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The Spook-tastic Yogis of Yesteryear


The Spook-tastic Yogis of Yesteryear

Susan Park

Yoga and its practitioners didn’t always have such a mainstream existence. In fact, in the ol’ days they were complete outcasts in the United States; ostracized from society and condemned for their lack of regard for norms. They were considered heathens, magicians, evil-natured and manipulative. Their practices were perceived as trickery meant to exploit young women and the wealthy, and to promote the destruction of societal morals, ethics, and unity. The yogis of the early 19th century were often head hunted and harassed by self-righteous moral regulators like Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. One could consider the yogi presence as celebrated in some circles as the way witches of Salem were welcomed in colonial Massachusetts.

To some extent, they may have been asking for it. Their fantastical displays of obscure and occult powers made the gossipers roar, the curious swoon, and the opposition stomp.

Robert Love, author of The Great Oom, chronicles yoga’s hushed, yet wildfire, spread through the United States in the late 1800’s. Specifically, Love’s story follows the life of Pierre Arnold Bernard, possibly the most influential and critical character in the development of the yoga practice that millions of Americans identify with today.

Bernard didn’t merely put his legs behind his head or float his body into handstands. He was able, according to journalists and witnesses of the time, to “put himself into a trance state deep enough to induce anesthesia to the degree that he slept when an instrument cut though his tongue like a fork through a beefsteak” (Love 21). He performed this wild display of extreme mental and physical control at the ripe age of twenty-one in front of a very distinguished group of physicians, scientists, and journalists. The year was 1898 in San Francisco and the debate over whether anesthesia was a necessity or an unnecessary risk was at its peak; Bernard was bent on proving the latter while endorsing the incredible benefits of yoga.

The experiment, which was replicated many times over to various groups, featured a mysterious and lively Bernard in a reclining chair surrounded by excited onlookers. After communicating with his trusted accomplices he initiated the “rare simulation of death by mental power, a self-imposed anesthetic trance… that he called the Kali Mudra” (Love 20). He closed his eyes and drew his senses inward, practicing what I can only imagine was an advanced set of breathing and meditation exercises until reaching a depth of consciousness that borders on non-living. His breathing slowed to a bare minimum, his chest failed to move, and his eyelids peeled back to reveal a dull, lifeless gaze. Once in this comatose state, the physicians began piercing various parts of Bernard’s body: ears, cheeks, nostrils, and upper lip; and proceeded to sew those needles together. The most shocking of incisions was through Bernard’s tongue, to which he responded with not so much as a flicker of his eyes.

           Pierre Arnold Bernard performing    Kali Mudra  in San Francisco—January 26, 1898

         Pierre Arnold Bernard performing Kali Mudra in San Francisco—January 26, 1898

Bernard was given an approximate length of time in which the procedure would be complete and he would need to return to his awakened state. A doctor and professional companion of Bernard’s later reported on this “uncanny consistency and accuracy in his feats of bodily control”, declaring that he had “never seen him miss it more than for six to ten seconds” (22). Bernard was so exacting in his powers that he could, without touching or speaking, put another individual into the same deep trance. He did just that upon awaking from his Kali Mudra demonstration in San Francisco.

According to Patanjali (400 BCE), author of the authoritative compilation of the Yoga Sutras, which is the foundation for most yoga practices and philosophies we associate with in the western world, the devout yogi in control of his mind and body through practice can undoubtedly achieve these supernatural powers. He writes of the yogi, “He does not sink in water; he can walk on thorns and sword blades, and stand in fire, and can depart this life whenever he likes” (Yoga Sutras no. 40). He claims, “The Yogi can enter a dead body and make it get up and move, even while he himself is working in another body” (Commentary by Swami Vivekenanda 39).

These types of yogi “tricks” are still common today. Found in small and big cities alike throughout India, gurus and mystics demonstrate their powers through abstinence of water and food for months; some yogis hold a single hand overhead for years, resulting in a bone-thin, emaciated limb that symbolizes his devotion and will-power; some walk on hot coals or thick needles; and some even claim to levitate.

It’s believed that we only use about 10 percent of our brains, right? Who’s to say these yogis haven’t tapped into an additional 5 or 10 and we’re just too afraid to admit that magic is actually a thing? A thing that any of us could make happen-- all it takes is a little meditation, breath work, and physical development?

Well, that’s one way to motivate yourself into going to the 6p Halloween costume classes on Friday the 31st—you may not levitate or put your neighbor into a trance, but you could win a prize!

Baby steps.


- Erin Nichole Mooney