Beatles and MaharishiLong before Michael Murphy and George Leonard coined the term “human potential movement’ in 1965¹ and The Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in August 1967 Ida Rolf, Ph.D. was interested in the development of human potential. In addition to osteopathy and homeopathy one of the biggest influences on Rolf’s understanding of the human body was yoga. Throughout the 1920s she participated in a group that practiced yoga asanas and held meetings and lectures in Nyack, New York with American yogi, Pierre Bernard. Rolf has this to say in her 1978 book Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing® and Physical Reality.

His father had been a tantric and he was brought up as a tantric. He had spent most of his childhood in India. In tantric families, boys of seven years of age are taken from their families, put into another home of the same culture grade, and are brought up with the other family. In Hindu tantric families, through the centuries, the basis of the boys’ education was the Tantras—the five Indian sacred books. These they had to learn by rote, which is something like the mental equivalent of doing five hundred cartwheels.²

I believe Rolf is referring to Sylvais Hamati here, a Syrian-Indian, who Bernard met at the age of thirteen in Lincoln, Nebraska. Hamati was an accomplished Tantric yogi and he and Bernard traveled together from the late 1880s into the early 1900s. Bernard made his first dynamic splash into public view on the front-page of the New York Times on January 29, 1898. “He had given a public demonstration of his Kali-mudra or ‘death trance’ to a group of physicians in San Francisco, during which he seems to have successfully slowed his vital functions sufficiently to mimic death.³”

American Yogi Pierre BernardBernard capitalized on this publicity becoming known as “The Hypnotist Dr. Bernard” and quite a famous personality in the San Francisco Bay Region before he left the area around the time of the 1906 earthquake. He published what is likely the first Tantric publication in the United States, the International Journal of the Tantrik Order.

By 1909 Bernard was in New York City and had emerged as a successful teacher of yoga. With the help of New York’s elite, including Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, in 1919 Bernard moved to a 73 acre estate in Upper Nyack, New York. It was here where Rolf met and trained with Bernard in the 1920s.

Robert Love has just published a biography of Bernard titled The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, a name modeled after “Omnipotent Oom” given to Bernard by the local press after reported accusations of such things as “wild Oriental music and women’s cries, but not those of distress.⁴” I refer you to Love’s lively biography for more details about Bernard’s life.

What Bernard offered Rolf through his teachings was unique at the time and is, I feel, still relatively rare today: physical experience as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment, or the evolution of consciousness if you will. Yoga aims to develop the whole person through the practices of breath awareness, meditation and movement. Rosemary Feitis writes of Rolf:

In those years of practicing yoga and discussing its principles, she was establishing the basis of all her future work: that bodies need to lengthen and be balanced, and that a balanced body will give rise to a better human being.⁵

How fascinating to me, as a Rolfing® practitioner for 15 years now, to see the early origins of Rolf’s work. From the turn of the 20th century popular interest in hypnotism, Theosophy, and the self-proclaimed mystics such as G.I. Gurdjieff, to the Jazz Age roots of yoga in America, it seems the interest in the “human potential movement” has been with us quite a long time indeed.

Notes

1. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 207.

2. Ida Rolf, Rolfing® and Physical Reality, ed. Rosemary Feitis (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1990) p. 7.

3. Kripal, p. 236.

4. Kripal, p. 237.

5. Rolf, p. 8.

© Carole LaRochelle, 2010.

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