Bernard, Pierre (Arnold) (1875–1955)
A pioneer teacher of hatha and tantric yoga in the United
States. He was born in Leon, Iowa, in 1875 as Peter Coons. As
a young man, he moved to California and worked at various
seasonal jobs like fruit picking and salmon packing. In 1905 he
teamed up with Mortimer K. Hargis to found the Bacchante
Academy to teach hypnotism and ‘‘soul charming’’ (concerned
‘‘Bermechobus’’ Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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with sex mysteries), but the organization disappeared a year
later in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake.
Coons changed his name to Pierre Arnold Bernard after
founding his Sanskrit College in New York in 1909. The venture
was not altogether successful, and Bernard moved to New
Jersey where he married a Miss de Vries, a professional dancer.
Together they launched a highly successful ‘‘health system of
Tantrism,’’ embodying hatha yoga, dancing, and psychophysical
education.
In 1919 Bernard’s organization, the Brae Burn Club, was situated
in a mansion and estate at Nyack on the Hudson river.
The club was well conducted and supported by wealthy followers
and socialites, although the practice of hatha yoga was sufficiently
novel at that date to attract criticism and scandalmongering
from outside. However, it was Bernard’s policy
never to give interviews or contradict false stories. He was
something of a showman as well as an occultist, and he delighted
in staging bizarre publicity stunts, such as his own specialty
dance with a baby elephant.
The tantric side of his activities seemed confined to a sensible
scheme of sex education allied with psychophysical health,
and he said he wanted ‘‘to teach men and women to love, and
make women feel like queens.’’ His enlightened work in bodybuilding
and character-training attracted the interest of Dr.
Charles Francis Potter, a liberal New York City minister and
one of the founders of Humanism. Potter said that Bernard
had ‘‘all the ear-marks of genius’’ and ‘‘combined knowledge
of age-old Indian methods of curing disease of mind and body
with the best of Western methods, plus a refreshing amount of
common sense.’’ By all reports, the club members, mostly professional
and business men and women from New York, were
healthy and happy.
There was an inner circle of the club called ‘‘The Secret
Order of Tantriks,’’ to which a number of wealthy people belonged.
Bernard was their guru, known as ‘‘Oom the Omnipotent,’’
and his initiates would chant their version of the Tibetan
prayer-wheel mantra—‘‘Oom ma na padma oom.’’ Bernard
had a special talent for explaining abstruse Hindu Vedanta and
yoga teachings in crisp, simple language. Affectionately known
as ‘‘P.A.’’ to club members, he was no ascetic and was known to
enjoy a cigar or a game of billiards.
Many well-known and talented people visited the club or became
members, including Francis Yeats-Brown and Sir Paul
Dukes, both pioneer writers on yoga; composer Cyril Scott;
and conductor Leopold Stokowski. There were some later criticisms
that Bernard was influenced unfavorably by his own material
and business success, but in general he seems to have
been a pioneer of hatha yoga and sane occultism in the United
States.
During his period at Nyack, Bernard became director and
later treasurer of the local chamber of commerce. He owned
controlling stock in the bank at Pearl River, served as its president
in 1931, and owned $12 million worth of property in
Rockland County. He closed his yoga center during World War
II and turned over his estate to the Wertheim family, who used
it to house refugees from Nazi Gemany.
Bernard died in Nyack on September 28, 1955, in his eightieth
year. His nephew Theos Bernard, who had been a member
of the Nyack Community, wrote an authoritative thesis on
hatha yoga while at Columbia University. It was first published
in 1944 under the title Hatha Yoga The Report of a Personal Experience
and has been frequently reprinted.
Sources
Bernard, Pierre. In Re Fifth Veda. International Journal of the
Tantrik Order. New York Tantrik Order in America, [1909].
Boswell, Charles. ‘‘The Great Fume and Fuss over the Omnipotent
Oom.’’ True (January 1965) 31–33, 86–91.