Bernard first trained in law, obtaining a bachelor's degree in 1931 and embarking on an internship in 1932, but decided instead to pursue an advanced degree at Columbia University. There, according to 2010's The Madman's Middle Way, Bernard, who described himself as "the first white lama", became the first American to write a dissertation on the subject of Tibetan Buddhism.
In 1936, he toured India and Tibet with his wife, Viola Wertheim Bernard (half-sister of Maurice Wertheim), studying Tantric Yoga in an effort to master its fundamental principles. On his return to the United States in 1937, his experiences were published across the country over several weeks by the North American Newspaper Alliance and Bell Syndicate. This was followed by a series of lectures and radio appearances in 1939 and by the publication of the memoirPenthouse of the Gods. Bernard was also featured in popular magazines, including a cover story in Family Circle in 1939, followed shortly by his second book, Heaven Lies Within Us, which explored Hatha Yoga under the guise of an auto-biography. According to 2008's Barbarian Lands, many of the experiences Bernard describes in his books have recently been discovered to have been fabricated, based on the experiences of his father. In 1939, Bernard opened the American Institute of Yoga and Pierre Health Studios.
In 1947, he again visited northern India, and went missing in Pakistan in October 1947. He was declared dead several months later, though his body was never found.