Staying fit isn’t a new concept after all. Yoga and Tai chi have been around for centuries
Yoga is proof that exercise as a health-promoting tool is not a modern idea. But the origins of exercise go back further than even yoga. Our Palaeolithic ancestors realised that “exercise” was distinct from running to catch prey or running for your life. Hunter-gatherer societies that still survive, such as the Jarawa of the Andamans, alternate days of activity with days of rest.
After the rise of agriculture and the demise of the nomadic lifestyle, faith healers and sages in settled societies taught the value of exercise in preventing illness. Ancient civilisations everywhere prized speed, strength and martial skills. Nations grew by the sword, and the greatest nations had well-trained armies that performed feats of strength in peacetime. To this day, the Masai and the Samburu of Kenya regard running speed as an indicator of manhood and virtue.
Like their African counterparts, native American tribes valued running and hunting skills. They invented the precursors of the modern games of lacrosse and kickball. Some of these traditional sports survive to this day. When the Tarahumarahe tribe of Mexico plays kickball, the game occupies entire villages for days on end.
Four thousand years ago, the Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine started the Chinese fixation with health and fitness. Exercise acquired philosophical and mystical dimensions over the next two millennia. Two thousand years ago, Hua T’o laid down the basis for tai chi chuan, and its slow, deliberate and graceful movements still win over new converts every day. Tai chi chuan, in a modern study, decreased the incidence of falls in elderly Americans.
In India, the physical aspects of yoga developed as a means of keeping the body fit for spiritual practice. Hatha Yoga, which includes various asanas and pranayama, fortified the body for meditation. Seals discovered in the Indus valley depict yoga postures. Aphorisms related to yoga are everywhere in the Vedas, Upanishads, and especially in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali.
The Greeks were the forerunners of secular philosophy, and their approach to physical fitness combined the spiritual with the worldly, culminating in the grandeur and insanity of the ancient Olympics. More on that next week.RAJIV. M