From the Ancient Greeks to Yoga Chic

Articles from the 1850s to the present on the quest for spiritual health through physical fitness

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Interviews: "Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In" (November 21, 2006)
Hanna Rosin, the author of "Striking a Pose," discusses yoga's journey from Himalayan mountaintops to the studio down the street.

Madonna studies Ashtanga, Uma Thurman practices Jivamukti, and Ben Stiller does Vinyasa Flow. And increasingly, so do Americans around the country. In her article “Striking a Pose” in the December Atlantic, Hanna Rosin considers the implications of this newfound fascination with yoga, asking whether it represents a “spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle, or just the latest manifestation.” Looking back over The Atlantic’s 150-year archive, one discovers that, as a general rule, exercise trends have always been a bit of both.

In “The Gymnasium,” published just two years after The Atlantic’s 1857 founding, David William Cheever described the concept of the ancient Greek gymnasium, characterizing it as a place where, as in the modern-day yoga studio, the paths to fitness and enlightenment converged. “The sedentary,” he explained, could come to the gymnasium “for their customary constitutional on the foot-course, the invalid and aged… to retain somewhat of the vigor of their earlier years,” and “the scholar, to listen to the master in philosophy.” As for the benefits of exercise itself, the Athenians believed “that there could be no health of the mind, unless the body were cared for,” and, like some present-day yoga practitioners, they “viewed exercise also as a powerful remedial agent in disease.”

The author went on to recommend outdoor activities as the surest path to physical and mental wellbeing. “Nothing short of Nature’s own sweet air,” he explained, “will supply the highest physical needs of the human frame.” To prove his point, he invited readers to compare “the sallow mechanic and the ruddy farmer.” “The one may work as hard as the other,” he wrote, but clearly “we cannot call him as healthy.”

For those unable or unwilling to keep fit outdoors, Cheever recommended gymnastics. His reasoning was amazingly modern: “We live so fast that we have no time to live. Nevertheless, gymnastics have one advantage adapted to our hurried habits. They afford the most exercise in the shortest time.”

exercise Three years later, in “The New Gymnastics,” Dio Lewis, a physician who lectured widely on the importance of physical education for both men and women (and who would later go on to originate the Women’s Temperance Movement), expounded upon his own views of proper exercise habits. He derided what he referred to as the “lifting mania” that had taken hold of his generation. “Moving great weights,” he argued, “produces a slow, inelastic, inflexible man.” A man who regularly does this kind of lifting, he warned, “will become as inflexible as a cart-horse.” In place of heavy weights, he advocated the use of wooden dumbbells of his own invention, which could be employed in vigorous exercise routines not only by muscle-bound men, but by women and children as well. (His piece described these proposed routines in detail, and included helpful illustrations of men and women—wearing garb not likely to be seen in any gym today—performing them.) To enhance these programs’ effectiveness, he recommended performing them to music. “A party may dance without music,” he explained. “I have seen it done. But the exercise is a little dull.”
exercise Like practitioners of yoga today, he favored the “strength of grace, flexibility, agility, and endurance” over “the strength of a great lifter.” Those who followed his program could “possess both strength and flexibility, and resemble fine, active, agile, vigorous carriage-horses.” Undertaking his recommended exercise routines could also, he suggested, help to ease the particular problems of modern society: “In a world of vexation and disappointment, we are driven to the necessity of [exercise programs] to give the nervous system that support and vitality which our fitful surroundings deny.”

Almost a century later, in “We May Be Sitting Ourselves to Death” (November, 1961), Frank R. Neu likewise recommended exercise as a defense against the mental and physical decay of modern life. Neu considered a typical day in the life of “Mr. Joe Citizen”: “Joe…gulps down a hasty and nutritionally inadequate breakfast…. His lovely wife drives him to the railroad station. Even if Joe drove himself, he wouldn’t get much exercise because his car has power steering, power brakes, power window lifts, power seat controls. Less vigorously than she might desire, Joe’s wife receives a goodbye kiss.”

Countering such a sedentary lifestyle with exercise, he argued, is imperative. But the point of getting fit, he noted, is not “so that we might stand around on the beach in very brief leopard skins to be admired by one and all.” Rather, writing at the height of the Cold War, Neu saw physical fitness as crucial to our national security. “Our [strategic] position,” he wrote, “is weakened by the vast loss of effective manpower through poor care of our physical selves, not only because we are weak physically but also because this often leads to mental retardation.” Were he writing today, one can almost imagine his essay asserting, “Our physical state is a Code Red; if you don’t exercise, you are helping the terrorists!”

Neu was not promoting an exercise program of his own (although, as a representative of the American Dairy Association, he did offer a stirring paean to milk), but his nostalgia for the days when Joe Citizen walked to work—or at least drove a car without power steering—was clear. In the old days, he emphasized, Americans didn’t have to go out of their way to exercise. But times had changed. Modernity was poisonous, and exercise was once again the antidote.

Perhaps, then, our physical training fads are always tied to a yearning for a mythical golden age. As these articles make clear, this country’s current craze for yoga by no means represents the first time that Americans have looked to past civilizations—far Eastern, ancient Greek, or simply a bygone America—for the wisdom and fortitude to stave off, or sweat out, the demons of modern society.