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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Yoga owes its American popularity not to some mystic Indian swami but rather to the toil a century ago of a forgotten white man from Iowa once infamous in the tabloids for his insatiable sexual appetite.
That is the revelation of "The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America," a book telling the unlikely tale of Pierre Bernard -- born Perry Baker in Leon, Iowa -- who started to popularize hatha yoga in America a century ago with the help of the Vanderbilts.
These days some 20 million Americans practice yoga, but few have heard of Bernard -- once infamous in the yellow press which derided him as "Oom the Omnipotent" and at one time as well known as circus pioneer P.T. Barnum.
"Yoga was here in America in almost the exact form that we know it today 100 years ago and this fellow with a loose reputation from the middle of the country was the one who made it popular," author Robert Love said in an interview about his book.
"This is the first book that has made the case for Bernard's importance in the history of yoga."
Love paints a fascinating picture of the struggle to make the now popular regimen of exercise and meditation acceptable. Bernard promoted yoga, as well as freedom of sexual expression and women's liberation, at a time when America's social mores were strict and repressed.
"He made yoga safe for Americans and made America safe for yoga," Love said, adding that in the first couple of decades of the 20th century yoga "was so far from mainstream society that it was nearly considered a crime to participate in it."
Yoga outfits, tights and revealing tops were scandalous. Coed exercise sessions were outrageous. Bernard gave tabloids plenty of fodder with his promiscuity and for his a penchant for free sex decades before the flower power era.
He was accused of kidnapping young women for illicit sex and briefly spent time in jail on those charges, which were later dropped. Swamis were viewed as schemers who could hypnotize gullible Gilded Age heiresses out of fortunes.
"Because the practice was foreign and body-centered and was very, very non-Christian, it was difficult for many Americans to process," Love said. "It was wildly weird."
As Bernard promoted yoga in the early decades of the 20th century, the conventional wisdom was that a "sinful wave of yoga ... was befalling and harming American women."
"The Orient was thought of as exotic and even a bit sinful and sexy," Love said.
Bernard's Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York, a suburb of New York City up the Hudson River, became America's first ashram. The yogi also trained heavyweight boxer Lou Nova, was a circus ringleader, and the owner of a baseball team.
It was the Nyack connection that drew Love, who has taken yoga classes but is neither an expert or devotee, to Bernard.
"Like all good stories of the last 10 years it starts with real estate," Love said.
Love and his wife bought a stone cottage overlooking the Hudson River and found it had mystical symbols carved into it. His curiosity led to an investigation into what those symbols meant and to learning about America's first ashram down the hill from his new home.
"I am just a journalist who stumbled upon a great story in my own house," said Love, who spent seven years researching the book with assistance from his wife.
When Bernard's success peaked in the roaring 20s yoga was a niche hobby among the fashionable and elite. It was boosted by its popularity among Hollywood stars in the 1930s and finally gained mainstream U.S. acceptance in the hippie movements of the 1960s, after Bernard's death in 1955.
If Bernard is a forgotten figure, it is because he was simply too controversial for the yoga community, Love said.
"When you have a guy who purports to be a holy man and he has another side to him that loves money and fine things, people don't know what to do with it," Love said. "We want our gurus and holy men to be straight from central casting.
"Bernard was so unique, so fiercely idiosyncratic in his beliefs and in his life that he got lost."
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Patricia Reaney