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America's First Yoga Scandal

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by Robert Love

The founder of Anusara yoga recently stepped down amid accusations of sexual impropriety with his students. But America's first yoga scandal dates back to America's first yogi. Here's the story of "the Great Oom."

On the morning of Tuesday, May 3, 1910, New York City’s papers carried fresh headlines about a midnight police raid on an Upper West Side yoga school. “He Says He’s A Swami,” the New York Herald wrote. “His Students in Tights,” added a scandalized Tribune. That morning, Pierre Bernard, a yoga teacher from the Midwest, found himself behind bars, enmeshed in a scandal that would tar his name—and the practice of yoga—for decades. By the end of the week, the story of “the Great Oom” was national news.

Bernard was charged with abduction. In the legal language of 1910, he was said to have “inveigled and enticed” one of his students, 19-year-old Zelia Hopp. In truth, Bernard was the young lady’s guru. With the blessing of Hopp’s parents, he had been teaching her basic breath control and hatha yoga postures to help with her heart condition. Hopp was just one of dozens of wealthy disciples who were paying the mysterious stranger to impart secrets from the East—and perhaps a little extra. Was Bernard a doctor? A cad? An authentic guru? When he appeared in court after the raid, the first thing the puzzled judge wanted to know was, “What is this man?”

The Temple of Oom

America’s first yogi was born Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa, in 1876. As a boy, he loved reading, especially books about spirituality, hypnotism, and the occult. In 1889 he met a master of all of these things, a Syrian-Indian teacher of Tantric yoga named Sylvais Hamati. Hamati believed that the body is divine, and the practice of hatha yoga is central to its sanctification. Along with postures and pranayama (proper breathing), his teachings included sex rites, magic, and the worship of the goddess Shakti.

After Baker became Hamati’s follower, the pair moved to San Francisco, where Baker changed his name to Pierre Bernard. He started teaching hatha yoga to anyone who could afford the huge fee of $100 (about $2,300 in today’s dollars). But trafficking in such subversive beliefs during the Victorian age was dangerous business. Bernard and his band of Tantriks were chased from San Francisco in 1906 and from Seattle in 1909, finally regrouping in New York, where he ended up in front of the befuddled judge.

Bernard’s court case was a raucous five-day feast for reporters, and readers across the nation were spellbound. Female witnesses nearly fainted from fright when confronting their guru. Some of the accusations were wild, such as one about Bernard using his spells to run a white slave ring. Others were likely true: tales of blood oaths and lovemaking in a red room outfitted with a raised bed.
On May 23, the New York Grand Jury returned two indictments against Bernard, for abduction and fraudulently impersonating a doctor, and he was sent to New York’s notorious Tombs prison for the next three months.

Cults from the Same Cloth

In the end, Zelia Hopp and the other witnesses refused to testify, and the charges against Bernard were quietly dropped. But the damage to yoga—and anything seemingly related—was done. The next year, a Christian mystic named Evelyn Arthur See was arrested in Chicago and charged as a white slaver. His trial was a virtual replay of the Bernard proceedings. Meanwhile, back in New York City, “esoteric psychologist” Dr. William Latson, who taught Hindu dancing as a way of freeing his female patients from their libidinal restraints, committed suicide in his office.

Combined with Bernard’s notoriety and See’s conviction, the Latson scandal turned public sentiment against yoga and mysticism; newspapers began publishing feature-length exposés blaming yoga for “domestic infelicity, and insanity and death.” The federal government opened official investigations against various swamis and Hindu priests. America was fascinated, horrified, and obsessed with what The Washington Post called “This Soul Destroying Poison of the East: The Tragic Flood of Broken Homes and Hearts, Disgrace and Suicide.” Yoga had become public enemy No. 1.

Bernard eventually regrouped and founded successful yoga schools in New York City and Nyack, N.Y., where he entertained lavishly, raised a herd of elephants, and taught yoga to the cream of high society, including the daughters of Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. But he was never fully able to escape the infamy brought upon him by his trial. As for yoga, it was only after Bernard’s death in 1955 that the practice got its second chance.

Robert Love is the author of The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. Image credit: Bernard Collection, Historical Society of Rockland County.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]