Pierre Bernard and his wife, Blanche DeVries, were among the earliest proponents of postural yoga in America. In 1924, they created the Clarkstown Country Club, where yoga was taught to affluent and influential clientele. The network created through this endeavor not only popularized yoga in the West but also advanced the reinvention of yoga as a science of health and well-being rather than as a religious practice.
This article suggests that the pair's success in marketing yoga coincided with a shift in gender roles underway at the turn of the century. Economic and cultural changes led to the rise of a “New Woman” who was not only more financially independent but also more socially and sexually autonomous. At the same time, a crisis of masculinity led to the rise of the “New Man” as men sought out new cultural forms through which to restore their sense of manhood. Bernard's success depended largely on his ability to capitalize on the perceived “otherness” of yoga, presenting it as a resource for Americans seeking to construct new forms of gender identity. Bernard borrowed from the physical culture movement and presented yoga as an antidote to the emasculating effects of modern society. DeVries taught a combination of yoga and sensual Orientalist dances that offered women a form of sexual autonomy and embodied empowerment. By utilizing these strategies, Bernard and DeVries helped lay important foundations for modern postural yoga and its associations with athleticism, physical beauty, and sexuality.
- © 2013 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture