, and keeper of secrets. He enjoyed a powerful sway over his students, who came to him because they were sick, or inveterate spiritual seekers, or just bohemians looking for some unusual kicks. Bernard told one of his pretty followers, “I am not a real man. I am a god, but I have condescended to put on the habit of a man, that I may perform the duties of a yogi and reveal the true religion to the elect of America.”

The police rousted him as often as they could think up excuses. With each police raid, Bernard grew a little more famous, until finally he was a big enough celebrity to merit his own nickname: The Great Oom. Bernard eventually set up the country club/yoga retreat on the Hudson River that would be his home for the next 20 years. The club went from success to success. A few Vanderbilts, some vaudevillians, a slew of authors, even a famous prizefighter all passed through Bernard’s facility. He would lecture through the night on Tantric philosophy. His team of healthy young teachers taught yoga classes that sound very similar to what goes on at the yoga studio today. And Bernard had a genius for thinking up other fun stuff to do. The club put on circuses, fielded co-ed baseball teams, farmed its own food, even raised elephants.

Bernard’s fortunes failed in the Depression, and the center of American yoga migrated to Hollywood. Stars including Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Marilyn Monroe, and Ruth St. Denis were committed to a physical culture routine that kept them in tip-top shape. When Indra Devi (née Eugenie Peterson of Latvia) arrived in town in 1947, she had the good sense to open a hatha yoga school. It was a sensation, and Devi’s take on yoga was enormously influential.

Six years later in a book that proved a hit, Forever Young, Forever Healthy, Devi brought about perhaps the most important refinement in the history of yoga in America. She made it all about the poses. Syman writes that when Devi uses the word yoga, she is “referring to only the asanas.” This is a turning point in the history of American yoga, which in Devi’s classroom and writing made its sharpest turn yet from esoteric pursuit to health-giving practice available to all.

But for yoga to survive in the 1960s, it had to adapt to the new transcendentalists, also known as the hippies, and their obsession with altering consciousness. Syman deftly shows how these yogis turned to chanting and breathing to produce the same mind-blowing effects they had previously obtained through pot and hallucinogens. The emblematic image of the era is the moment that the Beatles met the Maharishi. Yoga was high profile, high stakes, and sometimes just plain high, as gurus debated whether or not LSD was a real help with god-consciousness.

Soon enough the pendulum swung away from what Syman calls the “psychedelic sages,” with their rigorous programs and their sometimes corrupt ways. Yoga’s final simplification was under way, as it became a practice that helped you overcome aches and pains. Yoga Journalmagazine was born. Eventually, yoga classes became more prevalent. “To imagine yoga ameliorated pain but didn’t overwhelm your entire consciousness or dictate much else about your life was to wrest it back from the swamis,” Syman writes. Yoga has continued on this path up to the present time, though Syman includes a final chapter called “The New Penitents,” chronicling the devotees of Bikram and Ashtanga yoga, who seek a profound intensity in their practice.

Syman does a wonderful job of showing how yoga, like a virus, has kept evolving in order to survive. Yet I wonder if she works a little too hard, missing a core truth in her emphasis on how control of the subtle body helps yoga students “turn mere human flesh into a vehicle for the divine.” Her twisting story suggests that she may be straining in her claim that the story of yoga in America is driven by “this possibility—of turning yourself into the very thing you worship, call it God, superconsciousness, Brahman Krishna, Kali, Siva, the Self.” This is certainly one of the projects of yoga, but if superconsciousness was what Americans were after, why wouldn’t we simply devote ourselves to meditation?

I think the most useful clue to the real secret of yoga’s allure in the United States can be found instead in Awakening the Spine, an eccentric yet necessary little book published in 1991 by Vanda Scaravelli, a revered Italian-born yoga teacher who practiced well into her 80s and wrote about yoga with wisdom and rare clarity. In her book, she posed the question: Why do we do yoga? And then she offered an answer: “We do it for the fun of it. To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.”

Pierre Bernard understood the fun of yoga. In 1931 the Great Oom put it this way to a reporter: “I’m a curious combination of the business man and the religious scholar … a man of common sense in love with beauty.” He was onto an astonishingly modern idea of how we do yoga in America. With the yoga hoopla of half a decade ago behind us and studios nestled inconspicuously in all kinds of neighborhoods, this simple secret is much easier to see: We are people of common sense, in love with beauty. We do yoga because we feel good when we fit our bodies into these odd shapes and our breath into these odd patterns. It took us a century and a half to learn this particular kind of fun, and we’re not giving it up anytime soon.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.