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Reviews: Yoga with a twist - 'Great Oom,' 'Subtle Body'

It's a big stretch to turn the mysterious and the obscure not simply mainstream but routine. A Midwesterner born on Halloween did exactly that with the practice of yoga in the United States.

He was Perry Baker, a name that he'd change to the more continental Dr. Pierre Bernard. Through salesmanship and showmanship, cunning and zeal, the nation's first yogi sparked an industry and created a personality made for talk shows. It's easy to imagine a TV movie.

This mesmerizing Jazz Age guru and operator is the subject of Robert Love's spirited, entertaining and informed biography, "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America" (Viking, $27.95). "Was Bernard a fraud or a genius?" Love asks. "The Great Oom" suggests a bit of each.

But Love concludes that he was the "leader of a cultural vanguard that transformed hatha yoga from a loathed 'Oriental' practice into something vigorous and healthy and American in outlook."

Yoga still is practiced daily around this nation, even at a time when a many-armed goddess suggests multitasking and the fruit of labor is a BlackBerry.

The now-familiar yoga in the United States generally is hatha yoga. It's the combination of breathing exercises, postures and meditation - the stuff of workout books and self-help guides, not necessarily guided by spirituality. In India, where yoga began, the practice is a philosophy linked to the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Love deftly puts Bernard and hatha yoga in context, providing some perspective on how a school of thought about the individual soul and God could end up in a Jane Fonda DVD.

Bernard immersed himself in all the traditions of yoga and taught hatha yoga. He also successfully adapted and sold it, to the point that Gilded Age financiers, heiresses and celebrities funded his lush ashram in Nyack. The Clarkstown Country Club became a playland, theater, circus and clinic that attracted Wall Street, Broadway and Hollywood names.

His neighbors, fittingly, were Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of "The Front Page." Bernard received his nickname, the "Great Oom," from the tabloids, which pursued him for decades, searching for scandals, coming up with sensational headlines and fact-free stories. While not widely known today, Bernard was an "instant celebrity" in the first half of the 20th century.

Over the years, police raided Bernard's schools. He survived arrest, imprisonment and countless accusations of loose morals. Clergymen assailed what they thought was a sex-charged cult. He outlasted them, too. Bernard ultimately took his biggest hit from the Depression and high tax rates.

Journalist Joseph Mitchell visited Bernard in Rockland County toward the end of the lifelong adventure. Mitchell wanted to learn Bernard's motivation and identity. The "Great Oom" described himself as "a curious combination of the businessman and the religious scholar."

Mitchell asked a ticket agent at the South Nyack train station what locals thought of elusive Bernard. The reply: "Nobody knows if he's got religion, but everybody knows he's got money."

Love, a former managing editor of Rolling Stone and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, reports Bernard's story with detail and flair.

Pierre Bernard is an important figure in Stefanie Syman's more conventional account of yoga in the United States, "The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28).

Syman, a Brooklyn-based writer and yoga devotee, delivers a popular history about the potential "of turning yourself into the very thing you worship."

This is an earnest narrative, but meandering, sometimes labored, very heavy on secondary sources. It's seasoned with cameo appearances by advocates from Henry David Thoreau to Margaret Woodrow Wilson, and personalities as different from one other as Aldous Huxley and Jack LaLanne.

She does observe that "yoga is both an indulgence and a penance. It will tone your thighs, and it might crack open your reality."

"The Subtle Body" covers a lot of territory but doesn't go far enough. Pierre Bernard, of course, has a significant supporting role in a cast with no real leads. Syman's chapter on "The Making of an American Guru" is the sharpest in the book.

How couldn't it be?

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